For a man who once claimed to “hate fashion,” designer Ralph Lauren has had an extraordinarily long and successful career.
The company he founded in 1967 is now one of the world’s most identifiable brands, and the work that it took to get there is now the subject of a new HBO documentary, “Very Ralph.”
Directed by Susan Lacy, the film features interviews with a reflective Lauren who, at 80 years old, is still very much involved in the multibillion-dollar business that carries his name.
Reflecting on the film, Lauren told CNN in an email: “What I do is about living, and the HBO documentary, through the direction of Susan Lacy, has captured that through different lenses of memory and observation – my own, my family’s, those who have helped shaped it and those who have observed it over many decades. It will certainly be an important part of telling the story of who I am and what I did.”
Having examined the life of actress Jane Fonda and immersed herself in the worlds of some of America’s greatest artists, Lacy said she was interested in delving into fashion. “I realized I had never done a fashion person,” Lacy said in a phone interview.
Who better to profile than Lauren, whose name is synonymous with the industry, and whose story hadn’t yet been told on film. “He is the most iconic American designer,” Lacy said.
It’s an assessment that’s carried through the feature-length film, which includes a roll call of fashion industry royalty, including designers Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg, model Naomi Campbell and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
“Fashion has to be desirable, and Ralph sees that, understands that,” Wintour says in the trailer.
Born in 1939 to Jewish immigrants from Belarus, Ralph Rueben Lifshitz changed his name to “Lauren” as a teenager to avoid the unwanted attention that came from having an unusual name. Lauren credits his artist father for passing on his creative talents, however he acknowledges that he has no skill for art. Design, however, is different.
After a short stint in the military, Lauren worked as a tie salesman at Brooks Brothers. He soon began making his own ties, stitched by hand and labelled with help from his extended family. “My mom would sit there with a cousin of hers and they’d sew the labels into the neckwear,” says Lauren’s wife of 54 years, Ricky.
The early years were difficult. Ricky tells of sleeping on a mattress on the floor, while Lauren admits to having been insecure about his work as a young man. “Some of the criticism was very painful – maybe I think I’m good, but I’m not,” he said.
From ties, he went on to build an empire, first with men’s tailoring, then women’s, before becoming the first fashion designer to create a home collection. Ralph Lauren became an aspirational lifestyle brand that transcended clothing and promised to give consumers a slice of the great American dream.
Along the way, Lauren pushed boundaries within the industry, challenging conventions and setting new standards. “He has always, always championed diversity,” says Wintour. “It’s not a token person, ‘let’s just check this box.’”
As far back as 1996, he hired models Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell to front an advertising campaign for his sportswear label Polo Ralph Lauren.
“It was a big deal to have two people of color be in a worldwide ad campaign,” Campbell said.
The ending of “Very Ralph” is not hard to guess, given the brand’s enduring popularity. The boy from the Bronx survived the challenges of a fickle industry to emerge on top.
And the established label is still attracting plaudits.
Ralph Lauren’s most recent show at New York Fashion Week was staged in a ballroom dubbed “Ralph’s Club” on Wall Street. Top models paraded his precise tailoring in satin tuxedo suits amid guests who had been invited to wear black-and-white evening attire. By the end of the show, the room resembled a jazz club as singer Janelle Monáe brought guests to their feet. “The magic of Hollywood is never too far from his runway,” wrote Vogue’s fashion news director, Chioma Nnadi.