Fashion Forward: The Early Years of Ralph Lauren

Lauren was working as a salesman for Brooks Brothers in New York when he decided to jump head first into a new venture: Lauren was going to start designing his own ties. After hearing the news, Lauren’s boss told him, “The world isn’t ready for Ralph Lauren.” Today, with over $4 billion in revenue, Lauren has taken the fashion world by storm. But his newfound fortune is a long way from where Lauren started off.

Born Ralph Lifshitz on October 14, 1939 in the Bronx, New York, Lauren’s family was your average middle class Jewish family. As a teenager, Lauren’s father, a house painter, decided to change the family’s last name from Lifshitz to Lauren; London had been the close second choice. Lauren was the youngest of four children and had to share a bedroom with his two older brothers. But Lauren was determined to make himself stand out from them – and all the other neighbourhood boys – so he started working after school as soon as he was old enough.

During the day, Lauren went to DeWitt Clinton High School, but by night, he worked at Alexander as a stock boy and salesman. Lauren wanted to save up enough money to buy expensive and stylish suits for himself. In his high school yearbook, Lauren stated that he wanted to be a millionaire.

Lauren began taking his business skills back to the classroom, selling quality ties to his classmates. “Those ties were handmade, by the way,” Lauren says proudly. “Back then, ties, even designer ones, didn’t sell for more than $5 apiece. Mine were $12 to $15. Such luxury in something so simple was revolutionary.” It was not long before Lauren had established a reputation for himself throughout the neighbourhood.

After high school, Lauren enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Reserves for two years. In 1964, he began taking night classes in business at the City College of New York, although he never got a degree, and joined Brooks Brothers as a neckwear salesman. Soon, however, Lauren was longing to design his own ties. “I was working for a tie manufacturer doing private label for stores such as Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart,” he recalls. “I tried to convince them to do their own brand but they weren’t interested. So I approached another tie maker from Cincinnati and they got it.”

Lauren quit his job and went to work for Beau Brummell Neckwear. Although lesser known, the company allowed him to sell his own designs in their showroom in the Empire State building. Lauren began to create wide, hand-made, and expensive ties, qualities which would soon become his trademark.

Lauren tried to branch out and sell his ties to Bloomingdales. They, however, refused to sell them unless Lauren met certain conditions. Lauren, in turn, refused. Bloomingdales’ competitors, however, were not as reluctant. Within months, Lauren’s ties – now under the brand name of Polo – were selling fast. With their tail behind their legs, Bloomingdales soon came back to Lauren to ask for a deal.

Lauren was fast becoming the talk of the town and he began to wonder what he had to do to make that buzz last. Soon, he found the answer.

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