The office was pretty much the way I’d pictured it would be: wood paneling, black-and-white photos, sleek leather-and-chrome club chairs arranged around a book-laden coffee table the size of a boat. And the man sitting across from me was more or less familiar from his photographs: the carefully barbered white hair; the tan, gentler now than in its full Cary Grant glory; the art-directed getup of white jeans, sneakers, and khaki jacket, with a jangle of turquoise and silver pendants peeking out from the neck of his matching khaki shirt. But the moment Ralph Lauren began to speak, his voice a soft hepcat whisper, any preconceptions went out the window. The topic at hand was his newest baby, Polo Ralph Lauren for Women—it launches tonight, Monday, September 8, with a high-tech spectacular in Central Park—but no subject was off-limits. I’d been expecting guarded, but he spoke candidly for more than an hour, without even the ghost of a PR handler in the room. I’d been prepared to hear him recite his hits, but he was just as ready to get into the misses. I’d been bracing for a monologue, but he insisted on a dialogue. To build an empire as vast, consistent, and enduringly vital as Ralph Lauren’s, you have to know a thing or two about communicating your ideas. But it occurred to me as I walked away from that memento-filled sanctum, maybe the secret is to be a world-class listener.
Dirk Standen: One of the things that got you thinking about doing Polo for women was hearing your daughter, Dylan, say she wanted to wear her husband’s plaid Polo shirts. But for a long time, you’d resisted the idea of Polo as a women’s label.
Ralph Lauren: I started 47 years ago. I started with ties and then I went to womenswear, and when I went to womenswear, I said, “I’m not going to call it ‘Polo’ because that’s very mens-y. It should be the designer, and it should be the name.” So, that’s how I started it. [But now] I said, “You know, I can really do Polo for women because there are lots of things that young women love in the men’s line.” They want this shirt, they want that jacket, they want the sweater, and it seems at the time it looked a little mens-y, but when you put it in the fashion show, it looks really cool. So, that was my sensibility. I said, “I’m going to do Polo and really do it …” But I’ll do it the way I think it should be done today, which is much more sexy, downtown.
DS: Do you have a sense in your head of how big a part of your overall sales Polo will be eventually?
RL: I think it’s going to be very big, but I hate to say that because it puts me on the spot—I wouldn’t do that in a public company. I want to do things that work. I don’t want to have things fail. But we sort of tested it out on our own stores and I think we got a good reaction. I’m very high on it.
DS: Clearly, you still believe in having different labels within Ralph Lauren. You have the luxury; you have Double RL; you have Polo. Why do you think that approach is relevant to consumers today?
RL: I have always done what I love myself. My philosophy was that I never had focus groups. I did what I wear, and when I went looking for things and I couldn’t get them, I’d said, “There’s something I’m looking for and I know it’s right .” The Polo for women I know is right. Polo for men has proven it’s right. You’ve got to constantly work on these brands. You can’t just say, “This is it.” But I think I paid my dues. But even at that, it’s important to keep it updated; keep it young; keep it tuned in. And in these brands, Double RL is something I love. Double RL to me is about vintage. It’s about the “old-world” kind of style. It’s very hip. You’d see that Ernest Hemingway could wear it. It has a class and a sort of integrity to it, so Double RL is very strong. Polo, Ralph Lauren, those are all brands that are within the company that slowly but surely are somewhat separating so that they’re going to work together as their own voice. We do that to a degree, but not as much, so that’s the direction I’m going in.
“I’m a fan of people that have quality, that do what they do and that are not into the showbiz. ”
DS: Would you say there’s a different customer for each of those labels?
RL: Well, no. I think the Purple Label customer is also a Double RL customer. It’s interesting. The Black Label customer is not a Double RL customer. And I can understand that because the Double RL customer is very old-world and has a similar sensibility, so I think they’re strong individually. And I’ve opened the Double RL stores—you can see what they look like. You can see a Polo store when you see the store open on Fifth Avenue. It’ll be very defined in a different way. And I believe that today, we don’t have one way of dressing. I think that there are many things happening at once, and I’m the guy who loves that—I like to one day wear a suit that’s beautifully tailored. Young people out there are experimental. They mix it up. They’re eclectic. There’s not a formula. So, I think that’s what makes it exciting. And there are also age groups in markets. Denim & Supply—it’s younger, it’s more of a Brooklyn guy, and it’s very cool, and that’s all forming. It’s like a baseball team that has guys warming up. I sort of have a league that I’m building.
DS: Can I just ask why you closed the Rugby stores? I personally loved what you were doing there. Why did you feel it wasn’t working?
RL: The problem is that when I decided to do Rugby, which was considerably before you started to see it, Rugby was much younger than Polo and it was a “son” of Polo. The Polo guy was getting more sophisticated, a little older, and he’d go in and shop with his son. But as I made Rugby better and better, it started to look more like Polo. And so I said, “Why should I do this? Let me go focus in on Polo and add what I think the Rugby thing had said,” which were some younger things. A lot of people ask me about Rugby. People come in my store and say, “I want Rugby!” When you don’t do something anymore, all of a sudden everyone treasures it.
DS: I actually shop Black Label and Purple Label and Rugby. And Polo occasionally. [ laughs]
RL: So you’re my man. What are you seeing about that? What’s your take on Black Label and Purple Label and Polo?
DS: Purple Label I think is perfect. I have a Purple Label chesterfield—I think it’s 10 years old now, and I still wear it every winter. I’ve had it relined a couple of times.
RL: Purple Label is flying out of stores.
DS: I think Purple Label is great. Black Label, when it first came out, I bought maybe three or four suits and I still wear those. But if I’m being honest, I wonder if it’s developed since you launched it.
RL: Black is not as good as Purple.
DS: I’m just not sure how it’s developed since you launched it. And the more kind of sport direction you’ve introduced to it is less my style, so that’s just a personal thing.
RL: I got it. I got it. A lot of guys that like Black Label, they like Polo sportswear. But I had a philosophy on Black, and all these things take a certain period of time to develop the right fit. Black Label clothing is very successful. The shirts and ties are very successful. My heart is in Purple Label. What looks like Ralph Lauren is Purple Label, and it’s the ultimate. Purple Label is all handmade. It’s all beautiful. Great product. It gives me an opportunity to do the best stuff in the world, and that’s what my goal is. I found—and I don’t know if it’s the way the economy is—but I found that young guys are going in and asking for Purple Label where I thought they could afford Polo. This guy went in with his son—one of the salesmen told me the story—and the kid was about 16 years old and he wanted the Purple Label suit. That’s what he bought. It’s interesting when you do something really well and you focus in. The Purple Label is the strongest. Black Label’s developed. I have Black Label jeans and shirts and ties, but there’s only so much you can do with Black Label in terms of the look because it’s very minimal. It’s a lot of black, and it doesn’t really … I mean, it’s not exclusively mine. It’s more European. I have it because a lot of stores still like it. But Purple Label is really what I’m building my business on.
DS: For the high-end women’s collection that you show on the runway, there’s usually a theme each season. But with women’s Polo, will it be more about the sort of classic elements that we see in men’s Polo?
RL: It’ll have a classic-ness to it. I think that customer likes the classics but doesn’t want to look like a mom, so it’s about updating—constantly moving forward. When I send a new luxury collection down the runway, I sometimes have a story to tell or a movie to show in my mind. I feel like that’s the fun for me. Can I do a movie on a safari theme? And to me it’s a show, but it gives me inspiration to go into something. It’s all been a challenge for me. Doing womenswear is always interesting. And my last collections for women were very chic, very gray, and I’ve gotten a tremendous response from that, more than other times. When I do “movies,” people who love Ralph Lauren particularly get it, and a lot of people don’t get it.
DS: Have you followed at all what Hedi Slimane is doing at Saint Laurent?
RL: Sure. Have I seen it? Yes.
DS: I’m asking because for a long time I think women’s luxury fashion was about putting these very high-concept collections on the runway. Maybe you got a lot of press, but you weren’t necessarily selling a lot of those clothes. Maybe you were selling bags. And it seems to me that Slimane came along at Saint Laurent and had a different approach. It’s more about looking at a certain lifestyle that he really likes and then designing perfect items for that lifestyle. And now the rest of the fashion world is kind of following suit. And it struck me that it’s taking a page from your book in a way, that it’s what you’ve always done.
RL: I’ve always done the style that I loved, so I didn’t mind sending an old pair of jeans down the runway. It’s about that style. It’s not Hedi Slimane. You know, I’m not all that familiar with his thing—I really don’t look. I certainly know who he is. But it’s funny how people will recognize what I do, and when I’m doing it they don’t get it, and then after, all of a sudden when other people start doing it, they get it. So I’m designing what I want. If it’s a man’s coat with a pair of skinny-leg jeans, I’ll do that. It’s whatever my mood is. But it’s about style, and it’s about an understated taste that’s cool.
DS: Were you surprised at how long it took for some of the fashion critics to come around to your womenswear?
RL: I don’t know. It’s still happening [ laughs]. Are you feeling that it took them a while to appreciate Ralph Lauren?
DS: I think when you first launched your womenswear collection—and I think you’ve spoken about this in the past—fashion critics didn’t necessarily get it immediately.
RL: The interesting thing is they get it in Europe. They get it in Paris. They get it in Italy. They get it in England. It depends on the age group, and who comes along. All of a sudden young girls are saying, “Wow, I love Ralph Lauren.” You’re open as a designer to getting reviewed. And there are people who will never like you because they just don’t get it, and there are people who love you right away and have always followed you. I’m a big boy and I’ve been doing what I do for 47 years, so I’m staying with what I’m doing. Hopefully I keep doing it.
DS: In terms of the Polo event that you’re planning for the 8th, it sounds like you’re doing something pretty new there. Can you talk about that at all?
RL: Uh, no—let me leave it alone.
DS: You want it to be a surprise?
RL: Yeah. It’s going to be just another way of doing a fashion show. I think it should be fun and interesting.
DS: But when it comes to the women’s luxury ready-to-wear, you still show that on a runway. Is that just because there’s no other way of doing it, or is it the best way of doing it?
RL: Well, in menswear I don’t do a show—I do a whole showing. If you really want to see what I’m about, you can really see the clothes. In womenswear, the movement of the girls, the music, the fashion—you can’t replace it. Whether it’s in one form or another, you’ve got to keep that freshness showing. The key for me is, if you want to say something and you want to show it down the runway, I have to be clear as to what I’m saying and show it to the audience and say, “This is what Ralph Lauren is this year.” … I do what I do knowing I have an audience, I have stores around the word, and people are buying it, so it’s the best place to be. In Paris, Russians come into Avenue Montaigne, and they’re buying my watches and they’re buying Ralph Lauren, and it’s really exciting for me. The international audience is very interesting. Starting out in America, you see the differences … I wouldn’t want to be the guy who gets “hot.” You don’t want to be yesterday’s news. But I sort of always believe in consistency. I’m a big Frank Sinatra fan. I’m a big Marlon Brando fan. I’m a fan of people who have quality, who do what they do and try to do great product and that are not into the showbiz. I’m about, “What can I do that’s creative and what do I want to say this year?” You have to say something because it’s the time, and people are looking for newness in stores. They shop. They love clothes. How could I show the fashion show better? How could I show my clothes in the store better? What should I do with my shop? Should I make it hipper? Modern? Should I make it romantic? It’s part of the whole thing, and for me, it’s been great because it’s like I write my own book. I’m a big fan of Woody Allen. I used to love the fact that he wrote his own screenplay and acted in the movie. And that’s what I do. He loves the writing. He loves the creation. He doesn’t love acting as much, he told me. But I love doing what I do, and I think when I can do something new and strong … It’s been a strong business. I’ve created something where I have a strong following. And I’m doing it on my own terms.
DS: The consistency that you mentioned is extraordinary, and it’s not just in the product, it’s across all the stores. If you go into the stores, you feel that all the assistants share your philosophy. I’m not blowing smoke up your ass—you can speak to other people in the business and they’ll say the same thing. It’s a very unique thing in that sense. There are very few companies where you sense that from the guy on the shop floor right up to the executives, everyone shares the same philosophy. Without giving away any trade secrets, what’s the trick behind this?
RL: What kind of drink do I give them? [ laughs] I collect cars. And you start to respect certain cars, because Porsches are made with a lot of integrity. And Ferraris—they race. They make the cars functional, yet it’s beautiful and romantic and exciting. I love that. I’m always working on new things, and if you’re in this company you’re seeing all the things we’re doing. And it’s very exciting to go from home to children’s to men’s to Polo, Purple Label, Double RL. To see the variation in style and ideas is exciting. If you’re going to work in this business, if you did one thing all the time and just made one suit, what would that leave? They’re all sort of connected, and it’s got an integrity that’s not about fashion—it’s about style. And I think the people who work with me are people who love it themselves. I’m leaving the office and they’re still working. They’re passionate. And that’s men and women. I think they like the concept. It’s like, you like it. Why do you like it? What does it say to you? You know it’s consistent, right?
DS: Its integrity I think. There’s an integrity to the product.
RL: And not one thing this year, one thing another year.
DS: But also the quality of the make is really quite exceptional. There’s only you and Hermès I think of in those terms, where the quality of the product is at that level.
RL: That’s a compliment. That’s a great compliment. No, look, I feel that Hermès is a great brand and they stand for something. And you don’t sense that it’s only about selling product. It’s about connecting to the customer and having them come back and say, “I really love your things.” I feel that way about products. You know when you have a good product—whether it’s a car or a watch or a pair of shoes—you wear it and you say, “These shoes, the leather is so great.” That’s the part of the business I love.
“If I were to cater to Kanye, he would know that I’m catering to him. He gets the quality and he respects it.”
DS: I don’t know if you heard this, but there was a famous radio interview that Kanye West did. He was talking about this clothing line that the host of the show owned, and he said, “It ain’t Ralph, though.” The idea being, it’s not Ralph Lauren level, that Ralph is now a byword for a certain …
RL: Oh. [ laughs] So an adjective. It’s very Ralph.
DS: It ain’t Ralph level.
RL: That’s very cool. Well, that’s great. If I were to cater to Kanye, he would know that I’m catering to him. The fact that I make what I make—he gets it. He gets the quality and he respects it. And I think that’s the key, why I work all the time is to do that. That’s the fun.
DS: You are still incredibly hands-on.
RL: Well, you know, it’s hard work. It’s hard work because I’ve got a lot to do and a lot of responsibility. But it’s really a unique job, and it’s unique in that I’m exposed to everybody, I know everybody, and I work on my products. I feel like I’m lucky to do what I’m doing, and it’s not work … I find that what makes it exciting is that every day is fun. I come to work and some days I walk out totally exhausted. Some days I have a knot in my stomach because I had a bad day, and I’ve got to sit down and come up with something in womenswear that no one else came up with and be good and know I have a show next week, and I say, “Oh, my God.” And then I’ve got to go to China, and then I’ve got to open my store on Fifth Avenue and make sure that Polo is great. So it’s the mix of energy. I once went to see a guy—I think I was about 24, I worked for a tie company—and this guy called me and I went over to see him and he made belts. It was a company called Campaign Belt. They were very preppy in the ’60s—they were very big. And he was on the phone and he was busy while I was waiting there for an interview. He hung up and he said, “What do you want to do here?” I said, “I want to do what you’re doing. I want to be busy.”
DS: Can anyone else replicate this?
RL: You like to think that no one can do and be as strong as you are. But I have a lot of great people that have grown up in this company that are very talented. I’m the founder and the designer, so it’s my choices. I don’t know if I’m going to find someone like myself, or if it will be a different kind of person to lead. Generally, the designer is not the founder of the company. He might be the one who makes the statement, but he’s not running the company. Me, I worry about all of it. So maybe it’ll be split up. You need good teams. You need good talent. And I have good talent in the company. They’re really good. They get it and they know what to do. If I were sick, I’d feel the company goes on. I try to give them everything I have in me to understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and some do and some don’t. But I feel like everyone is replaceable, and if it’s not Ralph Lauren doing that, it’ll be someone else doing it, and if we figure out it’s another way of doing it and the guy is a total business guy and he hires a designer, that’s the way it will be.
“Some days I have a knot in my stomach because I’ve got to sit down and come up with something in womenswear that no one else came up with. ”
DS: You alluded before to your reputation around the world and how people love Ralph Lauren all over Europe. A lot of that I think is to do with the American Dream. Obviously you’re a living embodiment of it, but it’s something the company embodies as well. Do you think the American Dream is still alive today the way it was when you were starting out?
RL: I think when people say that to me, it seems to be relegated only to America, but I don’t know if that’s America. It’s everybody. It doesn’t matter if it’s Italy or China—people dream about having a good life, doing the thing they want to do, enjoying the pleasures of art and enjoying success, or they have an aspiration toward improving their lives. So I don’t consider it an American dream. I started with nothing. And my father was an artist—he painted houses when he couldn’t get a job as an artist. I was lucky. I never went to fashion school. I had an innate thing I never even knew I had. And it’s about my own taste and my own ideas. And so to build that into a company as large as it is and as strong as it is, I think can only happen in America. So on that level, I think I’m very fortunate to be born in America. And lucky to be able to have lived and had the opportunity to do what I want to do. Forty-seven years ago, someone lent me $50,000 to make ties, and they said, “Let’s do more things,” and it turned into something great. It helps me have a family and to afford some of the things that a lot of people can’t afford, but I feel that I’ve given back. I feel that I do my part in this country to help people who can’t be helped or they need help, so I feel good about that … And I don’t think I’m the gift of the world—I just do what I do, and I love it and I’ve been lucky.
DS: If you were a boy in the Bronx today, do you think that sort of opportunity would still exist?
RL: I think it does. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. This country’s still this country. Opportunities are there. Young people go into fashion school; they go into every kind of school. The Internet and digital—everything is growing a new market, a new world. I think it’s a very interesting time to be alive, and I think all the people that are born here are lucky.
DS: Coming back to Polo, it sounds like the flagship store you’re opening on Fifth Avenue will have a few different elements. A restaurant, a bar …
DS: A coffee shop called Ralph’s …
RL: [ laughs] Yes. I just came from there.
DS: Why is that an important part of the store?
RL: I think restaurants and food and clothes—I mean, I think it’s all-encompassing. What’s interesting about fashion today is it’s a world, and I think that’s what I’ve done—I’ve made a contribution and I think I’ve built a world. The world is beyond just clothes. Taste and style is beyond clothes. It’s in food; it’s in quality. Working out, healthy bodies, organic food—they’re all part of the same thing. They’re very young in sensibility. We didn’t grow up with that. Young people are growing up with that. I was lucky—my mother cooked. But in reality, the kind of food that’s eaten now and the way people are responding to health, it’s all part of the same thing to me. Looking good, feeling good, you want to be slim, you want to wear that jacket that makes you tighter, makes you feel happier. These simple things are very … interesting. A psychiatrist wrote me a note and said, “I was having a bad day, Ralph. And I walked in and bought one of your things and it made my day.” That’s interesting for a psychiatrist, you know? Design, shopping, creativity … brownies [ laughs]—they’re part of it. I was just in my store, and Ralph’s is a small little shop, but it’s cute. It’s very fresh and pretty. Too small. But I just had a brownie and coffee. It’s great.
DS: Where do you think social media fits into this whole thing, this idea of a world you’ve created and continue to create? It used to be you made a beautiful store, you had an amazing ad campaign that was in magazines, and that was it. Obviously now it’s much more diverse in a way, right? It’s not just about the magazine—it’s about a Twitter account.
RL: It’s not that I ignore it, but I don’t really use it. I think it’s all good because it makes you think about different things that are happening in the world. I think all these things are good because they’re going to change, and they’re going to get better. The bad ones will go out and the good ones will be more important. It’s stimuli and interest and asking questions and making you think, and it has a lack of dictatorship where one guy says, “This is all great stuff you’ve got to buy.” It’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m not going to listen to you. I have a different vision.”
DS: Is that a challenge for a retailer?
RL: With being questioned or asked or …?
DS: Yeah. Before you could have a billboard and that told your whole message, and that was the only message that the world got to hear about you.
RL: Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s what’s grown. And you have to know a little about it, and maybe sometimes you don’t know about it. I think it wouldn’t affect me. I don’t really use it. I do what I’m doing and I think I connect to the audience and I do that with integrity, and I feel good about it.
DS: What about e-commerce? How big a part do you see that becoming?
RL: That’s very big.
DS: I know you’ve already done a lot there.
RL: That’s growing rapidly. That’s wildfire. That’s a whole thing that’s growing throughout the world. It’s very big. It’s growing. It’ll keep going. I think it’s a whole new industry. For me, it’s great because I can sell my products at more places. Doors are open. But I pioneered a lot of that. I was in Europe a long time before any Americans were there. I was in London and Paris. So I don’t have a lot of time for a lot of those things. I’m really busy. My day is so busy. I come home and I’m really tired.
DS: Do you think e-commerce could ever replace physical stores completely or to the level where the store is just some kind of gallery and all the actual selling is done online?
RL: I think at this point, for staples that you need in your house and your life, you don’t need to go to a store to wait on line. So on that level, it’s great. The doors are open to more things. E-commerce is a convenience for a lot of people. A lot of people buy a lot of expensive things on e-commerce. I like stores. I like to dream a little bit. I like magazines. Magazines are threatened by all that. I love to look at a magazine. But the magazines have got to get better. Everything pushes someone else to get better. So the Internet pushes the magazines. And for me, retail and e-commerce work together—it gives it better service and it helps get things to the stores. They come into my store and then they might order it on e-commerce, or they might see it on e-commerce and then buy it in my store or vice versa. So I think that’s very good. It’s a new, growing thing. The Internet is unbelievable. Technology in the world is mind-boggling—you just can’t believe it.
“Forty-seven years ago, someone lent me $50,000 to make ties, and it turned into something great.”
DS: You did an interview with an English newspaper recently and they asked about changing your name from Ralph Lifshitz. Are you surprised that still comes up at this point?
RL: Yeah. Not surprised. When I was very young it was not a big deal. I was never trying to be anyone. No secrets. I don’t think it comes up that much anymore. It’s part of my history of course, and I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t know why that would be the only reality. It’s always suspect if you change your name, but I’m not hiding anything.
DS: In terms of your design process, there’s the famous “mood board.” Is that how it starts?
RL: Yeah. Well, sometimes. You have to know where you are and what you’re digging into. You can’t do clothes all in one shot—you keep building it. But I go from women’s Polo to Black Label for women to women’s collection. They’re all different. That’s what’s a lot of work.
DS: And maybe when you’re looking at collection, you’re actually thinking about …
RL: That’s right. Well, I’ll work on something and I’ll say, “Gee, that would be great in collection.” Or I’ll do it in collection and say, “That would be great for something else.”
DS: Is there a typical day for you?
RL: Yeah. I mean, I’m at work a lot. I work out in the mornings, five days a week.
DS: What’s the workout?
RL: I exercise at the gym with a trainer. I feel it’s very healthy, very important—important for everybody. I feel it’s good for you. It makes you feel better. It loosens you up a little bit. I used to run but I’ve got a bad ankle, so that’s killing me a little bit. But I’ve always been an athlete. Not as great as I wanted to be, but I grew up playing basketball. So athletics are very important and working out is healthy and you feel like you’re doing something. Do I always enjoy it? No. But I know it’s good. And I try to eat well. My day is pretty much busy as you see it. I do 15 million things in the course of a day. I’m holding up I think. I don’t know how I look, but I think I’m holding up.