How a poor girl from rural Mississippi came to equate monetary success with owning rows of white Ralph Lauren bath sheets is a testament to what makes him a supreme stylemaker. Ralph Lauren sells much more than fashion: He sells the life you'd like to lead. To own a creation of Ralph Lauren's, whether it's his red patent-leather boots, his signature Polo shirt, or an ottoman from his furniture collection, is to savor a taste of the American dream—a dream he's defined with cinematic ads that tell a story rather than tout a fashion trend. Starting with only a necktie and a resolve never to compromise his values, he's built a $10 billion empire. More important, he has elevated what Americans see as possible for ourselves by offering a snapshot of a storybook lifestyle that somehow feels attainable.
It's a lifestyle the man born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx 63 years ago never had as a child. The youngest of four children, he wanted to be a professional basketball player or an artist like his father, Frank, who painted houses for a living. As a teenager, Ralph changed his last name to Lauren and began creating his own sense of style, sometimes mixing army fatigues with tweeds. Designer Calvin Klein, also a native New Yorker, has said, "When I was a child in the Bronx, I would see him and think, 'Who is this person? Who dresses like that?'"
After a stint in the army and a sales job at a neckwear company, Lauren, then 26, designed a wide, European-style necktie that, with a lot of determination, he eventually sold to Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's. In 1971, less than five years after creating that first tie, he'd expanded his line and opened a Polo boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, making him the first American designer with a freestanding store. Today his empire spans the globe.
As charmed as his life might seem, he has also faced adversity. In 1986 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery to have it removed. Since then he's been spurred on to approach his work with the fervor and intensity that are often born of a brush with mortality.
I met with Ralph Lauren at the Bedford, New York, estate where he lives with his wife, Ricky, a therapist. (The couple have three grown children, Andrew, 33; David, 31, who works with his father; and Dylan, 28.) The Laurens' house, built in 1929, sits amid 273 acres of perfectly manicured greenery. The rooms are filled with beautiful 19th-century paintings and furniture. As we chatted under a huge umbrella on the backyard cobblestone terrace, Ralph confirmed what I've always sensed: His success has come because he's stayed connected with what his customers want—and stayed true to what he wants. We share the same philosophy: Trust instinct to move you forward, know what you want to achieve and then stick to it, and retain a sense of gratitude that can't be faked. Hours after talking to him, I was still jazzed by the conversation. He is one cool dude.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Ralph Lauren
Note: This interview appeared in the October 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.