Ralph (continued): After that I wanted to sell to Bloomingdale's, which was the kingpin in New York. When I finally had the chance to show the buyer the ties, he said, "Ralph, I like the patterns—but you gotta make them a quarter of an inch narrower. And I want you to take your name off and put on Sutton East"—that was their private label. I said to the guy, "Gary, I'm dying to sell to Bloomingdale's, but I'm closing my bag because I can't take my name off. And I can't make the tie a quarter of an inch narrower."
Oprah: I love you for that. I had the same moment when a news director asked me if I could change my name to Susie! I told him, "I have to keep my name."
Ralph: Isn't that interesting? Later that day after I left Bloomingdale's, I told some colleagues what had happened. They said, "Ralph, who cares if you have to change your tie?" I said, "No, no—I'm not going to do it," and I continued to sell to other stores. Six months later, Bloomingdale's called me again. "Listen," the buyer said, "we're gonna put in a whole rack and case of your ties!"
Oprah: But you were willing to never get that phone call.
Ralph: Yes. And when I let it go, the business came my way.
Oprah: Would you say knowing who you are has defined your business?
Oprah: When I taught at Kellogg Graduate School of Management, I'd tell the students that knowing who you are and using what you do as service to the world is how you become successful.
Ralph: The question is, "Why do you know who you are?" There I was, an insecure kid with a sense of style and—
Oprah: Were you always the best-dressed kid in school?
Ralph: As a kid, I was always into clothes, but I didn't have the money to buy them. When I'd get my brothers' hand-me-downs, there was an energy in me that made me say, "I want to get my own things, to make my own statement." Somewhere along the line, that energy—coupled with my exposure, through movies, to a world I hadn't known—turned into something.
Oprah: What you do is beyond clothes—it's about life. I get you, Ralph!
Ralph: You've got it. Over the years, we've all probably seen Cary Grant or Fred Astaire with their shoes lined up in a closet and thought, "Wow, that's amazing." As a kid, I shared a messed-up closet with my brothers—I couldn't even find my clothes. When I went to a friend's house and saw his closet, I thought, "My God, look at the shoe horns in his shoes!" It's those little things that make you think, "Could I have that?"