Oprah: So how did you create that kind of life through your clothing line?
Ralph: It happened one item at a time. I always knew the look I was trying to create—I wore the clothes myself. When I was growing up in the fifties, the look was very Ivy League....
Oprah: Brooks Brothers.
Ralph: Yes. Brooks Brothers was very important to me; I worked there when I was 24. But Brooks Brothers got to be boring. One day when I was coming out of Brooks Brothers, [1930s film star] Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was then in his fifties and wore a double-breasted suit and spread-collar shirt, walked by me. I thought, "Wow—that guy looks cool." Later it hit me: The reason I was looking at this older guy's suit instead of at guys my own age was because his look represented something I didn't see around me. Back then everyone was wearing cookie-cutter clothes: button-down shirts, thin ties. I wanted the spread collar, the wide tie, the shaped suit. At the time, you couldn't find those clothes, so I made them, piece by piece. Then a businessman offered to lend me $50,000 if I would come and work for him. I told him I'd go into partnership with him if he'd put up the money. So he did, and I made my suits, and they started selling.
Oprah: So was it a conscious effort on your part to market the American dream?
Ralph: I never had a preconceived plan. When you go to a movie and watch someone in the role of his or her life, or when the chairman of the board comes into the room wearing a cool look, it remains in your mind. I love Cary Grant because I like the roles he played. I said, "I want to be that guy." I want to be funny, suave, and a good athlete. I don't have to do a focus group to know what people want. I feel it.
Oprah: I say all the time that I don't believe in focus groups.
Ralph: You know what's going to touch people because it has touched you. A person's genius is her realness, her gut—not her college degree. When I was younger, I worked at night and went to school during the day. I knew what it was like to want to buy a nice suit and not be able to afford it. I saved my money to buy the best suit I could. I always wanted the best one, and eventually I got it.
Oprah: After 35 years in the business, how do you continue to create great new items every season?
Ralph: That's a question I don't even want to ask myself. I can just feel the vibrations and the pulse of the world out there. And yet I have a sense of my own style. I don't want to be anyone but myself.