A visionary American dreammaker who's turned a look (and a necktie) into a $10 billion empire talks about the fabric of his amazing life, his health crisis—and his extraordinary new center for cancer care and prevention.
It's a principle of success that I call the bigger towel syndrome: The more money you make, the more big, soft, fluffy towels you crave. When my salary was $10,000, I was happy just to own a towel! Years later when I was asked about the first thing I did once I started making more money, I answered: "I went out and bought the best towels I could find." Every single one of those towels was created by Ralph Lauren.
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.
Oprah: I was shopping in Capri, Italy, about five years ago when I had an epiphany: I noticed that every guy who passed me was wearing a Polo shirt. I thought, "Ralph is huge!"
Ralph: And when I was in Capri five years ago, I said to myself, "I can't believe all the Polo player shirts here." I was nervous about it! I know it's not enjoying my success to do this, but when I see too many Polo shirts, I say to myself, "That's the end of that." I'd go someplace and little kids would be wearing Polo players. They'd say, "Look, I have six of them—one in every color." I think it's interesting how that hit every walk of life, and I wonder what the magic of it is.
Oprah: Do you understand that magic?
Ralph: On one level, there's an aspirational quality to having a Polo player. On another level, it's just a great shirt with lots of colors.
Oprah: What's interesting is how I can walk into a room, notice someone with a certain look, and say, "She is so Ralph Lauren." You've taken a single shirt and turned it into a lifestyle—my five golden retrievers are so Ralph Lauren! How'd you do that?
Ralph: I don't know—I started by making ties, and the shirt came later. I'd deliver my ties to stores wearing a bomber jacket and jeans. One by one, the ties started selling and people started talking about them. That's when I began making other products. My symbol was always a polo player because I liked sports, and polo has a stylishness to it.
Oprah: But you never played polo.
Ralph: No, but I sort of wished I had. My clothes are all about a mood and style I like—such as tweed jackets. It's all about creating a dream I'd want for myself.
Oprah: Was it always your dream to create this empire?
Ralph: I didn't have a vision as in, This is where I'm going. I had a vision as in, "This is what I love to do." The ties, as simple as they were, looked very different from other ties. They were wide and unusual. I never said to myself, "I'm going to be the greatest." I just wanted to do my own thing. I'd worked for a tie company, and I said, "Can we do this kind of tie? I think we could sell them in New York." This older guy who ran the company said, "No—the world is not ready for Ralph Lauren." That was a big statement to say to a 26-year-old kid. The guy laughed at the idea of doing your own thing. I left there and started out of a drawer in the Empire State Building. I used to go out and find rags and make them into ties, then I'd carry them to stores and sell them. People started saying, "More—we want more." That was so exciting for me. A guy from Neiman Marcus came to my office one day and said, "Let me look at your ties. I've been seeing them around." Then he said, "Would you send these to the main buyer?" At the time, I wasn't big on flying—I had little kids, and I wasn't that experienced in jetting all over the place. But I got my little rags together, got on a plane, and flew there, because I knew the buyer wouldn't understand my ties unless I explained them to him in person. I came home with an order for 100 dozen! That was my first big success. I thought, "I can do this—I'm in business."
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?"
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.
Oprah: That's a profound spiritual statement.
Ralph: I think I'm spiritual. In order to create, you have to be sensitive. Sinatra's song "My Way" has become a cliché, but that's always been my thing. What I'm most proud of in my life is that I went into this business on my own terms. I never threw myself away. I kept going in a straight line even when people said, "Give it up." And there was a period when the business suddenly got very bad. The clothes literally weren't fitting and I ran out of money. In the early years of my business, I'd brought in a friend as my financial guy, and he hadn't watched the money. The bills weren't being paid. People were calling and saying, "Mr. Lauren, the check that was supposed to be in the mail never arrived." I remember being scared I'd lose everything. What was most upsetting was the thought of having to call my father and say, "Dad, I lost my business." That's what I was worried about—disappointing my father. He was so proud that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. So I took my last penny and put it into the business, and somehow I made it through.
Oprah: Do you surround yourself with people who share your vision?
Ralph: I try to find people who love and believe in what I do—and people I can respect because they do what I don't do. I've had to bring in financial people and put them in positions where they could tell me, "Ralph, let's not do that."
Oprah: In spite of all you've attained, you seem so normal.
Ralph: I've worked all my life, and my parents gave me a solid foundation.
Oprah: Why do some designers seem so snooty?
Ralph: They're not snooty, they're very insecure. If you sit down and talk to any of these designers one-on-one, you'll find very nice and sensitive people. Most of them weren't born rich. They worked their way up like I did. I wasn't in love with the whole fashion world—my heroes were people like John F. Kennedy and James Stewart. I wanted to be a movie star, a cool guy. I wanted to go on dates. I wanted to be honest and to do the right thing. And I didn't want to get pushed around, so I stood my ground with integrity.
Oprah: How have you instilled that integrity in your children, who were raised with every material thing anyone could want?
Ralph: My wife and I didn't have a formula. Maybe we just got lucky. We're both pretty grounded. My wife, who is very conservative, came from Vienna. Fashion was never on her mind. She went to Columbia University a few years ago and became a therapist. We just passed on our values by how we lived. My kids also knew our parents, and both sets were very humble.
Ralph (continued): My kids and I had a very normal life. My work is my work and, yes, they were exposed to things other kids weren't, but they know what my wife and I value—we've always had the right value system about what's important in terms of family and people. That has nothing to do with being rich or poor. I could have less and essentially be the same person. Having success at an early age gave me more of a sense of what's important in life rather than always driving to make it. I loved what I did, and my satisfaction came from my own sense of stretching. I was fulfilled inside as opposed to needing outside fulfillment. Now, did I want good things that I'd never had? Yes. Did I have dreams about living this kind of life? Sure. Most everyone has those dreams—a nice house, a pool. That's part of the American thrust. Did I give up my family in order to have it? No. Did I jump to another group because they were going to make me bigger? Never. I have always been who I am.
Oprah: As you've continued to expand your vision, how do you stay so connected to the woman who walks into your store to buy a pair of chinos?
Ralph: It's fear—I love where I'm at, and I don't want to lose what I have. I like the excitement of the challenge. And I'm in tune with the moods. Why do I say ruffles one season and then all white the next? I can feel when there's been enough of something. I ask myself, "What feels fresh?" After a season of all black, I might go to Europe and see a flower-print fabric and think, I want to do flowers and color for spring. I have a real life—I've lived with a woman, my wife, for a long time, and I watch her. When we go out, she'll say, "Should I wear this?" I don't sit there as a fashion guru. I sit there as a man, someone with an instinct for what I love myself.
I don't like it when a woman looks like a fashion victim. Some women think that if the look this season is minis, they have to wear minis. If you don't have great legs, there are plenty of alternatives. I feel like I'm always talking to the consumer, just like I'm sitting here talking with you. My fear is having you go into the store and say, "Ralph doesn't have it anymore—I don't like his stuff this year." So I'm always checking myself out by asking, "Did I hit it? Make sure you're not wrong, Ralph." I'm not right all the time.
Oprah: Well, I never give away anything I buy of yours—I can't do it. I've even kept my original pair of those white-buck shoes.
Ralph: I don't throw away anything either. Nothing that's good is ever out. The older items look better years later. That's when someone will say, "Where did you get that?" Because it's not made anymore, it becomes more valuable. The only things you should ever give away are those that aren't flattering.
Oprah: Do you wear only your own clothes?
Ralph: No. But I make everything I love, so I'd say 90 percent of what I wear is mine. If I get to the point where I don't like my clothes, I'm in big trouble.
Oprah: Does your family wear only your clothes?
Ralph: They only wear my clothes—but of course, that's not a rule. You won't believe this, but when my daughter, Dylan, was younger, I'd tell her, "Go to the store and get some nice sweaters." She'd say, "Dad, I can't wear cashmere, that's too expensive!"
Oprah: Do you have a hand in creating every single product?
Oprah: So you even worked on my red patent-leather boots?
Ralph: Absolutely. Is every idea mine? No. I have a team of people, but their shoe meetings don't go on without me. My fun lies in making my contribution. Somewhere along the line something clicks, and you think, "Now I know why I'm working." I get that exciting and wonderful feeling when I've stretched myself to do something I've never done before.
Oprah: Having created this dynasty, how do you define what's most important to you?
Ralph: What's important to me is feeling good. I work out a lot—running. When people used to say, "Take care of your health," I'd laugh because I was a kid. I now know what it feels like to get sick, to not be connected to the world because you're in a hospital.
Oprah: Once you've had a brain tumor, does everything change?
Ralph: Yes, it's one of the scariest things you could ever live through. I was working on my show when the doctor, who'd read some X rays, said, "Ralph, you're going to have an operation." Is there anything else you least want to hear? Aside from cancer, a brain tumor is about the worst. I was only in my forties and I thought, "Where did this come from?" It was the most frightening moment of my life—and I lived with it alone. I didn't tell my kids until I was going into the hospital. I didn't tell anybody except my wife and my brother. When I came out of the hospital I got wrecked in a funny way.
Oprah: How so?
Ralph: I lost a sense of my body taking care of itself. I had a pain in my stomach when I got home, and I called the doctor right away and said, "I've got cancer in my stomach." I was in a place where I didn't feel I could control my life.
Oprah: I understand—you thought anything could go wrong.
Ralph: Right. When you're a kid, you think you can jump out the window and be okay. But when you get older, you think, "Wait a minute—I can't fly!"
Oprah: Since your illness, how do you decide what to give your time, energy, and money to?
Ralph: When I came out of the hospital, I met a wonderful woman, Nina Hyde, an editor in Washington, D.C., who had breast cancer. She said, "You know, Ralph, you make these wonderful things for the outside—why aren't you taking care of the inside?" So I went to all the fashion designers and said, "Let's do breast cancer," and we raised money to start the Nina Hyde Center in Washington.
Oprah: So your tumor caused you to have sympathy for someone else.
Ralph: Yes—I was very tuned in and emotional about it.
Oprah: Aren't you building a center in Harlem?
Ralph: Yes. I wanted to do more, so I went to [Memorial] Sloan-Kettering [a leading cancer hospital in New York] and met a doctor I was impressed with. He told me, "A lot of women are afraid to leave Harlem when they discover they have breast cancer. They won't come down to Sloan-Kettering because they fear it." I remember when my mother found a lump in her breast and panicked. She didn't know who to talk with or what to do. The world is so small when you don't have choices or you have no one to talk to. I became involved because I felt the emotion of it. You see people's struggle, and you want to do something about it. The center will help people with all forms of cancer work through the process of getting treatment.
Oprah: So once you're diagnosed, there's a whole support system. What will it be called?
Ralph: The Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention—it will open in spring on 124th Street and Madison Avenue. I'm very excited about it.
Oprah: That's huge, Ralph. As you look back over the years, can you believe your life?
Ralph: I can't. When I sit back and look at what I have, I can say, "This is great." But when you're dedicated to your work, you've got to be out there working. It doesn't matter if you're very rich or very poor, you still have anxieties.
Oprah: I feel you have a connection with people, just as I have a connection with my audience.
Ralph: Yes, I've always said that. Sometimes when I walk into one of my own stores, I look at the display and say, "This looks so good—I want to buy it." Yet other times I walk in and the displays and mannequins will be all wrong, and I don't want to buy anything. When a customer walks into a store, she's looking for inspiration. So I'm tuned in to people, and I care about what they need and who they are. Where do they go on vacation? Who are their families? What do they value?
I've lived through dreaming and not having, and I've lived through having. The basics are still getting up in the morning and feeling good about yourself—I don't care how rich you are.
Oprah: But now you don't have to wonder what it's like to be wealthy.
Ralph: I was talking to Donna Karan at an event last night, and she said, "You know, Ralph, I still don't feel rich."
Oprah: Do you feel that way?
Ralph: I was sometimes embarrassed about making it—people look at you in a different way. You become this rich guy with the house. I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's, but I've sometimes felt set apart from the people I work with. They think, "You're rich—you don't have problems."
Oprah: I saw an interview you did when you were about 26, and you said, "I always wanted to be special."
Ralph: And I still do.
Oprah: Unless you're set apart.
Ralph: Well I don't want to be a zero. I want to say something, to do something, to have a voice.
Oprah: There's this wonderful line in East of Eden where Steinbeck writes: "Will liked to live so that no one could find fault with him, and to do that he had to live as nearly like other people as possible." That struck me because it made me realize that if you're going to be extraordinary, then you can't be like most other people.
Ralph: Yes. And yet I've seen a lot of bad people become successful. You don't want anything they have because they've sold their souls.
Oprah: Everyone always says one thing about you: You've kept your soul.
Ralph: What I feel best about is that while I enjoy what I have and don't want to lose it, I also don't need it.
Oprah: Right. I know your name used to be Ralph Lifshitz. Where did the name Lauren come from?
Ralph: My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That's why I decided to change it. Then people said, "Did you change your name because you don't want to be Jewish?" I said, "Absolutely not. That's not what it's about." There were also people who thought that because I was Jewish, I had no right to create these preppy clothes. Harvard, Yale, Princeton: "Why do you like these kind of things?"
Oprah: Why did you choose the name Lauren?
Ralph: My cousins who lived in California had changed their last name to Lawrence. So I just thought, "I'm going to pick a nice last name"—it wasn't particularly connected to anything or anyone. I was 16, and it was years before I became a designer. It had nothing to do with Jewishness, it had nothing to do with not being proud of who I am. It had to do with not wanting to be at a detriment for no reason in a world that makes fun of things.
Oprah: Yes—Lifshitz is a hard one. I don't know if I'd want to buy the Lifshitz towels.
Ralph: If I had it to do over, would I change my name today? I'm not so sure.
Oprah: Do you still celebrate your Jewishness and honor the holidays?
Ralph: Absolutely. I'm very proud of my history and of my life. But there are always people who will shoot at you.
Oprah: A lot of people have described you as shy. Do you see yourself that way?
Ralph: I'm not great at cocktail parties. I can sit with you and talk about anything, because this is a real conversation. It's not about bullshit. It's about realness, and that's what I'm good at. If you get me on a subject I know about, I'm very strong. If I don't know much about it, I don't say much. The one thing I admire in others that I missed is a really great education. I would have loved to speak several languages. I would have loved to be much better read than I am. I was so busy trying to become something that I didn't have some luxuries. I had to work.
Oprah: Did you finish college?
Ralph: I didn't.
Oprah: Is that something you wished you'd done?
Ralph: I don't think I'd have gotten much more out of school than I got. I earned an A in psychology in college, and I got a D in economics.
Oprah: Now you're Ralph Lauren.
Ralph: I always had a sense of people and would talk with them. I talk to my doorman. I talk to everybody I work with. I enjoy it. I like being part of a real life. I love dreams. I love glamour. I love being invited to great places. But I don't really care if I go, as long as I'm invited. I get invited to so many things, but I'd rather go have a hamburger or see a movie.
> And I'm excited when I find somebody stimulating to talk with. That's one of the great treasures in life.
Oprah: When you were a boy, you wanted to be a basketball player. Does this beat basketball?
Ralph: Yes. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lot of things. I grew up in the Bronx, in a house attached to a school yard. My whole life was about playing basketball and stickball—we'd take the handle off our broom and use it as a bat.
Oprah: To play poor people's hockey?
Ralph: It was poor people's baseball. I didn't have a bike or a baseball mitt. Did I want them? Yes. But I knew my parents wanted to give them to me and couldn't. So I became motivated to get things on my own. I used to work for my father—I'd carry his bag or help him paint just to earn money. It made things more precious to me. So I appreciate the excitement and the value of buying something and enjoying it. I value things.
Oprah: Final question: What's next for you?
Ralph: I love a challenge. This year I went to Milan, the center of Armani and Prada and Gucci, and I did a men's show. I hadn't done a men's show in 25 years. It was so exciting—and I didn't know it was going to be a major hit. That was such a high for me. Did it earn me any more money? No. But it was about the excitement. I built this $10 billion business with a tie. But the question I'm still asking myself is: "What else can I do? How much further can I go? Could I build a media business? Do I have anything to say? Whenever I've done anything, I've had something to say about what I believe in. And that's exactly what I do with my clothes. I get great pleasure in making my own statement. And my greatest joy in life is this: Everything I do is all mine.
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
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