Ralph Lauren doesn't just design clothes—he designs a lifestyle that many people dream of living. For more than 40 years, Ralph's vision has defined American style, but away from the runway, this designer prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
Over the past four decades, Ralph has granted only a few interviews, but in the final days of The Oprah Show, he invited Oprah and her cameras to his family's majestic Double RL Ranch for a rare sit-down.
For years, Oprah says she's dreamed of visiting Ralph and his wife, Ricky, at their 17,000-acre property, located just outside Telluride, Colorado, a resort town she's visited often.
"I can't tell you how many times I've driven on that road and counted the miles of your fence, tried to look over, like so many people do, in their neighborhoods," Oprah tells Ralph. "When you're growing up, you look at the big house on the hill. For me, it was looking through the fence at your ranch."
When life got hectic in New York City, Ralph and Ricky say they started searching for a place to escape out West. "I needed another side that was totally private, totally a world that I felt I could live," Ralph says. "It was nature. It was peaceful. It was horses. It was riding. It was cattle."
When the Laurens first visited this property and saw the view from "the Vance," where a 100-year-old cabin and three-story barn are surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, they knew they'd found the perfect place. "You're in a world that's all your own," Ralph says.
Though Ralph loves his Colorado retreat, he spends the majority of his time in Manhattan, the city where he founded his $10-billion fashion and home empire.
Born Ralph Lifshitz, this son of Russian immigrants was raised in the Bronx, New York. Ralph began working in fashion when he was in his 20s, and in 1967, he came up with the idea that launched his career—a new men's tie design.
"I felt that I had something to say that was different," Ralph says. "No one believed me, of course. I went to my boss and I said, 'Look, I'd like to design these ties because I think they could be new.' He said, 'The world isn't ready for Ralph Lauren.' I never forgot that because ... I thought that was a compliment."
Though Ralph had no formal training, he started designing wide, high-end ties, which were the opposite of the skinny ties in style at the time. The ties flew off shelves, and later that year, he started his own fashion company. He named it Polo.
"I couldn't call [the company] 'Basketball,'" he tells Oprah. "I like sports. I felt that Polo represented, sort of, an international sport. It was a little more sophisticated."
In 1971, Ralph turned heads again with a collection for women that featured tailored shirts and sportswear made with men's fabrics, an idea ahead of its time. That same year, he became the first American designer to open his own free-standing store, and in 1972, the signature Polo sport shirt made its debut.
Then, in the early '80s, the man who ruled the runway made history when he became the first fashion designer to launch a home line. Today, the Ralph Lauren brand includes furniture, fragrances, fashion for children and Oprah's favorite restaurant in Chicago, RL.
Ralph credits much of his success to his parents. "My father was an artist. When life was harder and he couldn't get jobs, he painted houses, but he was artistic. When I went to see his work, it was special," Ralph says. "Somewhere along the line, I felt I was special. I didn't know why."
When Ralph was 20 years old, he says he had a defining moment while working at a children's camp. He was voted the "general" in a game called color war. "This was a stamping in saying, 'Ralph, you really are special,'" he recalls. "Someone said to me, 'We're picking you. You're going to lead half of this camp.'"
Ralph says he knew he had something unique to offer the world, and that feeling was confirmed when he began to sell his ties in the late '60s. Ralph says Bloomingdale's was one of the first stores that expressed interest in his ties, but they wanted to make the design narrower and brand the ties as their own. "I said, 'I'm not doing that. I'd love to sell [to] Bloomingdale's. I know you're a great store,'" he says. "I said, 'I'm closing my bag, and I'm not going to sell [to] you. I really would like to. I think you could use these ties. I'm closing the bag.' And I left."
Six month later, Ralph says Bloomingdale's representatives called back and asked to put a rack of his ties in their store.
Every season for the past four decades, Ralph has created new collections for men, women, and now, children. How does he stay inspired, year after year? "You pray," Ralph says.
Even now, Ralph says he gets excited and anxious before every runway show. "People always say, 'Ralph, you've been doing it for all these years. Don't you feel like it doesn't faze you?' I'm scared," he says.
"Every time?" Oprah asks.
"Every time," Ralph says. "You have to create something from nothing." He couldn't even relax for a moment after his first runway show. "It was a great show," Ralph says. "People were standing up and applauding. And as I walked down the runway, I said, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do next year?'"
Ralph says he didn't become a designer because he loves fashion. For him, it's about defining a lifestyle. "The clothes that I design and everything I've done is about life and how people live and how they want to live and how they dream they'll live," he says. "That's what I do."
Ralph and his wife, Ricky, have been married for 46 years. "It's wonderful to see you two together," Oprah says. "I'm just watching the way you all look at each other, touch each other. ... It's real."
The two say it was love at first sight when they met in 1964. That year, Ralph had an appointment at an eye doctor's office where Ricky worked as a receptionist. The couple started dating, and six months later, they married.
Ricky says the secret to their happy marriage is a friendship. "Ralph is my best friend, and I'm just so comfortable with him, and he is with me as well—we could be ourselves," she says. "We see the world as a team."
For Ricky, Ralph was the missing piece in her life. "I never had any brothers or sisters, and so, in knowing Ralph as intimately as I knew him, I felt [he] was not just my husband, [he] was like my brother," Ricky says. "[He] was someone that completed me, and he was also very thoughtful and kind to my parents."
Together, Ralph and Ricky have two sons, Andrew and David, and one daughter, Dylan. Oprah says she admires the way the Lauren children, now adults with their own careers, were raised.
"I think taking care of the children and raising children who have a sense of grace and are kind, and have their own sense of ambition, is the hardest job on earth," Oprah says. "I think it's particularly difficult when your children have access to everything."
Ricky says they learned most of their parenting skills from their own mothers and fathers. "They were good people, they worked hard, they had values that we learned from them," she says.
Ralph agrees and says he and his wife also made sure to spend as much time as they could with their children. "When we [went] away, the kids were with us," he says.
The Lauren children seem to have inherited their father's creativity and ambition. Ricky and Ralph's oldest son, 42-year-old Andrew, is a successful movie producer. His film The Squid and the Whale was nominated for an Oscar® in 2006, and Andrew says his father's designs have been a source of inspiration.
"The first movie I made was a film called G, which was a hip-hop Great Gatsby. My father actually did the clothes for The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford," Andrew says. "It is about making stories, telling stories."
David, who's 39 years old, is the only child to go into the family business. He serves as executive vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Polo Ralph Lauren. "I'm lucky to have a boss who is also my mentor and my father," David says. "What makes the company special is that there are 22,000 employees who all look at my father like a father. In many ways, they're my extended family. It's brothers and sisters around the world, who feel that same connection." David is engaged to Lauren Bush, the granddaughter of former President H.W. George Bush and niece of former President George W. Bush.
The Laurens' only daughter, 37-year-old Dylan, owns her own successful business, Dylan's Candy Bar. This Manhattan sweet spot is one of the largest candy stores in the world. "To me, candy is more than just candy you eat—it's fashion, it's colors, it's pop culture, it's art," Dylan says. "I just love it."
Andrew, David and Dylan say their parents always encouraged them to pursue their passions. "There was never any pressure to do anything or be anything more than what we felt comfortable with," David says. "Whether it was with our homework or with our jobs, it was always a feeling of 'Just be happy.'"
Dylan says she doesn't think of her parents as public figures—they're just "Mom and Dad" to her. "They're real parents, and we're a unit as a family more than a celebrity family that maybe some people think of," she says. "You can see we're all close."
Andrew, David and Dylan say they didn't become aware of their father's fame until friends started asking for discounts and people noted their last name. "When people say, 'Oh my God, what's your closet like? Do you own this? Do you get your clothing for free?' and all those kinds of questions, that's the only time I really forget that he's not just my dad, but he's a well-known person in this world," Dylan says. And, contrary to popular belief, the Laurens don't get their father's clothes for free since his company is publicly owned.
When they were children, David says his parents were always there when they got home from school and when it was time for dinner. "It was never [said about us], '[The] parents are out at some big function.' We really felt like it was a family, and that was the priority—to be together," David says.
Today, the family's bond remains strong—the Laurens even vacation together. "We are all best friends, and we look at each other like best friends," David says. "We love to spend time together."
Even though Ralph is friends with his children, he's a father first. "You shouldn't get the impression that we're just buddies," he says. "We were watching our kids. We're guiding them, hopefully. They have to live their own lives, and we're there. ... There's no one I'd rather be with than my kids."
The Lauren children say they love to wear designs from their father's label because, to them, they're more than clothes. "What you see in this world is translated into clothing, and so it's personal to us, as it is to my dad," David says. "If he takes a beautiful pillow, and it's inspired by a great Navajo blanket, I know the story, and it makes it that much more personal to us. And I know the patina on the Jeep that he rode in and how he translates that into something he's making, into a sweater."
Ralph is currently designing a very personal piece for Dylan—her wedding dress. "It's very exciting," Dylan says. "Obviously my dad is making my dress for it, which is the most amazing thing because it's really stunning."
Designing Dylan's wedding gown is especially emotional for Ralph. "I had to do something that was better than ever before," he says. "When you do something for your family or your daughter, I mean it's the only daughter I have—beautiful girl. I want to just give her something that she'd really treasure and give her something that would be really amazing. I want her to feel fantastic."
Dylan says she loves the dress so much, she may not take it off after the wedding. "I told my fiancé, 'I may sleep in it. I might wear it the next day,'" she says. "It's really beautiful. I know that every bit of his energy and heart went into making sure that I liked it."