Posted on February 15 2019
A History of Ralph Lauren
The Ralph Lauren story reads like a fairytale: a jewish kid from an impoverished background goes on to build a global fashion empire and becomes one of the biggest names in the business. You can’t make this up, and we haven’t. Let’s take a look at the man, and the brand, that are the living proof that (American) dreams do come true.
Ralph Lauren’s ongoing popularity boils down to two key factors. The first, timelessness. Transcending trends, his clothes become something more, living outside the fashion cycle. The second, branding. Ralph Lauren managed to build his brand the way that no one had ever built a brand before. Lauren did not only sell clothes, he sold a lifestyle. He sold aspirations. He, the son of Belarusian immigrants, sold the American dream.
The business began in 1967, whilst Lauren was working at Beau Brummel. Working out of a drawer in their showroom, he designed his first range of neckties out of off cuts. The ties were bigger and bolder than anything else on the market at the time. They were significantly wider and, crucially, more colourful. Department stores around New York snapped them up. Off the back of this success, Lauren designed a menswear, then a womenswear collection, under the name POLO Ralph Lauren.
Here is where things start to become interesting for the brand. In 1972, Ralph Lauren was already becoming a household name. Then he released a collection of polo shirts. This range, coming in 24 colours, is what cemented the brand in everyday culture. Easily recognisable, easily worn, easily accessible. They were emblazoned with the (now legendary) polo player, came in fun bright colours, and were reasonably affordable. The Polo shirt has become one of the brand’s signature pieces, and is ubiquitous with the brand itself.
Throughout the 70s, Ralph Lauren continued to expand his following, boosted by his costume designs for Hollywood. Notably, in 1974, Lauren was called upon to dress Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). Both films were instant cult phenomenons. The people clamored for the slick suits of Jay Gatsby, and women fell in love with the Keaton aesthetic. In a genius move, Ralph Lauren dressed the stars in clothing from his current lines, rather than designing specific costumes. This meant that the public could go into any large department store and buy the look instantly.
The 1980s and 90s saw massive expansion for the Ralph Lauren brand; it became a worldwide phenomenon, and was picked up by many sub-cultures of the time.
During the 80s, the brand diversified. It expanded into homewares, denim, kids clothing, colognes and more.This was another way Ralph Lauren sold you the Lauren lifestyle. Now, not only could you be a well dressed all-American individual, your home could also be the perfect image of the dream, not to mention the kids. Lauren even included instructions on how to arrange his home collection. He opened a huge flagship store on Madison Avenue, the first of its kind to offer the immersive shopping experience we are now so familiar with.
What really made Ralph Lauren though, was his popularity among the sub-cultures of the late 80s and 90s. The POLO brand and its various spin off lines was picked up by everyone from punks to skaters; from preppy Ivy league college kids, to urban teens in street crews. The rise of hip hop during this time was instrumental in his success. The idea you could start from nothing and become something, a core brand value, was reflected in the rap narrative hitting the music scene at the time. The youth identified with the brand, and acted accordingly. The surge in hip hop culture happened to coincide with the release of two of Ralph Lauren’s most iconic motifs: the American flag and Polo Bear. In 1989, the first sweater emblazoned with the flag hit the shelves. Instant cult success.
Shortly after, 1991 saw the launch of the Steiff Polo teddy bear, as well as the Polo Bear motif which appeared on everything from socks to knitted crew necks. Once again, both were instant hits.
Sportswear hit the big time in the late 80s and 90s with the novelty of new fabrics and textiles. Enter Polo Sport. Once again seeing the gap in the market, Lauren launched his Sport collection which was instantly picked up by street culture. This is what made the brand so universal. Although not initially aimed at the lower echelons of society, those were the kids who adopted it and made it their own.
The Stadium collection was the ultimate sportswear as clothing range. The collection, inspired by athletic uniforms from the 20s and 30s, came out in conjunction with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. When the line dropped, the pieces became instant cult phenomenons. Lauren kept the graphics and the colours simple; a red, white and blue colour palette and a P with a winged shoe (now known as the Polo P-wing) as the logo graphic. The most famous item of the line was the 92 Stadium jacket, instantly coveted.
The notorious Lo-Life crew are the embodiment of the streetwear culture boom. In their heyday, they dressed themselves in head-to-toe Ralph Lauren - literally stealing RL gear off people in the streets. The appeal for them wasn’t to look like the rich kids who were sporting the clothes in the Hamptons at the weekend however, it was the colour. With their urban surroundings so grey, the colour of Ralph Lauren’s clothing drew them like moths to flames. Still prolific collectors today, some of the OG Lo-Lifes own some of the most covetable clothing in the world - like this 92 Stadium Jacket (above).
These early 90s years also saw the emergence of skate and snow culture. A new guard was coming in, one led by extreme sports enthusiasts with attitude. The skaters and snowboarders had roots in punky aesthetics, characterised by acid colours and torn or scruffy hems. Lauren changed this with one collection. The 1993 Snowboarding collection changed everything. It changed the colour palette - dark blues and green, yellow and red - as well as the aesthetic. Graphic, bold type was emblazoned across the clothing. The most iconic of all being the SNOW BEACH type, which was printed on that jacket. The one Raekwon wore in Wu Tang Clan’s music video for Can It All Be So Simple, cementing it forever in the collective psyche and making it the holy grail of streetwear.
The bold graphics and colour blocking synonymous with the era’s fashion can still be seen in the clothes of today. And so Ralph Lauren became one of the biggest streetwear brands in history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7m148vZDwJA
With the recent resurgence in 90s culture we’ve seen during the past few years, it only makes sense that Ralph Lauren would reissue some of his most iconic collections. Namely, his reboot of the ‘92 Stadium collection and the Snow Beach line. Both capsule collections came out in the early months of 2018, to great success. Not only did the company reissue the most famous pieces, for both collections, Ralph Lauren introduced new pieces.
Plus, in an effort to keep the brand fresh and innovative, Ralph Lauren has been collaborating with new streetwear brands. Most recently the brand dropped a Palace x Ralph Lauren collab, expertly marketed through guerilla type posting on social media.
We are of the opinion that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and that streetwear aficionados should keep their eyes on the horizon when it comes to Ralph Lauren. He isn’t finished with us yet.
Written by: Joan Crowley