A fascinating and comprehensive look into the life of American fashion designer Ralph Lauren, now with an afterword.
“Deep-dish...sharp-clawed...honestly admiring.”—New York Times
There are at least two Ralph Laurens.
To the public he's a gentle, modest, yet secure and purposeful man. Inside the walls of Polo Ralph Lauren, though, he was long seen by some as a narcissist, an insecure ditherer, and, at times, a rampaging tyrant.
Michael Gross, author of the bestsellers Model and 740 Park, lays bare the truths of this fashion emperor's rise, and reveals not only the secrets of his meteoric success in marketing our shared fantasies, but also a widely unknown side that's behind the designer’s chic façade.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Michael Gross, the New York Times bestselling author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, and House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World’s Most Powerful Address, is the editor-in-chief of Avenue, a contributing editor for Departures, and his journalism and other writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the world, including the New York Times, New York, GQ, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Real Life of Ralph Lauren
At the end of 1984, Polo Ralph Lauren acquired a twenty-year lease on the landmark Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House, a five-story French Renaissance Revival palace completed in 1898 at the corner of Madison Avenue and Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. Waldo, a socialite, had spent half a million dollars erecting her tribute to a chateau in France's Loire Valley. A riot of bay windows, dormers, statuary, and chimneys, its Gilded Age exuberance contrasts with the neo-Gothic brownstone plainness of its next-door neighbor, Saint James Episcopal Church, where New York's oldest families -- families with names like Rhinelander -- still worship.
For reasons unknown, Mrs. Waldo never moved in, but her sister, Laura, and her son, Rhinelander, a hero of the Spanish-American War and future New York police commissioner, lived there until 1912, when a bank foreclosed on the property. In the 1920s, it was converted for commercial use and was occupied over time by an antiques dealer, interior decorators, the Phillips auction house, a society florist, and one of Eli Zabar's specialty food boutiques.
After it reopened in 1986, with its newest owner, the Rhinelander mansion became the Polo mansion, the engine driving Lauren's image -- his Disneyland and Disney stores rolled into one. It also became New York's newest tourist attraction, with its oak floors, Honduran mahogany paneling, vaulted ceilings, ornate plasterwork, Waterford chandelier, antique Cartier vitrine and green glass Art Deco panels etched with polo players (discards, appropriately, from the old Polo Lounge in New York's Westbury Hotel), gas-burning fireplaces, and a plethora of "real" old drawings, photographs, bound volumes, aristocratic bric-a-brac and shabby chic gewgaws: elaborately framed photos, walking sticks, picnic baskets and hatboxes, steamer trunks and sticker-covered old luggage, antique tennis racquets, fishing rods and lacrosse sticks artfully left about as if waiting for the house's long-departed occupants to finish packing for a summer in Newport, on the Cape, in the Adirondacks, or in Sun Valley.
But most of all, people came to see its central staircase, modeled after the one in London's Connaught Hotel. Dressed up with antique carpets, green felt walls, and hand-carved balustrades, it's studded with the sort of gilt-framed ancestral portraits one might find in a drafty old English country house. Whose ancestors are they? The forebears of the worshippers next door at Saint James, no doubt.
No matter. Lauren has claimed them as his own, as props for his personal movie.
On the day the Rhinelander opened, Lauren took Marvin Traub, the former chairman of Bloomingdale's, the New York store most associated with Polo, and his wife, Lee, on a private tour of what the designer called "the ultimate Ralph Lauren shop." Traub admired the detail, the fanatic perfection of each department, each display, each luscious, colorful pile of Shetland sweaters. Then, Lauren walked them down that ceremonial staircase and stopped beneath one of those portraits of an unnamed and quite likely unloved English gentleman -- a man whose descendants, assuming he had any, had long since disposed of his picture.
"That," Ralph said, pointing up at the old Anglo-Saxon's face, "is Grandpa Lifshitz."
As with all good jokes, there was pain underneath it. Ralph Lauren admits he has little or no idea where he came from -- and he's never stopped to look. So his heritage has remained a mystery to him throughout his sixty-three years. What Ralph didn't know, and may not to this day, is that through his mother, who was born Fraydl Kotlar, he is related by marriage to a Jewish dynasty that was considered aristocratic as long as, if not longer than, the Anglo-Saxons whose portraits hang on the walls of the Rhinelander.
No one ever painted a picture of Ralph's grandpa, Sam Lifshitz, né Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz -- and the word pictures painted by his remaining relatives have all the depth of gossamer. As far as they know, he was a nobody with nothing from nowhere.
The public record offers up precious little to counter that impression. Ralph's oldest sibling, his sister Thelma Fried, by all accounts the most traditional and family-oriented member of his brood, is said to know more. But Lauren, who let all but a few friends and business associates give interviews for this book, wouldn't let her speak. "He doesn't want me to discuss our family -- not that we're ashamed of anything," she says in a brief phone call. Before declining an interview, Thelma says she knows very little and expects that Ralph knows even less.
None of this is uncommon. Many descendants of eastern European Jewish refugees know nothing of their families, whose desperate desire to leave their homelands at the turn of the twentieth century was outweighed only by their subsequent determination to leave their memories behind as well. "They left a great deal of unpleasantness," says a distant relative of Lauren's, Carol Skydell, the executive vice president of jewishgen.org, the leading Jewish genealogical website. "So what's to remember?"
After World War II, most of those memories disappeared; the Jews and their towns were swept away by the Holocaust. An oft-asked question -- Where did we come from? -- was afterward, often as not, answered with a dismissive wave and some vague geography: "Russia." "Poland." "Minsky-Pinsky."
That last phrase, joining two cities that are 123 miles apart in the country now known as Belarus, was meant to shut down conversation rather than dredge up the vast swampy area known as the Pale of Settlement, where Minsk and Pinsk were located. The Pale was a strip of eighteenth-century Poland that was taken over by Czarist Russia in 1795 and declared the only place in that country where Jews could legally live. By 1885, over 4 million Jews lived in a Pale expanded to include land annexed from Turkey. Six years later, seven hundred thousand more arrived, many of them deported from St. Petersburg, expelled from Moscow. from Moscow. (The Pale statutes were revoked after the Bolshevik revolution. Today, the homeland of Grandpa Lifshitz has been carved up into pieces of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine.)
The Jews of the Pale were Russia's middle class: middlemen, merchants, trades people, craftsmen, tax collectors, and tavern keepers. Christian nobles, landowners, and the serfs who slaved for them filled out the population. Many of the Jews descended from ancient Palestine; some bore names that dated back to biblical times. These wandering Jews made their first appearance in Russia in the tenth century. They came via the Crimea, the Caucasus Mountains and present-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and later, middle Europe.
When Grandpa Lifshitz arrived at Ellis Island in New York harbor in 1920, with two of his five children, a daughter Mary and a son Frank, who would become Ralph Lauren's father, he said they'd come from Pinsk. The first Jews in Pinsk -- which was at various times part of Lithuania, Poland, and Russiaarrived in about 1500.
Pinsk was hardly nowhere. It was a center of Jewish population and produced renowned religious leaders and scholars. Jewish culture flourished in the Pale -- they spoke their own language, Yiddish; had their own schools and houses of worship; their own theater, literature, and newspapers -- despite the fact that Jews there had been insecure for centuries. Protests against their presence and confiscation of their property were the norm. Organized massacres of Jews were common enough at the turn of the twentieth century that they had their own name: pogroms. Through it all, the Jews persisted.
When the Pale became part of Russia, Jews were forced to urban areas and tiny villages called shtetls; among them were Ralph's great-grandfather Yosef Lifshitz and his wife, Leah Schmuckler, who had a son named Shlomo Zalman. Most Eastern European Jews had both secular and religious given names, and were also known by nicknames. Shlomo, aka Schleime and Shmuel, was born just before Christmas in, depending upon which of the contradictory documents you believe, 1870 or 1872. The Lifshitzes were Ashkenazim, German Jews, and their surname, too, came from someplace in present-day Germany or the Czech Republic, where there were towns named Licbschuetz, Leobschutz, and Liebeschitz. One of them was the source of Grandpa Lifshitz's name, which means "loving support" in German.
Though Ralph Lauren would drop it, Lifshitz is a Jewish name of renown. The first prominent Lipschuetzes were rabbis in sixteenth-century Poland -- and their line is unbroken to this day. Descendants of the family used many spelling variations -- and so did other Jews who were forced by law to assume Christian-style hereditary surnames beginning in the late eighteenth century when the Hapsburg ruler Joseph the Tolerant sought to integrate them into the European society.
How did Yosef Lifshitz get his name? It's hard to say. Surnames were often assigned by Jewish administrators. If Yosef was a typical case, his father would have adopted the name at the start of the nineteenth century, when imperial Russia decreed that all Jews had to take surnames -- and stick with them. "Perhaps, some Lifshitz are indeed unrelated to the rabbinical families," says Alexandre Beider, an authority on Jewish names. "But I can hardly see how a person unrelated to these rabbinical families could adopt such glorious names without being ridiculed by other Jews."
Ralph Lauren's grandfather Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz bore the exact same name as the first rabbi of Warsaw, circa 1821. He could also be a descendant of the sixteenth-century rabbis Moses ben Isaac Lipschuetz of Gdansk or Isaac Lipschuetz of Poznan. But then again, young men born in the Czarist empire would sometimes change their names in order to avoid compulsory conscription into the Russian army. Who is to say? Ralph Lauren may not be the first in his family to reinvent himself into a better life.Genuine Authentic
The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. Copyright © by Michael Gross. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xv
Part 1 Patrician: From the Pale to the Promised Land 11
Part 2 Aspiration: From Lifshitz to Lauren 39
Part 3 Inspiration: It Started with a Tie 79
Part 4 Perspiration: From Bloomie's to the Brink 103
Part 5 Incaution: From Bust to Boom 157
Part 6 Ascension: From Man to Myth 201
Part 7 Disruption: From Illness to Infidelity 255
Part 8 Presumption: From Growing Gains to Growing Pains 291
Part 9 Culmination: From Privacy to the Public Market 335
Sources and Acknowledgments 375
What People are Saying About This
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An offbeat choice for me; I picked it up in a used bookstore while traveling, though I did briefly cover the garment industry as a reporter.The value to me was the insight into how the fashion industry works. What's licensing mean? What are all the different divisions between couture and K-mart? How does a tie salesman with a sense of style become a men's and women's clothing designer? Is he really a designer?Actually, I don't think the last question was really answered. Gross would have done better to compare the way Lauren works with a designer with proper training.However, to back up: given that Lauren wouldn't collaborate (though Gross had interviewed him previously) and many current and former minions wouldn't talk either, Gross certainly learned a lot. He even interviewed neighbors from Lauren (Ralph Lifshitz)'s humble boyhood Bronx home. We get background on Lauren's immigrant parents, and a distinguished maternal ancestry. Lauren attended yeshiva school in his early years; he speaks Hebrew! No surprise that Lauren is a tyrannical megalomaniac with an insatiable hunger for cars, property, antiques clothing and all sorts of other stuff. He's very self-conscious about his shortness.The miracle, especially in his early years, is that (not sure why) some financial whizzes pulled h him from the brink of bankruptcy. For me, that's where it got interesting: how licensing the middle women's wear lines (see, I've forgotten the terminology already) turned on the cash flow. How much revenue comes from his own factory outlet stores. How another considerable chunk comes from sales of khakis and polo shirts--the boring basics I'd mistake for LL Bean or whatever.I'm left still wondering about Gross's estimation of Lauren's talents. Are they considerable? Or was Lauren mostly lucky? Maybe his talent is just spotting the taste to come. I find it incredible--not quite believable--that he could repeatedly make the error of using a fit model (his wife and others with similar bodies) so far removed from the bodies of the final buyers. Was that much stuff really returned from stores?FWIW, though Lauren seems pretty boring (he doesn't seem to read, extremely shy), there is the one verifiable juicey bit of gossip: after brain surgery in the 1990s, Lauren had an affair with one of these fit models (and, boy, is Gross mean about her looks).In short, for someone not in the fashion or garment industry, I think this is a painless into to a lot of the processes and terms.
This book was a really good read. It tells a lot about Ralph Lauren's history, where he grew up and where he started out career wise. The book really focuses on Ralph Lauren's ambitions and goals as well. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fashion or biographies in general.
This is an amazing textured story about identity, as well as a slam-bang business book, and a well-crafted warts-and-all biography. I'll admit I didn't think Ralph Lauren was very interesting before I read it--so what, he changed his name and made a fortune selling polo shirts--but what the book does is make him absolutely fascinating--much more fascinating in fact than the shallow myths Lauren sells. This is a classic, quintessential story of American self-invention, and anyone who's interested in the depths beneath the glossy surface of fashion ads owes it to themselves to read it.
I anxiously awaited the release of Mr. Gross' book on Ralph Lauren. Since I work in Polo at a local department store, I was especially interested in hearing the details of how the company was run--well I must admit I wasn't THAT interested. Mr. Gross rambles on and on endlessly about people who worked in Polo at one time, work there presently, and will be possibly be let go in the future - nameless and faceless people who we could care less about and because Mr. Gross is so thrifty in his use of pictures, we don't even know what any of these 'Poloroids' look like! I purchased this book so I was bound and determined to inch my way through it and it certainly proved to be a lot of work! The same ups and downs of the business were played over and over and over ad nauseum! Any new info that was gleaned from this book could have been summed up in a magazine article. I read Jeffrey Trachenberg's earlier work on Ralph and was looking to this book to plug in all the holes (from 1990 forward) but this book was nowhere as enjoyable as Mr. Trachenberg's.