All empires begin with a single moment, but few begin with ties. Yet, this is precisely how Ralph Lauren started on his journey to become the American fashion icon he is today.

In 1967 Lauren, a second-generation immigrant living in the Bronx, was working for Brooks Brothers when he had the idea to create a line of ties under the name, Polo. The ties, which were wider and brighter than the style of the time, were the beginning of Ralph Lauren as we know it today and tapped into Lauren’s ability to know what men wanted to wear before they did.

Despite having no formal design training, Ralph Lauren has just marked its 50th birthday, a half-century in which the brand has come to embody America and the American Dream. “He has a very romantic idea of America, of what America is,” says Thread stylist Luke McDonald. “He’s into mood and storytelling, which you can see throughout the brand.”

His vision of America is East Coast Wasps in seersucker blazers or silk gowns in the Hamptons, and plaid and denim-clad ranchers out west. The truth of these places doesn’t interest him; the clothes he creates might be for real people, but Ralph Lauren has never been about reality. Precisely what you’d expect from a man who once said, “I don’t design clothes. I design dreams.”

It’s no surprise that Ralph Lauren is oft likened to F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The brand made the link explicit when, in one of its most astute business moves, it created the costumes for the 1974 film starring Robert Redford. That both film and novel are all about facade, beautiful but not real, didn’t matter when the clothes looked so good.

But it’s not just his own dreams he designs. You don’t cement your place as an American fashion icon without a clear vision. And a willingness to support others, “Ralph Lauren is practically a finishing school for American menswear designers, they all pass through those hallowed halls,” says Luke. Former head of menswear at J Crew Frank Muytjens spent eight years at Ralph Lauren and Thom Browne, got his start when Lauren hired him to design for Club Monaco, which also falls under the Ralph Lauren umbrella.

If the ethos of the house is the American dream and East coast preppiness, then Polo is at its heart. “The core of the Ralph Lauren brand is Polo,” says Luke. “It gets the basics like sweatshirts, polo shirts and chinos absolutely right. The attention to detail is amazing, the fabric quality is really strong. Everything is really well made, which is quite rare in a brand that size with such reasonable price points. And it comes from Mr Lauren himself, from the work ethic he has.”

From the polo shirt (with its instantly recognisable pony logo) to Oxfords, denim and the more fashion-forward ‘Polo Bear’ sweatshirts, Ralph Lauren creates basics that are easy to wear but still stylish, without slavishly following trends. “The story around the bear is that in the 80s, Mr Lauren received a Steiff teddy bear from his design team for his birthday,” Luke says. “He loved it so much that they started stocking them in store. Then, in the early 90s, the bear appeared on a sweatshirt wearing the traditional Polo look of a blazer and chinos. That was the beginning of the Polo Bear.”

It was the beginning of a reinvention of sorts for Polo, opening up the house to a younger, more streetwear-inspired audience that had been put off by the traditional vibe that Polo Ralph Lauren had been known for. “It reinvents the American classic every year,” says Luke, “from the Polo Bear in all his different looks, to the mixing of elements – nautical meets the midwest or Hamptons meets military – that keeps it contemporary and interesting.”

 

Words: Nadia Balame-Price
Photography: Chris Howlett
Styling: Brooke Philips