Jewish Fashion Icon of the Month: Ralph Lauren

ralph lauren

Fashion fans will be glued to their TV screens on November 12th to catch the debut of Very Ralph, a new HBO documentary about Jewish fashion legend Ralph Lauren. Unbelievably, this is the first documentary portrait of the designer, who’s been in the business for over 50 years, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. Ralph Lauren the brand is more relevant now than it has been for years — which is why the man who created it is our Jewish fashion icon of the month.

A boy from the Bronx

The Ralph Lauren story is a familiar one. The son of immigrants, Ralph Lifshitz grew up in the Bronx and got his start as a designer in 1967 when he began selling neckties from a drawer in the Empire State Building; he called the line Polo. “Ralph Lauren started with a tie,” his son David told Esquire magazine last year. “My mom and my grandmother used to help sew the labels into them, and he would take these ties and go door-to-door to department stores, trying to get people to buy them.”

An all-American fashion icon

Ralph Lauren’s first menswear collection soon followed in 1968, with a women’s line debuting in 1971. From the start, the Ralph Lauren brand was imbued with his trademark sporty elegance, as epitomized by the embroidered pony emblem, and his love of Americana: rugged Western influences and a Gatsby-ish East Coast polish both loom large in the Ralph Lauren aesthetic. Having defined the American Dream, the designer then proceeded to sell it back to America; a pioneer in terms of expanding a clothing brand into an entire lifestyle, he added a home collection way back in 1983. Throughout, there was no better personification of the Ralph Lauren brand than Ralph Lauren himself: tan, smiling, and as dapper in denim as he was in black tie.

The end of preppy?

A roll call of Ralph Lauren highlights might include: Diane Keaton in a Ralph Lauren jacket and tie in the 1977 movie Annie Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow accepting an Oscar in 1999 in a pink princess dress by the designer, and the Team USA uniforms for various Olympic Games (2008 onwards). More than anything else, however, the brand is associated with preppy — the blazers, polo shirts and other country-club classics beloved by America’s WASPs. And by 2016, its appeal — or at least Ralph Lauren’s interpretation of it — was fading, unable to compete with the twin lures of fast fashion and the athleisure trend. The designer stepped down as chief executive of his namesake label in 2015, and, with sales on the slide, the brand was duly deemed to be “struggling.”

The return of Ralph

By happy coincidence, the documentary press announcement coincided with a good week in the world of Ralph Lauren, as Ralph Lauren Corp. reported a welcome rise in revenues for the first quarter of 2020. And the brand feels like it’s having a moment again. In November 2018, a much-hyped collaboration with streetwear brand Palace put it back on the agenda; at the beginning of August, the brand’s tie-dye tee, as seen on the likes of Gigi Hadid, made it into Lyst’s quarterly report of the hottest products in fashion. Teen entrepreneurs sell reworked Ralph Lauren classics on the fashion marketplace Depop. Even preppy itself is enjoying a revival, with young brands like Rowing Blazers embracing the look. 

So: grab your cable knit sweater and your old Polo tee, and make a date with your TV set for November 12th.

Susannah Cohen is a fashion journalist, e-commerce editor (specialist subjects: lingerie and diamonds) and Jewish mom. Recently relocated from London to the West Coast, she’s feeling a lot more spiritual these days.