Ralph Lauren turns 76 on Wednesday. You have to imagine that birthday played some part in the man who was born with the name Ralph Lifschitz announcing he would no longer serve as CEO of his eponymous company and hand the reins of the Polo pony over to Old Navy exec Stefan Larsson. While Lauren said in a letter to employees after the announcement, “I am not stepping down, nor am I stepping back. I am stepping up,” it’s hard not to see this as a move towards Ralph Lauren the company having a future without Ralph Lauren the man, much in the same way that Calvin Klein and Donna Karan both moved away from the brands that carried their names.
Ralph Lauren is arguably (although I’m not sure who would argue otherwise) the most important American menswear designer of all time. Even though the company only officially started in 1967 when Lauren began selling a range of ties and really came into its own in the 1970s and 80s, it feels like it has been around much longer than that.
That is because the themes that Lauren tapped into never felt like they were chasing the latest fad. Just about every article ever written about Lauren used the word “classic.” Whether it was inspired by a British aristocrat, New England prep, or Wyoming cowboy, Lauren created pieces that had a timeless quality to them. They embodied a lifestyle that was refined and relaxed in proper proportion, which is a big reason people continue to be attracted to the brand. You could feel like yourself while at the same time feeling better than yourself when you wore Ralph Lauren.
Lauren’s importance resonates across fashion, but he looms particularly large in menswear because of all the ways he helped transform what guys wear and how they think about their clothes. Many things that we take for granted today are the results of seeds that Lauren sowed. And since this time of transition is also a great opportunity to look back, we examined five ways that Ralph Lauren changed menswear.
1. He created American luxury
The United States doesn’t like coming in second to anything. But in the rarefied world of luxury fashion, the U.S. has always taken a backseat to the European houses, some of which have been around for hundreds of years. Less than 20 years after selling his first ties, Lauren had created an American luxury brand that could go toe-to-toe with anything coming out of Paris and Italy. He did it not by merely copying their sensibility (although there was a certain amount of that) but by turning his lens on America’s own version of royalty, be it cowboys or robber barons. Wearing a Ralph Lauren garment, no matter who you were, made a statement about your taste and sophistication in the exact same way that a piece from Hermés or Louis Vuitton does. Those types of comparisons didn’t exist before Ralph.
2. He brought fashion to the streets
One of the greatest things about Ralph Lauren’s creations is how widely embraced they were across segments of society. As beloved as the Polo pony is by preppy bankers, it is equally adored by head-nodding hip-hop dudes. In New York City, the ‘Lo Life crew that emerged in Times Square featured a bunch of guys with a shared affinity for Polo clothes (much of it shoplifted). Today, nearly every important streetwear designer name-checks Ralph in his or her list of influences with good reason. While it wasn’t necessarily by design, Lauren’s clothes were embraced by street culture and the brand did an excellent job of giving a pound back while still remaining true to its own identity. The fact that Kanye West idolizes Ralph Lauren so much (his “It ain’t Ralph though” quote is Internet gold) while designing clothes that look nothing like Polo says a lot about what the brand means to people.
3. He made sportswear about more than sports
When your most famous line is called Polo, it only makes sense that you harness the power of sports and Lauren does that superbly. He has outfitted the U.S. Olympic team, as well as the officials at Wimbledon, thus associating the brand with the more dignified side of sports. And while many may recognize Nacho Figueras as the face of many Polo ad campaigns, few know that he is one of the world’s top polo players. But Lauren’s more important contribution is making sportswear worthy of wearing outside of the sporting arena. The brand’s most famous item is the Polo shirt, which had traditionally just been worn on the tennis court or polo field. Lauren elevated it to something much more. There would be no designer sweatpants today were it not for Lauren’s efforts in pushing sportswear into everyday-wear.
4. He brought the Western to fashion
The Western is the quintessential American film archetype. Lauren brought it to menswear. Most boys grow up wanting to be cowboys and, through his designs, Lauren allowed them to live out that fantasy. He constantly drew inspiration from the American West. The RRL line was named after his expansive ranch in Telluride, Colorado and featured clothes that were similar to what Lauren would wear when he visited. It’s a theme that many designers try to tap into, but few do it as authentically as Lauren.
5. He birthed the next generation of menswear designers
Forget six degrees, you can play “One Degree Of Separation From Ralph Lauren” and land on a who’s who of the top menswear designers today. Todd Snyder, Frank Muyjtens of J.Crew, Thom Browne, Sid Mashburn, and Michael Bastian all cut their teeth at the company before setting out on their own. As a result, menswear is in a better place than it has ever been in history.