How a Poor Boy From the Bronx Built a Multi-Billion-Dollar Fashion Empire

Fashion designer Ralph Lauren, 75,  announced on Tuesday that he will be stepping down as CEO from the clothing empire he created — Polo Ralph Lauren.

Lauren, who has an estimated net worth of $6 billion, will remain with the company as the executive chairman and chief creative officer, according to Business Insider. Stefan Larsson, a former H&M executive and the current president of Old Navy, will be filling Lauren’s role in the company.

The self-made fashion legend has come a long way since his humble beginnings. Lauren, whose birth name was Ralph Lipschitz, grew up in poverty living in the Bronx. He is the youngest son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents and changed his name after he was endlessly teased and bullied as a child. In his younger days, Lauren escaped his reality by living vicariously through fictional characters in movies.

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Michael Gross, the author of “Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren,” relayed to Bloomberg:

“He would literally fall into the fantasies of the movies of that era.

“He truly did not project himself into the scenes in which men like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant were playing. He sees the characters that populate his dreams and visions, and that vision–that ability to step into a fantasy world — Ralph brought to the fashion business.”

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After serving for a short time in the military, Lauren returned to New York City and found a job as a clerk at Brooks Brothers. Lauren’s life-changing moment came when he was invited by his friend, Warren Helstein, to his first-ever polo match. Helstein recollected:

“We were exposed to fabulous things. The silver, the leather, the horses, the tall slinky blondes with the big hats, and the high society that we really weren’t knowledgeable of.”

The experience gave Lauren the idea of creating a high-class, chic brand that would come to be known as Polo Ralph Lauren. Lauren set out to build his fashion empire with only a high school diploma and the undying determination to disrupt the fashion industry.

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During a time when plain attire was the standard, Lauren decided to create a collection of colorful neckties that would win over a handful of his admirers, including department store Bloomingdale’s. Within a year he had sold half a million dollars worth of ties.

Lauren kept pushing, however, as his protégé John Varvatos explained to Bloomberg:

“Ralph doesn’t sit on his laurels for one minute. You can enjoy the moment, but you have to keep things going — and you can’t be a one-trick pony.”

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The rising fashion designer told Charlie Rose in 1993 he found inspiration from movies:

“What you thought Cary Grant was wearing, you could not walk into a store and buy. The things that I made you could not buy. You could not find them anywhere.”

Polo Ralph Lauren went public in 1997, but Lauren maintained majority control over the voting power of his company. Though Lauren will no longer be CEO of the brand, he told The New York Times he still is much a part of it:

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“When they start designing things I can’t understand, I’ll quit. But I don’t feel like I’m stepping back now.”

Lauren, who once wrote in his 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook that being a millionaire was one of his goals in life, can now enjoy the success of an empire he spent a lifetime building.

Lauren can now retire at one of his many homes in Jamaica, Long Island, Manhattan, Bedford or his 17,000-acre ranch in Colorado. He is also the proud owner of a priceless car collection believed to be worth $200 million. Lauren told Architectural Digest:

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“Others collect art, but for me owning a rare and magnificently designed car offers a different kind of experience. In the end you can enjoy both the beauty of the machine and the journey it takes you on.”

Images via Instagram
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