Ralph Lauren’s Rags-to-Riches Story

4 minute read

In the 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook, Ralph Lauren wrote “millionaire” as one of his life goals.

Today, he has an estimated net worth of $7 billion, according to Forbes, after netting billions with his iconic brand Polo Ralph Lauren.

Long before he became a fashion icon, he was Ralph Lipschitz, the youngest son of Jewish immigrant parents living in the Bronx.

Growing up, he learned to escape his family’s poverty by going to the movies and immersing himself in the fictional plot lines.

“He would literally fall into the fantasies of the movies of that era,” Michael Gross, author of Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren, told Bloomberg. “He truly did 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.”

He further detached from his humble origins in his late teens when he chose to change his name from Lipschitz to Lauren after enduring years of teasing and bullying.

Later, after a short stint in the army, Lauren moved back to New York City and started working as a clerk at Brooks Brothers.

Then a transformative experience — his first polo match — helped to shape his perspective and activate his entrepreneurial spirit. “We were exposed to fabulous things,” recalled Warren Helstein, the friend that took him to the polo match. “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 event inspired him to start developing a high-class, elegant brand, which would eventually become Polo Ralph Lauren.

Having only a high school diploma and a few business classes under his belt, the decision to start his own company was the first of many risks Lauren would take in his legendary career.

The next was designing wide, colorful neckties at a time when narrow and plain was the norm.

The radical approach won over Bloomingdale’s — and loads of customers. He sold $500,000 worth of ties in one year.

Despite such quick success, Lauren relentlessly expanded his company. “Ralph doesn’t sit on his laurels for one minute,” Lauren’s protégé John Varvatos told Bloomberg. “You can enjoy the moment, but you have to keep things going — and you can’t be a one-trick pony.”

When it came to new design ideas, Lauren kept it simple. He envisioned clothing that he would want to wear, clothing fit for a movie star.

“What you thought Cary Grant was wearing, you could not walk into a store and buy,” he told Charlie Rose in 1993. “The things that I made, you could not buy. You could not find them anywhere.”

Lauren took the company public in 1997 — a decision he grappled with, unsure if he wanted shareholders and a board in the picture — but still controls 81.5% of the voting power.

The wide-eyed kid who dreamed of becoming a millionaire now, at age 75, enjoys the spoils of his success, with homes in Jamaica, Long Island, Bedford, and Manhattan, as well as a 17,000-acre ranch in Colorado.

He also boasts one of the world’s most valuable car collections. “Others collect art, but for me owning a rare and magnificently designed car offers a different kind of experience,” he told Architectural Digest. “In the end you can enjoy both the beauty of the machine and the journey it takes you on.”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider

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    Robert Redford In 'The Great Gatsby'
    Robert Redford, wearing a Ralph Lauren suit, leaning against luxurious car in a scene from the film The Great Gatsby, 1974. Paramount/Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Princess Diana
    Princess Diana is escorted by fashion designer Ralph Lauren during an event at the National Building Museum on Sept. 24, 1996 in Washington.Richard Ellis—Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Annie Hall
    Diane Keaton, wearing Ralph Lauren's design, and Woody Allen in the 1997 film, Annie Hall.United Artists
    71st Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
    Gwyneth Paltrow at the 71st Academy Awards on March 21, 1999 in Los Angeles.Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Kanye West
    Kanye West wearing the Polo Bear sweater on Jan. 19, 2004 at Park City, Utah .Mychal Watts—WireImage/Getty Images
    Polo Ralph Lauren Legends Tennis Clinic With Venus Williams
    Venus Williams, wearing Ralph Lauren, at the 2010 U.S. Open on Aug. 26, 2010 in New York City.Joe Kohen—WireImage
    Ralph Lauren - Dwayne Wade
    Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union at the Bridgehampton Polo closing day on Aug. 28, 2010 in Bridgehampton, NY.Eugene Gologursky—WireImage/Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Oprah Winfrey
    Ralph Lauren and Oprah Winfrey at an evening with Ralph Lauren presented at Lincoln Center on Oct. 24, 2011 in New York City. Larry Busacca—Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Leonardo Dicaprio
    Leonardo Dicaprio wearing a white Ralph Lauren Polo shirt in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street.Paramount Pictures
    Ralph Lauren - Johnny Depp
    Johnny Depp wearing a Ralph Lauren designed outfit at the world premiere of The Lone Ranger on June 22, 2013 in Anaheim, Calif.Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
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    (L-R)Figure Skating Oympic Athlete Evan Lysacek, Ice Hockey Oympic Athlete Julie Chu, Ice Dancers Oympic Athlete Meryl Davis and Charlie White model the Olympic closing ceremony outfits by Ralph Lauren on Oct. 29, 2013 in New York City.Mike Stobe—Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Taylor Swift
    Taylor Swift wearing a Ralph Lauren dress at the 2013 People's Choice Awards on Jan. 9, 2013 in Los Angeles.Jon Kopaloff—FilmMagic/Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Lupita Nyong'o
    Lupita Nyong'o attends the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 12, 2014 in Los Angeles.George Pimentel—WireImage/Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Emma Watson
    Emma Watson at The Royal Marsden dinner on May 13, 214 in Windsor, England.Chris Jackson—Getty Images
    Ralph Lauren - Spring 2015
    A projection on water at the Polo Ralph Lauren Spring Summer 2015 fashion show during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 8, 2014 in New York City.Getty Images

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