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How Ralph Lauren Came Up With His Iconic Polo Brand

3 minute read

Try to find one word to sum up Ralph Lauren’s career in fashion—which will soon no longer include the title CEO, as he steps down from that role at the apparel company he founded—and it’s likely you’ll come up with “Polo.” After all, that’s what his brand is called, and Polo shirts with the polo-rider logo are one of the brand’s most iconic items. When Lauren appeared on the cover of TIME in 1986, it was as “Polo’s Ralph Lauren” and he wore, naturally, a Polo shirt.

But, as that story revealed, the link between his name and those four letters started as something much more tenuous.

Lauren got his start in fashion as a sales clerk at Brooks Brothers and then as a salesman for a necktie company. In the mid-1960s, he brought the company the idea of widening its offerings—literally: his designs were about twice as wide as the typically skinny cravat of the time—and eventually got into the tie business on his own steam. When he needed a name for the label, he wanted something that sounded right for the lifestyle he had admired on movie screens and in the pages of magazines like Esquire. “I couldn’t call it Basketball,” Lauren joked to TIME. So, though he’d never seen the sport played, polo it was.

Those trend-setting wide ties were Lauren’s ticket to the fashion world.

The shirts, which eventually became a profitable staple for the company, came later. As TIME recounted, polo shirts—Lauren’s are spelled with a capital “p” but the generic is not—trace their origins to a polo club in Argentina in the late 19th century, where players found that the traditional gear for the game was just too hot to play it. The rest was history:

In 1920 one of Argentina’s polo stars, Lewis Lacey, opened a sports shop in Buenos Aires, where he sold the shirt embossed with the logo of a player astride a pony. Within a few years moneyed gentry began donning custom-made polo shirts as leisure wear on the French Riviera and at other international watering spots. In 1933 French Tennis Star Rene Lacoste, known as ”le Crocodile” for his snappy style of play, began producing a polo shirt with a crocodile logo on the breast. Lacoste’s garment was first marketed in the U.S. in 1951 under the name of a famous English tailor, Jack Izod. The Izod Lacoste shirt quickly became an American standard. In 1972 Lauren introduced a version featuring his own polo-player motif.

Read the 1986 cover story, here in the TIME Vault: Selling That Sporty Look

See Ralph Lauren's Most Memorable Designs

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
TODAY Show - 100 Days Out Sochi Winter Olympics Event
(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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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com