It's Ralph's world

By John Brodie, Fortune assistant managing editor

A few weeks later the fur department was moved, and Lauren joined Klein and Karan on the fashionable third floor. Lauren the man is a bit of a paradox. He may enjoy living on the patrician side of the street - especially now that his holdings in the company are worth more than $3.4 billion - but he is not embarrassed about where he came from.

On a Kodachrome-worthy Saturday afternoon this summer, he was shooting hoops on his 285-acre Katonah estate - not playing croquet as you might imagine. Frank Sinatra's version of "I Got Plenty of Nothing" echoed from speakers hidden behind rocks. He had arrived late Friday night from his New York City office. While he slept in, the gardeners kept busy removing the deer barricades from around the flowerbeds, so that the vista from Lauren's bedroom window would be aesthetically pleasing when he woke up - a tiny detail in a perfectly art-directed existence.

When Lauren bought this house in 1988, it was a white elephant that Robert Ludlow Fowler Jr., a banker turned landscape architect, had built in the 1920s. Polo's creative team descended and transformed it into their boss's Platonic ideal of aristocratic country life, down to the first edition books in the library and the Wellie boots in the mudroom.

The stables have become a climate-controlled garage for cars from his extensive collection. Today the Matchbox assortment features a 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gull Wing Coupe and a 1965 Aston Martin DB5 Volante (James Bond's ride in "Goldfinger"). But Lauren maintains he's "no Richie Rich."

In fact, his moves on the basketball court are straight out of a Bronx schoolyard - scrappy. The chitchat is not about horse breeding but about bygone New York City Haberdashers - Roland Meledandri, who made the tux Lauren got married in and was an early supporter of his tie business. Or Morty Sills, tailor to the CEOs, made famous in Wall Street (Michael Douglas to Charlie Sheen: "Go to Morty Sills. Tell him I sent you"), who never gave young Ralph a discount. Lauren's body is still trim - the product of working out four times a week, eating well, and drinking seldom. (He fully recovered from an operation in 1987 to remove a benign brain tumor.) And as he hits a shot from outside the key, he says, "I didn't play finance as a kid. I played basketball."

Growing up as the youngest of Frank and Frieda Lifshitz's four children, Lauren didn't know what a fashion designer was. He wanted to be either a movie star or a ballplayer. (Indeed, the numbers 3, 4, 5, and 7 that grace the sleeves of his latest Big Pony shirts are the numbers from the Yankee uniforms of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.) His first memories of having a fashion aesthetic revolved around noticing details on clothes - the stitching on a pair of penny loafers or the tweed jacket that one of his teachers at DeWitt Clinton High School wore. The first car he bought was tweedy and English - a 1961 Morgan. "There is something exciting about buying something you have to save for, as opposed to people who have had these things all their lives. There is more of a discerning taste that you develop," he says of how his modest beginnings informed his sensibility.

After attending Baruch College and spending two years in the Army, he went to work as a salesman at Brooks Brothers and then worked for several tie companies. He launched his own line in 1967 with one item of clothing for sale - a fat necktie that retailed for $7.50 when the going rate was $2.50.

Lauren's social life is a bit of a paradox too. Despite being the public face of the brand, he avoids the social whirl. He's happy to stay home at his Fifth Avenue duplex overlooking Central Park to watch the Yankees or the Knicks on TV. He does not like small talk and prefers to spend time with his family. The Laurens have three children: Andrew, 38, is a film producer; David, 36, works a floor below his father overseeing Polo's branding and new media; daughter Dylan, 33, runs Dylan's Candy Bar - an upscale confection shop that has become a tourist attraction across the street from Bloomingdale's.

Ralph's brother, Jerry Lauren, who was the first member of the family to change his name from Lifshitz (the runner-up choice was London), oversees men's design at the company. Since his kids were small, Ralph has been aware of their likes and dislikes ("I knew who the Cookie Monster was," he says). Similarly, it is not uncommon for him to turn to interns during a large meeting and ask their opinions. It is one of the ways he stays tuned in. Sometimes he listens to the peanut gallery, and sometimes he just humors them, like the time his son Andrew, then 22, announced he wanted to buy an Armani suit.

"I said to him, 'I know what you like about it. Do you want me to make you one like it?' " remembers Lauren. Andrew stood his ground and went out and bought an Armani suit. "The worst thing I could have done is to have told him, 'No, don't wear that suit in the house.' ''

At times he tries to please the kids; David Lauren remembers a moment in the 1990s when his dad moved Polo's look away from safari camps and English country houses to a sleeker, more modern aesthetic. Dreadlocks and bracelets appeared on the models and hooded sweatshirts peered out from beneath tweed jackets: "When my friends and I used to walk into the store on 72nd Street," David recalls, "there was a feeling that this was for an older person. But my dad said, 'Okay, watch, I can make Polo really hip to you. Someplace that you and your friends will want to shop. I'm not just about mahogany paneling.' "

David, a Duke University graduate, is now Polo's senior vice president of advertising, marketing, and corporate communications. The website, which is Polo's bestselling retail store, is one of his home runs. David and his father are close. "We are a family of best friends," he says of the way that the Laurens frequently vacation or spend weekends together.

Another confidant of Lauren's is the architect Charles Gwathmey. They go running together, talk about design, and agree to disagree about aesthetics. "I'm a modern architect. I still dress like a 1960s Ivy League guy. I love tweed jackets. I wear flannel pants, which is totally consistent with Ralph's ethic. When we talk about architecture, he doesn't understand how I can dress like I do and defend modernism as passionately as I do. And we have great debates," says Gwathmey. "Some people find it difficult to deal with the unknown, and as an architect the unknown is the thing you try to discover. That's my obligation, but he doesn't think that way."

The unknown for Polo is succession and what Ralph's legacy will be. Lauren will not comment formally on the issue, other than to say that there are 200 designers at the company who understand his DNA and he has a seasoned management team.

However, he can't help but mention his son when the issue comes up. "My son David is certainly learning the business," he says. "He's not a fashion designer, but he's a very creative person who's in charge of all our advertising and PR, and I think he's finding his way. As he learns more about the company, we'll determine what his input is going to be going forward."

When asked to assess what Polo Ralph Lauren might look like in another 40 years, industry veterans and analysts think its classical orientation gives it the potential to become a brand that outlives its founder, yet contains some of his personality the way that Chanel reflects a vision that its founder would recognize. And Lauren, who has lately been nudging his three unmarried children about his desire to be a grandfather, would definitely like there to be a Lauren at Polo long after he's gone.

Some years ago, on the night that he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Audrey Hepburn presented him with the award, fashion's highest honor, at a glittering event at New York's Lincoln Center. Most designers would have thrown a lavish after-party where friends and sycophants alike could come to pay homage. Fittingly, Lauren didn't do that. Instead he and his brother and their respective families piled into a limousine and rode a few blocks away to an ice-cream parlor. There the family, dressed in ball gowns and black tie, sat and ate hot-fudge sundaes. It is the kind of image that one would expect to see in an ad ... for Polo. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.