How Ralph Lauren created an American fashion icon

By Zoe Thomas
BBC News, New York

media captionRalph Lauren: Five decades of signature styles

In fashion, few trends last long but Ralph Lauren's designs have made his brand an icon.

The designer, who has stepped down as head of the company he founded, is best known for the colourful collared shirts and knit sweaters that became part of the classic American wardrobe.

Mr Lauren, who turns 76 in October, has turned the company that bears his name into a $7.5bn (£5bn) business. He will stay on as chief designer.

He has said his style is modelled after the clothing worn at America's Ivy League colleges.

In his biography he wrote: "I loved the oldness, the custom mood of navy blazers, school crests, rep ties, flannels, and saddle shoes."

To make his label global he translated a style often favoured by older white men into a look for everyone.

image copyrightReuters
image captionRalph Lauren began his fashion career making ties - something the company still makes today

It was his 1989 knit sweater featuring a US flag that accomplished this. The sweater would become a top seller and the American flag featuring his initials instead of stars was used as the company's logo for a range of products.

Ten years later he doubled down on his reverence for the American flag, donating $13m (£8.5m) to a Smithsonian museum to help preserve the flag that inspired the country's national anthem.

Mr Lauren counts several of America's biggest celebrities among his friends. Kanye West in particular has established a close relationship with the designer and helped make the label popular among the hip hop star's legions of fans.

Having celebrities wear his styles off and on the red carpet also helped make the brand cool. Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow and Taylor Swift are all fans.

Though many associate the Polo Ralph Lauren brand with the cotton collared shirts featuring a pony mounted, mallet-swinging player, Mr Lauren began the Polo brand with ties.

The ties were sold successfully at New York department store Bloomingdales encouraging him to release a full menswear line a year later.

In 1971 he followed up with a line of tailored suits for women and soon after released his iconic, colourful, short-sleeved polo shirts that would become the brand's signature look.

image copyrightAP
image captionThe designer company is now worth billions

The first Polo Ralph Lauren store opened in Beverly Hills, California, in 1971 and the first international location opened in London's West End in 1981.

Despite being known for his luxury designs, Mr Lauren came from humble beginnings.

Born in the Bronx, New York to Jewish parents, he changed his name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren at 16.

The young Lauren did not start out with any ambition to be a fashion designer. He was working for Brooks Brothers as a salesman when the desire to create his own line of neck-ties struck.

In its 48-year history, the company has gone far beyond runway fashion.

Mr Lauren opened RL Restaurant in Chicago in 1999, followed by ones in Paris and New York. The Ralph Lauren Company includes home goods and fragrance brands.

As a designer he has also embraced sports. The company has sponsored and designed outfits worn by golfers, tennis players and Olympians.

image copyrightAP
image captionRalph Lauren hands over to newly-announced chief executive Stefan Larsson

Polo Ralph Lauren was the first label to sponsor Wimbledon in 2006. The brand redesigned the uniforms worn by the ball boys and girls and the judges.

The brand also designed the Team USA uniforms for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

These events have enabled the brand to represent the American look on a world stage and incorporate some of the preppy design elements Polo Ralph Lauren is known for.

As the icon prepares to step down as CEO, questions circulate about the impact his successor Stefan Larsson will have.

Mr Larsson is known for increasing sales at low-end retailers Old Navy and H&M.

And with the luxury industry struggling, shareholders have welcomed his appointment.

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