Ralph Lauren University

Ralph Lauren University

Ralph Lauren University

Some of the biggest names in menswear have one thing in common—they all called Ralph Lauren boss. So what does the living legend teach his students?

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There are many great American designers. But maybe none quite as great or quite as American as Ralph Lauren. After all, the story of Ralph Lauren—both the man and the brand—is one of the great American success stories. How the son of two immigrants became a self-made billionaire through hard work and sheer ingenuity. A man who, without formal design training, went on to become one of the world's most successful designers. "I never went to fashion school, but I had a passion for something that I felt inside of me that I was able to express through clothes," Ralph Lauren wrote in his eponymous book. "I was going to college at night and went to work for a well-respected tie company. They gave me a drawer to work out of in the Empire State Building." From that drawer, he launched the Polo label in 1967. Years later, in an interview with The New York Times, he said he used the name Polo because it "had that vaguely English sense to it." It was clear to him, even back then, that fashion was nothing without a story to go along with it.

The man, the myth, the legend: Ralph Lauren

Considered one the first true lifestyle brands, Ralph Lauren is not known for a single signature look, but rather for his stylish interpretation of the American dream. Polished but rustic, at once casual and tailored. The look that he created has come to epitomize American style over the last few decades. And over the years, the RL brand developed sub-labels to better serve that lifestyle. Polo Sport, high-end Purple and Black labels, a rough-and-tumble RRL and younger, more affordable brands like Rugby, just to name a few.

An empire in the truest sense of the word, the Ralph Lauren brand is a big, sweeping company that attracts some of the best and the brightest in the industry. So it's not surprising that some of menswear's top design talents spent their formative years learning the ropes from within the elegant, wood-paneled halls of Ralph Lauren headquarters. It's become a rite of passage. A training ground for those looking to do phenomenal work. It's even garnered a nickname with industry insiders. Dubbed "Ralph Lauren University" or "Polo U," the alumni list reads like a roster of the men responsible for America's resurgence in menswear over the last few years. Valet. tracked down more than a dozen prestigious graduates to talk about the best and worst parts about working for a man like Ralph Lauren and other lessons learned from that hallowed alma mater.

The Graduating Class

What other big names graced the halls? Thom Browe, Nick Wooster, Joseph Abboud, Tory Burch and Vera Wang.

Working with Ralph

Why work at Ralph Lauren?

Synder

He's the king. I would save every penny working in high school and college to buy Polo clothing. I read his first book in the '80s and that's what I wanted to be.

Faherty

It has such a rich history. And as a little kid, my mom would take me into the city every year to buy a new polo shirt with the pony—that love stuck. And really, I wanted to be a great American designer ... so who better to work for starting out?

Mashburn

At the time, I had quite a bit of reign as a Design Director for J.Crew. It was an enviable position—laying down the DNA for the future of the brand. It would have been very easy to keep on doing what I was doing. But, going to work at RL was like going to play for the Yankees—it was the top.

Bastian

Ciongoli

It's definitely like a kid wanting to play for their favorite sports team.

For me, it was the Rugby brand. I'll never forget the first time I walked into their Greenwich Avenue store. Blazer striped shaggy shetland sweaters and chambray button downs. Ivy tweeds, and beat up jeans. The kind of old school collegiate clothes my father wore mixed with the subversively slim and short tailored silhouette I was seeing downtown. I remember thinking, "How'd these guys get a hold of my portfolio?" It just made sense.

Bastian's employee ID

Carleton

I shared Ralph's love for Americana. That was natural. And then there was the drive to help build meaning and experience within the brand. We were a diverse group of people working to make one hell of a big movie.

Is there a "Ralph Lauren way" of doing things?

Bastian

I think it all starts with those massive inspiration boards for every project and season. I definitely bought into that one. First thing we bought for the office here was a huge rolling cork board and a million aluminum push pins.

Snyder

They call it "rigging." It's when you style out a room for mood and color using vintage apparel and inspiration photos. I walked into one of those rooms my first week and was blown away. It sets the whole stage for the collection you're about to design.

The all-important inspiration board

Ciongoli

I was consistently in awe of their ability to take a single image and use that as a base to transform an empty room into a vintage filled world brimming with ideas and inspiration. It is a straight forward, concise path for getting from an abstract concept to a final collection. It is hard not to work that way once you have experienced how inspiring a concept rig room can be.

Georgiou

All the great ideas were anchored in some historical or tangible reference. A great shape from a bygone era. Wonderful interpretations of heritage product.

Carleton

Creativity was driven by research and reference and then activated by modern terms and conditions. This is exactly how I approach my work today—it's sort of like being an anthropologist merchant.

Goldstein

Definitely, the "Ralph way" is to pay attention to every detail and constantly push to do things better and make the best product.

Mashburn

No shortcuts. No is not an answer, ever—we were encouraged to push for ideas and practices that were not accepted in the industry at the time (early 90s). For example, wash standards—no one had ever washed caps or boots or belts to look twenty years old from the get-go. At the time it seemed crazy. They were real pioneers in that way.

Favorite part of the job?

Muytjens

Just the fact that you're literally surrounded with good taste. It really gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in American history, icons and culture. To have the opportunity to work on the collection and see it come together is like being a part of a really good movie set.

Bastian

I got to spend my day creating these amazingly detailed worlds—it was really more like theater design than retail.

Carleton

It was fantastic story telling—writing a narrative that added meaning and context to beautiful products.

I suppose that Ralph helped reveal to me the distinction between 'a job' and something bigger.”

- Alexander Carleton, Filson

Miller

Seeing Ralph work was always fascinating. It was interesting what he would respond to and what he wouldn't. I also liked learning how such a huge company runs from the inside, seeing how the machine functions on a day to day basis. Getting to learn from the real masters of the clothing craft—two of the vets I worked with directly had like a eighty years of experience between them. There's no where else you can get that type of experience. I loved the free breakfasts, too.

Varvatos

The culture and just being able to learn from Ralph himself.

Azzuolo

Working with guys like John Vizzone. And the view from my desk.

Faherty

I was able to travel the world at a young age to work directly with our fabric mills and factories.

Spurr

You work with the best factories and fabric mills in the world. And really, you have no price restrictions when creating a collection.

Hart

They let me have a fish—a bright red Betta named "Flash". It's sounds silly, but I used to keep him in a small bowl on my desk at the RL office, and now he's here on the desk in my studio. He's a real reminder that with hard work and diligence, it's possible to have my own name on the label.

And the hardest part of the job?

Snyder

I worked for John Varvatos while I was there. He was the hardest working person I ever met and it was tough to keep up with him. His work ethic brought me to another level.

Carleton

There was a level of quality and consistency at Ralph Lauren that was a bear to produce. Helping to grow that message at scale was nothing short of difficult. You weren't really allowed to have an "off day". There was a good dose of healthy self discipline that we needed to have. Or learn quickly!

Faherty

Working for the pickiest guys in the world—Ralph, and his brother Jerry. But it's what has made them so successful, that attention to taste and detail.

Bastian

Getting dressed every morning.

Marlow Cordovan wingtip, $995 by Ralph Lauren

Mashburn

It was a daily competition for outfits. This was well before the Sartorialist or being photographed on the street, and all the creatives dressing very creatively were really just doing so because they liked it. But on a more serious note, Ralph and Jerry and the team demanded real excellence and the very best from us. It required a lot of hours and total commitment—not a job for the faint of heart.

Ciongoli

For me, it was being bound by a single product category. I always knew I wanted to tell a complete story, not solely a single element of one.

What's a lasting memory or lesson that's stayed with you over the years?

Miller

I remember a walk through with Ralph and he randomly picked up a pair of corduroys and hated the quality of the goods. He started ripping into people about keeping the quality up. It was at that meeting that I had a revelation—that he, literally RL the man himself—is responsible for keeping the quality up and that is why his company is still standing while everyone else has sold out or gone out of business. I also learned a lot about how the finance arm of a creative business is usually at odds with the creative aspect, particularly after it has to answer to shareholders.

Ciongoli

My former boss (and longtime mentor) John Yang taught me that, more than anything, great clothing has a clear purpose, context and sense of history. I remember, shortly after I started, a time when he asked me to design a field jacket. After about an hour of furious drawing, erasing and repeating, I presented him with something I thought looked very cool. We sat down together to review it and the first words out of his mouth were "This is a mess." Incredulous, I asked why. "Because what you've drawn comes from nowhere and everywhere at once. The silhouette is obviously based on an L.L. Bean hunting coat, but it's belted like an international jacket. You reference an M-65 with the collar shape, but it has the pockets of an M-43. You need to really understand and respect all of these garments and why they were created before you start throwing them all together haphazardly."

A field jacket by Rugby

Georgiou

He definitely taught me that disrupting the process often resulted in a better collection.

Spurr

One thing that really stuck with me was RL's focus and attention on building the brand. Designing and manicuring each individual collection each season was important to RL and to us as the design team, but it was the over arching concept of building brand consistency that stuck with me after I left the company. At the time, much of what we did seemed to be so tightly woven into a sort of RL formula, and at times appeared to be a little repetitive. But it was only later that I realized that it is this regimented consistency that has defined RL as one of the greatest icons in men's fashion and that has significantly contributed to building one of the most powerful and internationally recognized brands in the world.

Distressed 1960s-inspired jeans,
$450 by RRL

Goldstein

As we were starting RRL, we talked about how we needed to make a very authentic looking jean. One that you couldn't tell apart from a true vintage jean. I spent months working on a stone washing process in our lab in North Carolina and our production facility in Texas. We developed a double tinting and washing process that produced impressive results. I made a bunch of jeans in different fabrics using this process and was so excited to show them to the team back in New York. We all reviewed them and thought they were great—ready to show Ralph. I was 23 years old at this point. We rigged the room with mannequins fully dressed. We put a few in our new jeans and a few in vintage. Once we were ready, I called in Ralph. He looked around and was impressed. He commended me on the work and it was clear we were all happy with the results. But a few weeks later, I got a phone call from Ralph's office. He wanted to see me in the showroom. When I went into the room, there were a bunch of jeans on the floor and Ralph simply said, "We can't launch a new denim line with these. The jeans just don't look authentic. You can do better Eric." I was devastated and not sure what to do. After much thought, I ended up in an old dry cleaning facility in Kansas City, where we processed leather in the past. I had the idea of running denim jeans in a dry cleaning process to impart color—something that was never done before. After many tests and hundreds of jeans later, I had a few that I felt were nice enough to show to Ralph. Once again, I set up the showroom with the new jeans and called him in. He loved it, really loved it this time and a few weeks later, he called me back to his office and said he wanted to patent the process. He felt strongly that we needed to own it and protect it. Well, it's now registered with the US government as patent #5,653,770.

Carleton

I had an inspiring get together with Ralph in his office on a cold, wintry evening on Madison Avenue. His warmth and honesty about what he loves is just incredible. He invited me to explore his amazing collection of unique objects, art and curiosities while sharing with me their backgrounds. I realized then that the source of his narrative is based on an authentic connection. His love for history, stories, people and travel is so real. It's like his life's work is a montage of his internal passions. His business is the by-product of who he is. Once you engage your inspiration, it becomes an incredible source of motivation. Your work becomes an extension of what you love. I suppose that Ralph helped reveal to me the distinction between "a job" and something bigger.

Can the Legacy Continue?

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Last month, Ralph Lauren turned 76 and also announced that he would be ceding the role of chief executive at his company, a role he'd held for nearly 50 years. Headlines rang out with "end of an era" cries, but the next day he clarified his position with an urgent message for his employees: "I am not stepping down, nor am I stepping back," asserted Lauren, who retains roles as executive chairman and chief creative officer. "My passion for beauty, for authenticity, and for creating timeless, classic products that people all over the world want as a part of their lives is what drives me today as much as ever before. As always, each of you plays a role in bringing these dreams to life. Your creativity, hard work and loyalty have always inspired me, and I am excited to continue working with you as we move forward." So, it sounds like there's still plenty of lessons to learn from the old guy. And there's no doubt that the fortunate young men and women currently matriculating at Polo U are taking notes.      

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