It Ain't Ralph, Though

This November marks the 50th anniversary of Ralph Lauren’s juggernaut clothing, home, and lifestyle brand, Polo. What began as a little tie business known making for napkin-sized neckwear out of upholstery fabrics has evolved into one of the most successful, influential, and lasting fashion brands of all time. And so, to commemorate this milestone, Abrams Books has published a coffee table sized illustrated biography of Ralph for this auspicious anniversary, Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion, penned by none other than menswear guru Alan Flusser.

Unfortunately, there’s little new here. In the introduction Flusser mentions that he’s been working on this book for twelve years, which led me to believe this tome would break some new ground. Instead, I found that many of the most informative quotes were warmed over from previous biographical efforts, and that the personal lives of the creative center of the company, Ralph and Ricky, remain largely absent. We do get some delightful anecdotes about young Ralph Lifshitz as a plucky Bronx Jew, roguishly flouting fashion norms before transforming himself into the ne plus ultra WASP–but these stories are annoyingly sprinkled with intimations of “destiny” that read less like the analysis of a serious biographer and more like the hackneyed compliments of a sycophant. Ralph doesn’t need anybody to polish his riding boots; he’s a got a whole staff for that.

Flusser estimates Ralph’s accomplishments breathlessly. Words like “best,” “most,” “always,” and “every” stud the text like seeds of caraway on a Polo Bar pastrami sandwich. In the introduction, he describes the man as “the foremost ambassador of the American dream … [whose] personal attire became the driving force of his evolving ambition.” To further bolster a figure who has already reached a near mythic status, Flusser draws on interviews with longtime Polo employees, who frequently and blandly describe Ralph as a genius. However, one early hire, Jefferey Bank, offers a more complex account of what it was like to work for him when the company was just starting out:

“…The hours could be interminable. It was your life, you subjugated everything to it, and it could be intense. On an up note, Ralph has a wonderful sense of humor, and when he laughs you feel the sun shining down on you. Nevertheless, when he’s disappointed or frustrated, the temperature can drop very quickly, it can get rough. We’d be stuck in these late-night design meetings where Ralph would go back and forth, trying to decide the exact right shade of navy for the next collection. By the time it was over, all you could do was drag yourself home and get into bed.”

These interesting moments, when we see how it might have been difficult–even unpleasant–to work for such a demanding figure are largely overshadowed by a hagiographic arc. We just bounce from success to success, with little mention of commercial failure or business troubles. (RIP Rugby. RIP Stefan Larson.)

Alongside Flusser’s flustered prose are lavishly printed photographs of Ralph, Ricky, and all those beautiful clothes. We get a peek into their five outlandishly luxurious homes, the Polo headquarters, and an overlong catalogue of Ralph’s automobiles. The photographs help convey the world-building abilities of the Polo brand (which remain unmatched in contemporary fashion), but I found myself wishing Flusser had more critically interrogated some of the highlighted collections–like the safari and New Mexico series, which, to my jaundiced millennial eye, traffic in colonial fantasies. And while Flusser gives Ralph credit for being an early adopter of black models, like Tyson Beckford, he totally ignores Polo’s most devoted following, Lo-heads, a subculture of Polo-obsessives who are mostly lower income people of color.

As I see it, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who love Polo beyond reason, like Kanye, “It ain’t Ralph, though!” and those who have outgrown it, like Andre 3000. “So hard to wear Polo / When I do, I cut the pony off. / Now there’s a hole that once was a logo.” If you’re a diehard Polo fan, you’ve likely already ordered this book, with a special place of honor saved on your Polo coffee table next to your Polo glassware. But if you’re not a true believer, save yourself the cost of this biography ($50.00) and buy yourself a few drinks at the Polo bar instead.

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