FROM THE BRONX TO
BUCKINGHAM
PALACE

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FROM THE BRONX TO
BUCKINGHAM
PALACE

ON THE OCCASION OF RALPH LAUREN'S HONORARY KNIGHTHOOD,
A LOOK BACK AT HOW ENGLAND HAS SHAPED
THE WORLD OF RALPH LAUREN— AND VICE VERSA
 

The year: 1967. The place: New York City. The man: a 27-year-old dreamer from the Bronx named Ralph Lauren, who had a vision for a new kind of necktie. It was inspired by a style then gaining traction over in London that was wider, more colorful, and more expressive than the skinny, muted neckwear popular back home in NYC. “It was after the mod revolution in England, where people were wearing really funky-looking wide ties and things like that,” Ralph said of the moment. “My ties were elegant but unusual.”

“The world just isn’t ready for Ralph Lauren,” he was told. But he persevered, and soon enough, the world was ready, and the ties became a sensation. From there came a full men’s collection, followed by women’s, children’s, and home, plus countless other expansions and innovations, all informed by that initial vision. More than a half-century later, on June 19, 2019, the kid from the Bronx with big dreams found himself in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in which His Royal Highness Prince Charles presented him with the medal signifying his new title: Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a first for an American fashion designer.

Ralph Lauren

The ceremony marked the culmination of a long-standing mutual admiration between the iconic American designer and America’s most steadfast ally. “I’ve always loved England because it was non-fashion,” Ralph has said. “It was timeless. It was not about what was the latest new sleekness. It was about weathering and those things that get better with age.”

Ralph Lauren

And while Ralph has often drawn inspiration from across the Atlantic, he always filtered English style through a distinctly American lens.

Consider his signature look from the ’70s: a classic English tweed jacket, paired with faded blue jeans and cowboy boots.

If the late-’60s British youth culture was about taking American rock ’n’ roll and making it their own, Ralph offered up his take on the reverse—reimagining the best of British style according to his own vision.

 

By the dawn of the ’80s, Ralph had gone from upstart entrepreneur to household name, and in 1981 he opened a Polo store on London’s storied New Bond Street—the first freestanding store in Europe from an American designer. As one editor later put it, Ralph was “the first American designer to seize the potential for the American look in Europe.” Not that he had any qualms about adopting the British look: In a photograph from later that year, Ralph was pictured in a Fair Isle sweater under a double-breasted tweed suit with Wellington-style rain boots.

Ralph would revisit and expand upon that sensibility with his Fall 1984 England collection, whose campaign was shot on location in England. Wading boots and Fair Isle were clearly on the designer’s mind, an image of a man carrying a fishing rod and walking with a big hound felt distinctly RL, mixing a transportive vision with a love of purpose-built clothes that were made to be worn, and lived in. By the following spring, his Equestrian collection incorporated a more formal manner of English dressing, replete with jodhpurs, derby hats, and other expressions of British heritage. The subsequent campaign reinforced the connection between the American designer and the country that inspired him. “It was like his own Masterpiece Theater,” recalled the late Sandy Carlson, then a creative director at Ralph Lauren.

Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren

In the early ’90s,
Ralph took a trip
to Savile Row.

“I went to a tailor I had in London and asked him to make me a suit with a clean, structured shape,” Ralph recalled. “I brought the suit back to New York. People said, ‘Hey, great suit!’—and I said, ‘This is what I want to make next.’” What came next was Ralph Lauren Purple Label, a line of finely tailored suiting and accessories, with Ralph himself starring in the ad campaign. (A quarter-century later, the line still takes inspiration from England, with its tailoring largely handcrafted from exclusive fabrics sourced from England’s finest mills.)

Ralph Lauren

Philanthropy has played a major role in Ralph’s relationship with England over the years, and in 1996, he partnered with Breakthrough Breast Cancer (today known as Breast Cancer Now) to bring his Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign to the UK. That same year, he was presented with the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research’s first Humanitarian Award by Princess Diana. The two became fast friends, and Ralph reportedly made an impression by wearing his trademark denim when meeting her at the Connaught hotel. “I didn’t think they allowed jeans in here,” the princess of Wales told him. “I know the right people,” Ralph joked back.

Ralph Lauren

That same year, Ralph walked by a London car showroom window when something caught his eye. That something was a silver McLaren F1. He bought the car then and there—even though the model wasn’t yet authorized for import into the United States. The moment not only led to a longtime love affair with McLarens—he now owns three—and the car’s innovative carbon fiber construction even served as inspiration for the iconic CF-1 chair. The McLarens are a few among many British cars in Ralph’s renowned collection, which also includes a 1929 Blower Bentley, a 1956 Jaguar XKSS (the same model driven by Steve McQueen), and several Morgans and Aston Martins.

Ralph Lauren

In 2006, Ralph Lauren became the first-ever official outfitter of that most British of sporting events, Wimbledon.

Such notable Britons as David Beckham are regularly spotted wearing Ralph Lauren to the tournament (Becks also wore RL to the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton).

In 2012, models for Ralph Lauren’s Fall Collection walked out to a familiar tune: the theme from Downton Abbey. The collection that followed suit was full of tweeds and tartans suitable for an evening at Highclere Castle. And later that year, in October, he hosted a runway show at the castle itself.

Ralph Lauren

In 2014, Ralph partnered with The Royal Marsden, the largest cancer center in Europe, to open the Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research, a world-class research facility. Ralph was honored with a dinner at Windsor Castle, hosted by Prince William in the castle’s grandest dining room, St. George’s Hall. (Like his mother before him, Prince William serves as The Royal Marsden’s president.) The following year, Ralph was honored with another royal dinner at Althorp, Princess Diana’s family’s estate for more than 500 years. Along with Ralph’s son, Andrew Lauren, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, cohosted the event, which honored the 15th anniversary of Pink Pony and included a fashion presentation.

By 2017, those not to the manor born could enjoy a bite at Ralph’s Coffee & Bar on Regent Street, next to the Polo flagship store opened at the same time.

Much like The Polo Bar, which opened in NYC in 2015, the restaurant embodied London club style filtered through Ralph’s American vision—it’s the kind of place that serves both traditional afternoon tea and a New England–style lobster roll.

Ralph Lauren

And then in November 2018, perhaps the highest of high points: Ralph was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or KBE, the greatest honor the kingdom awards to non-Britons. It’s a recognition of Ralph’s extraordinary contribution to British life over his career, celebrating his impact on the worlds of fashion, business, and philanthropy. His company employs thousands of Britons, and supports still more in the textile and fashion industry, while Ralph himself has raised more than $2 million for the fight against cancer in the UK.

 

While Ralph has always found inspiration in the present moment, his aim has always been to create something that lasts—whether that something is an ad campaign, a philanthropic institution, or, of course, the clothing itself. It all comes down to the British principle of timelessness. “Europeans have a true appreciation for heritage and tradition,” he says. “Especially the English. In America, if you discover a hole in a sweater, you throw it out. In England you pass it on to your child.”

PAUL L. UNDERWOOD is a former editor at Ralph Lauren. He is based in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Ralph Lauren

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