From Rags to Rio: Business Lessons from Ralph Lauren

During these exciting weeks leading up to the Olympic games, Rio hasn’t been the only place buzzing with preparations.

There’s been a similar buzz in Houston, as the Ralph Lauren crew gets the Team USA outfits for the opening ceremonies.

According To Ralph Lauren:

“It’s almost a herculean effort. You have this minute gymnast who’s maybe 4-foot-8, and then you have a basketball player the size of LeBron James.”

Not that a “herculean effort” is something new to Ralph Lauren.

How fitting that the six hundred athletes who will be marching in the opening ceremonies in hopes of fulfilling their lifelong dreams will be wearing the clothes of a man who knows a thing or two about turning fantasy into reality.

The story of Ralph Lauren, who began his career working out of a drawer in the Empire State Building turning scraps of fabric into designer ties, is one of literal rags to riches.

As he puts it,

“You have to create something from nothing.”

Creating “something from nothing” is exactly what Ralph Lauren, who stated in his high school yearbook that he’d be a millionaire one day, has done. 

Though he has stepped down as CEO, he’s left behind not only a fashion legacy, but a wealth of business savvy.

Here are just nine of the many lessons we can learn from Ralph Lauren. 

1. Recognize What You Love

“It’s about living the best life you can and enjoying the fullness of the life around you—from what you wear, to the way you live, to the way you love.”

~ Ralph Lauren

Born as Ralph Lifshitz, Ralph Lauren, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx. But his imagination took him everywhere, including glamorous fantasy worlds.

By day, he attended a yeshiva. In his spare time, he fed his imagination at the movies. Though he didn’t have any fashion designers as role models, he admired the fashion of movie stars like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant. 

Lauren Bacall was another favorite, and the inspiration for the new name he and his brother took at the age of 16.

In spite of having grown up wearing his brother’s hand me downs, or perhaps because of it, Ralph Lauren grew to love clothes, especially ties, which he sold to his classmates.

Though his ties were more expensive than the average tie, they were high quality and had a distinct style.

It wasn’t long before he had a reputation in the neighborhood.

Willing to do whatever it took to be around clothes, Ralph Lauren got a job in a clothing store hanging up returns when he was only 16.

After graduating from high school, Ralph Lauren spent some time in the army before becoming a necktie salesman for Brooks Brothers and enrolling in business classes at night.

His biggest goal at the time was to continue selling his ties. He faced several rejections before he finally got a job working for Beau Brummell Neckwear.

Lucky for him, the company allowed him to sell his own hand-made, wide, expensive ties in their showroom.

The Moral

Sixteen-year-old boys aren’t known for loving ties. But Ralph Lauren knew what he loved. Instead of being ashamed or embarrassed, he exuded confidence that helped him reach an incredibly high level of success.

Moziah Bridges, who founded a bowtie company at the age of 11, took that lesson to heart:

“Ralph Lauren started selling neck ties when he was 10 years old so I think I can be real famous like him so I will keep my business going all the way until I get older.”

Figure out what you love, and be proud!

Then create a product that only YOU can create.

2. Stay Loyal to Your Brand

“I went to my boss, and I said, ‘Look, I’d like to design these ties because I think they could be new.’ He said, ‘The world isn’t ready for Ralph Lauren.’ I never forgot that because… I thought that was a compliment.”

~ Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren knew that his European style, high-quality ties were something special and rare.

While he was working for Beau Brummell Neckwear, Ralph Lauren tried to sell his ties to other companies, including Bloomingdales.

Bloomingdales was interested, but only on the condition that Ralph Lauren make his ties narrower and remove the name from his product.

Those were conditions he just couldn’t meet.

As he once told Oprah: 

“I didn’t have a vision as in, This is where I’m going. I had a vision as in, “This is what I love to do.” The ties, as simple as they were, looked very different from other ties. They were wide and unusual. I never said to myself, ‘I’m going to be the greatest.’ I just wanted to do my own thing.”

Not only did he refuse, he went on to sell his ties to Bloomingdale’s competitors.

Wouldn’t you know it, Bloomingdale’s offered him a better deal along with a confidence boost: 

“I think confidence builds as you go on … closing the door on Bloomingdale’s, was at one point sort of crazy and at the same time was amazingly powerful.”

The Moral

It’s pretty much a given that growing a business requires compromise. But If an opportunity that looks great on paper just doesn’t seem right, consider turning it down. Sometimes it’s okay to stick to your vision and wait for what feels right.

You never know what great opportunity is waiting for you right around the corner.

3. Tell a Story, Create a Fantasy

“The clothes that I design and everything I’ve done is about life and how people live and how they want to live and how they dream they’ll live. That’s what I do.”

~ Ralph Lauren

From the start, when Ralph Lauren was escaping into the world of Hollywood movies, his entire business was based on stories and fantasies.

Michael Gross, the author of a Ralph Lauren biography, puts it this way:

“He can literally shape reality to his own will. Ralph has the ability to create worlds and make people believe in them.”

That couldn’t be more true.

Take a look at how he uses a watch to make people imagine being on safari:

Long before the safari watch, Ralph Lauren was designing clothes for blockbuster movies that ended up inspiring entire clothing lines and everyday styles.

The clothes on Robert Redford and Diane Keaton were clothes everyday people could and did wear to work or around town while feeling like movie stars.

The Moral

Our human brains crave stories. In fact, processing stories activates special parts of our brains that make us feel like we’re part of an experience.

Which is what makes storytelling such a powerful marketing tool.

Think about what your customers are likely to connect with, and build them a world they’ll relate to.

4. Experience the Worst but Expect the Best

“I went through the extremes of amazing notoriety and also the dreaded things that you never thought you’d have to live through. Not everything works the way you want it to, but if I sit back and think, ‘Am I happy about this?’ Yeah. I wouldn’t have done anything any better.” 

~ Ralph Lauren

In 1987, Ralph Lauren was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor.

Though he was noticeably ill and took some time off to recover from surgery, the experience didn’t hold him back.

After his recovery, Ralph Lauren went on to create a new line of women’s clothing and a new perfume and then opened his first flagship store. 

The Moral

There’s no way that life won’t get in the way of your business. But even in life’s worst moments, don’t give up the hope of making a comeback.

5. Give Back

“I hate the word philanthropist, it’s just from the heart.”

~ Ralph Lauren

While he was in the hospital, Ralph Lauren learned that his friend, Washington Post editor Nina Hyde, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. 

With a new commitment to philanthropy and a determination to help those suffering from cancer, he co-founded the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University Medical Center in 1990.

Ten years ago, he partnered with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to open the one of a kind Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention:

“The Ralph Lauren Center, the only outpatient facility of its kind in Harlem, is an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Its mission is to provide the highest quality cancer care and prevention to NYC’s underserved populations in a culturally competent and patient-centered manner, with the goal of eliminating barriers to care and reducing disparities.”

With Ralph Lauren’s support, both financial and hands-on, researchers and doctors have been able to improve the quality of life and discover new treatments for cancer patients all over the world.

Cancer isn’t the only cause Ralph Lauren supports. He recently helped The Smithsonian restore a very special American flag:

“The Star-Spangled Banner is a unique symbol of our American history as well as the dreams of men and women all over the world. It’s been an inspiration for me, and now it will be an inspiration for future generations.” —Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren Corporation supported the restoration of the iconic flag, which inspired the national anthem of the United States and now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. #FlagDay

The Moral

Financial donations are certainly important, but getting involved in a cause you care about deeply is just as important.

No matter how small your business is, you can always find ways to get involved with your community.

6. Succeed, then Succeed Again

“The world is open to us, and each day is an occasion to reinvent ourselves.”

~ Ralph Lauren

By 1970, Ralph Lauren had sold half a million in ties and was the first designer ever to have his own boutique in Bloomingdales.

By 1992, when Audrey Hepburn presented him with Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Lifetime Achievement Award, Ralph Lauren had designed clothes for two movies, created a clothing line for women, opened his first international store in London, and been inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame.

By 1997, he was considered the most successful designer of all time.

Ralph Lauren is now worth $5.7 billion, owns three restaurants, and has been given the key to New York City.

Though he’s no longer CEO, Ralph Lauren is still involved with the company and making huge strides:

“I’m not retired, I love what I do but I realize that some of these things are not my forte and I think you always have to look at your company, at the people in your company, at where you have success and where you don’t have success and plan ahead.”

We should all be looking forward to what he comes up with next.

The Moral 

Don’t rest on your laurels. After a major success, come up with a new idea and make it a reality. 

7. Apologize and Keep Going

“We all get report cards in many different ways, but the real excitement of what you’re doing is in the doing of it. It’s not what you’re gonna get in the end – it’s not the final curtain – it’s really in the doing it, and loving what you’re doing.”

~ Ralph Lauren

An unavoidable part of being in the spotlight is dealing with controversy, and Ralph Lauren has certainly dealt with his fair share.

Though his apologies have not always been accepted, Ralph Lauren and his team have learned from their mistakes and have kept going.

Ralph Lauren released a statement about the retouching scandal and vowed to investigate, the Team USA uniforms are now manufactured in the United States, and the racist ads have been taken down:

“Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country’s Native American heritage,” the company said in a statement. “We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website.”

The Moral

Though you should obviously try to avoid them, and common sense should rule above all else, there are few mistakes and blunders you can’t recover from.

8. Honor Your Roots

“I would like to know more about my history; at some point you ask: where did I come from? There is a connection to my heritage – but where I grew from is foreign to me.”

~ Ralph Lauren

After forty years in the fashion world, at the age of 68, Ralph Lauren went to Russia, and finally saw his parents’ homeland.

The purpose of the trip was to open a store in Moscow. But, according to his son, David Lauren, the trip meant more than that:

“But this time it is not just about a store opening – it is very much of an emotional trip,” he added. “In this 40th year, my father is going back full circle. But he’s not Russian – he is clearly American.”

The Moral

No matter what, your business will in some way reflect who you are. Don’t be afraid to show the world who you really are.

9. Know When it’s Time to Let Go

I’m not stepping down. I’m stepping up.

~ Ralph Lauren

In 2015, at the age of 75, in part due to financial struggles, Ralph Lauren decided that the best thing for him and the Ralph Lauren brand was to step down as CEO.

Knowing that it was time for the company to try a different approach, he passed the torch to Stefan Larsson, who is best known for his success with mass retailers like Old Navy and H & M.

But he doesn’t have plans to back away completely, which is made very clear in a message to his employees:

In this new era, Ralph Lauren is planning to continue learning about the constantly changing business world moving his brand forward.

He told the New York Times:

“If I thought there was nothing I could learn from Stefan, he would not be here.”

The Moral

Recognize what’s best for your company. Know when it’s time to back away or change your role. There’s no shame in depending on people who can do what you can’t.

Keep Dreaming, But Get to Work

My life has been a dream. If someone had to write a story about it, it would seem a little unreal. It’s the kind of story I would read and say, ‘Nah, that’s not possible.’

~ Ralph Lauren

Though his life may sound like a fantasy, Ralph Lauren has not depended on miracles to make his dreams come true.

The success of Ralph Lauren proves that an unbreakable work ethic, a clear vision, and sheer will are more crucial to success than money.

So, as you watch Team USA march into the arena for the opening ceremonies, remember that the uniforms are more than just clothes.

The uniforms, including the “light up jacket” which will be worn by the flag bearer Michael Phelps, are the culmination of a lifetime of Ralph Lauren’s hard work, and represent a world of dreams and inspiration he’s created for the athletes. 

The best thing about Ralph Lauren is that he strives to inspire everyone.

“What I do is about living. It’s about living the best life you can and enjoying the fullness of the life around you- from what you wear, to the way you live, to the way you love.”

Think about your dreams and what you love.

What can you create in a way that nobody else can?

There’s no reason that you, like Ralph Lauren, can’t go create “something from nothing.”

Who has inspired you to turn your business ideas into a reality?