The Dude in the Designer Jeans

<i> Turk is a Times fashion writer</i>

RALPH LAUREN The Man Behind the Mystique by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg (Little, Brown: $19.95; 293 pp., illustrated) This unauthorized biography introduces one of America’s charismatic designers with a flourish. Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, a Forbes magazine senior editor, writing his first book, announces that Ralph Lauren “has impacted not only the way we dress but the advertisements we see . . . the sheets and pillowcases on which we sleep, and the way in which we decorate our houses.

“Inadvertently, he has also impacted the publishing world . . . the way retailers decorate their windows . . . and our own expectations--cashmere, not wool; crocodile, not leather; pima cotton sheets, not cotton/polyester blends.”

We might not agree with all that. But it doesn’t matter. Surely the best is yet to come, all those juicy revelations that the title promises about this very rich, very handsome man who rode out of the Bronx to give the world expensive clothing and home furnishings that reek of elegance and romance.

Trachtenberg’s book begins at “the pinnacle” of Lauren’s career: the 1986 opening of his New York boutique, the exquisitely renovated (at a cost of $30 million) Rhinelander Mansion.


Then it’s back to roots. Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz on Oct. 14, 1939, the youngest of four children. His father, a house painter with Picasso aspirations, eventually changed the family name to Lauren.

Teen-age Ralph is described as “pudgy, easy-going, self-involved,” a young man with a slight lisp who was athletic and had a unique style--in both dress and dreams. When others in his graduating class put professions such as doctor or lawyer beneath their senior photographs, he put millionaire.

Lauren’s quest for millions began in earnest with ties, first selling them, then designing them. His move up the ladder, it seems, was helped by the fact that he always looked “English from head to toe, a lesson in advanced Brooks Brothers.”

After ties came men’s suits. The first batch was shipped to Bloomingdale’s and, according to Trachtenberg, turned out to be a catastrophe: “The pants were too long, the rise too high. Some of the jackets arrived with arm lengths that appeared to have been fitted on Little Leaguers.” But Lauren learned by his mistakes and not long after won a Coty Award, “the equivalent of the film industry’s Academy Awards.”


Among retailers who believed in his well-made, privileged-life-style clothing was Jerry Magnin, who opened an impressive Ralph Lauren store on Rodeo Drive in 1971 (and a more impressive one this year). Supposedly, the store pushed Lauren beyond the shirts, ties and suits he was manufacturing. He designed his first shoes, belts and sweaters for Magnin, who needed merchandise to fill the store.

When Lauren started making shirts for women, he put a little polo player on the white cuffs, “almost as an afterthought,” which is how Polo was born.

Everything seemed to be moving at a gallop, although the ride could get rough. Merchandise was often delivered late, sometimes not at all. The blouses were originally a problem because they were made for the petite frame of Lauren’s wife, Ricky. Perfumes, contained in the Spanish-made bottles that Lauren insisted upon, burst under the heat of store lights. Towels had to be made more than 30 times before Lauren was satisfied with them.

There were business ventures and business relationships that soured. There were even public appearances that rankled. Last year, when Lauren wore blue jeans, cowboy boots and a tuxedo jacket to receive the retailer-of-the-year award from the Fashion Designers of America, “some guests were furious,” Trachtenberg writes. ". . . Trying to ease the tension, Ralph joked, ‘My kids made me dress like this.’ Nobody laughed.” Hard as Trachtenberg tries, he cannot persuade us to dislike Lauren. By the time the book ends, we’re rooting for the designer because his biographer seems determined to tear him to shreds. Without evidence or exciting tidbits, Trachtenberg is reduced to sophomoric techniques, including annoying short sentences (“This was a business. But it was a personal business.”) that he tosses in over and over.

We’re glad Lauren has a ranch in Colorado where he’s trying to produce old-fashioned beef (unkindly called “designer beef”). Glad his family is so united that they obviously said less than five words to the author. We admire Lauren for being a perfectionist. For loving and making fine clothes. For collecting beautiful cars. For revering the West. For creating romantic ads. For keeping his three children and his wife out of the limelight. For succeeding in business by really trying. And, most of all, for making sure Trachtenberg couldn’t destroy the man or the mystique.