Ralph Lauren: 5 things you should know about HBO’s new designer documentary

Ralph Lauren and wife Ricky at the premiere of the HBO documentary "Very Ralph."
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren and his wife, author Ricky Anne Loew-Beer, at last month’s world premiere of HBO Documentary Films’ “Very Ralph” in New York.
(Angela Weiss / AFP / Getty Images)

For the most part, “Very Ralph,” the HBO documentary film about fashion designer Ralph Lauren, that premieres at 9 p.m. Pacific on HBO on Tuesday, looks as glossy and aspirational as one of the brand’s advertising campaigns.

Directed by Susan Lacy (whose first documentary for the pay-cable network in 2017 focused on director Steven Spielberg), the film strives mightily to paint a portrait of Lauren, the man (who turned 80 in October) behind the brand (fresh off notching a half-century in business), through the use of archival footage, photos and plenty of interviews with family, friends and a particularly deep bench of fashion-industry folks including designers, models, retailers and journalists.

Ralph Lauren 50th anniversary runway finale
The documentary charts the designer’s half-century career and culminates with the 50th-anniversary runway show in Central Park in September 2018.
(Ralph Lauren)

For all that, though, the result feels more like a broad sketch than a portrait, adding little to the origin story that begins with a guy from the Bronx walking into Bloomingdale’s with a handful of wide neckties and ends with a globally recognized fashion brand steeped in American nostalgia and optimism, celebrating with a 50th-anniversary Central Park fashion show. (That being said, if you’re not familiar — at all — with that story, and you wear clothes, then definitely add it to your must-watch list.)

Part of that’s understandable because the documentary sprints to cover the arc of Lauren’s extraordinary half-century career in an hour and 48 minutes. However, there are also plenty of moments when Lauren, or someone in his employ, touches on a topic that either doesn’t neatly fit the narrative (the company’s financial challenges in the early 1970s, for example) or says something that begs an explanation (like Lauren’s proclamation that he loves “military, safari, western and English riding” — essentially the foundation of the Ralph Lauren look — but never says why) that end up being almost glossed over in pursuit of the bigger picture.

That being said, the documentary does manage to serve up a few surprising (and a few totally random) factoids about the designer and features some seriously startling celebrity cameos. (Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know who turns up to offer their insight, read no further.) Otherwise, here are some of the surprises.

1. Changing the family’s last name wasn’t Ralph’s idea

Ralph’s brother Jerry, an executive at the company, reveals that changing the family last name from Lifshitz to Lauren was his idea — not Ralph’s.

2. The most surprising fashion designer to weigh in isn’t Calvin Klein

Karl Lagerfeld at the 2010 Ralph Lauren Paris flagship opening
The late designer Karl Lagerfeld, pictured here at a 2010 dinner celebrating the Ralph Lauren Paris flaship opening, is one of the many high-profile fashion folks appearing in the new HBO documentary “Very Ralph.”
(Francois Durand / Getty Images)

Calvin Klein is among the fashion designers who help put Lauren’s work in context, and others appearing on camera include Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg. However, it’s the brief on-screen appearance by Karl Lagerfeld, (who died in February) that symbolically speaks to Lauren’s place in the pantheon of fashion-designers-turned-global-icons.

3. A flurry of fashion firsts

Among the fashion firsts Lauren has under his chunky western-style belt: He was the first fashion designer to design a full home collection (according to Margaret Russell, a former editor in chief of Architectural Digest); the first designer to open up his own retail stores (so sayeth Klein); and the first American designer to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

4. Some celebrity cameos we didn’t see coming

In a documentary like this, you’d expect on-camera insight from the likes of Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley Newsman Tom Brokaw and filmmaker Ken Burns offering their thoughts are a little of out of the curve but still sort of make sense. However, it’s Hillary Clinton, Woody Allen and Kanye West who make the “Very Ralph” guest list truly eclectic.

5. There’s a princess phone in his past

When Lauren and Ricky were young marrieds in the Bronx, they were the proud owners of a turquoise-colored princess phone. Which, proves, perhaps, that globally celebrated fashion designers suffer from the occasional lapse of good taste.