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Ralph Lauren goes for style in cars, too

SUNDAY DRIVER -

November 23, 2003|by TODD BURLAGE/Wheelbase Communications

From the time he was just 12 years old and the only kid on the block wearing one of those sporty blue, college blazers, there was already an indication that there was something special and different about Ralph Lauren.

And even as a 23-year-old tie salesman in New York City, Lauren already looked the part of a millionaire, although he was a long way from becoming one.

Lauren would make his sales rounds wearing a custom-fit suit and driving a rare Morgan sports car, apparently offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that would someday define him.

Every penny Lauren made as a struggling salesman went to clothes and cars, the two indulgences he still fancies today.

"The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren,'' he warned back then. He was probably right.

From tie salesman, to fashion mogul, to billionaire, to car junkie, Ralph Lauren has seen and done it all.

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But his interests always wander back to his clothes and his cars - two of the most uncompromising passions of a man known for never compromising.

His legendary car collection, estimated to be worth close to $100 million, includes everything from a 1929 Bentley and a 1937 Alfa Romeo, to a 1938 Bugatti and a 1962 Farrari.

In 1999, one of Lauren's cars won best of the show at the Louis Vuitton Classic in New York City. And his multi-million dollar fleet of Bugattis was among the favorites in the recent Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance show in California.

No car is too extravagant, no price tag too high for the man who built an empire through a simple tie design, a clear direction and a $50,000 loan.

"I am not looking like Armani today and somebody else tomorrow," Lauren said. "I look like Ralph Lauren. And my goal is to constantly move in fashion and move in style without giving up what I am."

Lauren founded Polo Fashions in 1968, choosing the name because of the power and pomp it represented.

With his keen eye for fashion trends and a flair for the finer things in life, it seems impossible that Lauren was raised by his mother in a middle-class home while his artist father painted houses for a living.

Born Ralph Lifshitz, Lauren has come a long way from sharing a bedroom with his two brothers in their modest home near the Bronx, N.Y. The king of preppy spent his childhood days on the steps in front of his parents' apartment, dreaming of becoming, somehow, an American millionaire.

"It seemed so far out of reach, but I never doubted it could be done. Call me a dreamer," said Lauren, who now owns a ranch in Colorado, an estate in Bedford, N.Y. and a home in Jamaica, among others.

Given his history and ability, it would be logical to think that Lauren attended fashion design classes at some fancy European school. Actually, he studied business and opted out before finishing.

Despite the success, Lauren, as it turns out, is a regular guy with impeccable taste and foresight.

"My clothes are always visions of what I believe in,'' Lauren often says.

Even before Polo and while working as a glove and tie salesman, Lauren always had his eye on high fashion and vintage cars - though owning an entire fleet never seemed possible for a man making a few hundred bucks a month. It wasn't until his big break in the late 1960s that he would begin earning the money to fuel his passion for fancy cars.

While he was trying to develop his own line of wide ties in the 1960s, Bloomingdale's department store insisted Lauren remove his name from the tie labels and make them narrower. Lauren stuck to his guns, didn't change a thing and eventually the retailer came back.

The king of casual had arrived, and eventually so did enough business to make Polo a $900 million company, giving Lauren more than enough money to buy any car, and as many cars, as he desired.

Today, Lauren's car collection has grown to the point where at any one time there will be several cars undergoing restoration at once, usually at Paul Russell, one of the top restoration shops in the world.

Recently, there were seven cars from Lauren's collection, including a 1937 Mercedes 540K roadster, his famous 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantique and three Ferrarris.

Quiet and reclusive, Lauren shares his collection only with close friends, family and those in exclusive car-collecting circles. Perhaps the only things Lauren enjoys more than driving and restoring vintage cars is his family and his privacy. He's the father of three children and a husband to his wife of more than 35 years.

Although he'll always be known for his trend-setting style, Lauren's taste in automobiles is less well known, but of no less significance.




Todd Burlage is a feature writer and contributor to Wheelbase Communications.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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