Ralph Lauren: "I feel cooler now than ever"


In a rare interview, the designer - now 78 - talks about the purpose of fashion and his own longevity.

CBS News

Ralph Lauren's Colorado ranch has an Old West feel, where the designer gets to be a real-life cowboy.

"I guess I'm wearing the right James Stewart hat to go with the terrain," he laughed, "'cause I always thought this was really a cowboy movie."

This 20,000 acre expanse – over 30 square miles – has been a second home to Lauren and his wife, Ricky, for more than 30 years.

Ralph Lauren with Jane Pauley on his 20,000-acre Colorado ranch. CBS News

"This is where Ricky and I fell in love with the West," he told "Sunday Morning" host Jane Pauley. "This is a really romantic, beautiful location.

And it's just one of the many romantic, beautiful locations that have helped shape the Ralph Lauren aesthetic – from the English aristocracy, to the nautical, to African safaris.

The styles of Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren/Bruce Weber

But Lauren's own beginnings in the Bronx were far less exotic: "As a kid I wore a lot of my older brothers' hand-me-downs."

"You liked wearing hand-me-downs?" asked Pauley.

"I did. Well, I never had a lot."

"But kids in hand-me-downs resent it?"

"I didn't resent it," he said. "My brothers were cool. And they had good stuff!"

Lauren says it was never about the clothes, but about how he felt in them: "When you put on something that you really like, you feel like you are that person or the person you want to be."

Ralph Lauren
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren in 1970. Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives via Getty Images

Working as a tie salesman in his early 20s, with no formal fashion training, Ralph Lauren had an epiphany – a new take on a menswear staple, the tie. "And I went to my boss, and I said, 'Can I make these ties?' And he said, 'Ralph, no one's gonna wear them. The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.'" 

"Did he say it respectfully, or not so much?

"No, he said it saying, 'Forget it, kid. You're not gonna do anything.'"

But Lauren made his ties ... wider … bolder … pricier … and called his brand Polo.

The ties begat menswear.  "Then I made shirts to go with the ties. And I made suits. And they were different, and they were high quality."

Today, the company is valued at over $10 billion.

the roll out of 1980 fall collection in New York
Ralph Lauren preps a model in his showroom for a photo shoot during the rollout of the fashion designer's fall collection, in New York, March 1980. John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"The American man and woman, as time has gone in the last 50 years, I've watched them and helped them change," Lauren said. "I've helped them develop their tastes." 

Ralph Lauren has won countless fashion industry awards, though fashion critics sometimes dismissed him as a "curator." He shrugs it off.  

But criticism about his name – which he changed from Lifshitz to Lauren at age 19 – seems more personal.  Ultimately, he told Pauley, it came down to one word:

"In the world I was growing up, the word s*** was a tough word. It was in my name. So, that name change was not about being Jewish or not Jewish or being something else."

From the Ralph Lauren 50th anniversary show, part of New York Fashion Week, in Central Park, Sept. 7, 2018. Ralph Lauren

Though his name is now one of the most recognizable brands in the world, Lauren isn't too hung up on labels. "You don't have to wear a label to be important," he said.

And if you presumed that Ralph Lauren was wearing Ralph Lauren, you'd be wrong. "This shirt, I bought at Kmart," he said. "This is living proof of what I believe in. I love the aging of it. I love the rips. I love it all. And I like the way I look in it."

Ralph Lauren, wearing K-Mart. CBS News

"You didn't design it?" Pauley asked.

"I didn't design it! … No. I happen to like this, 'cause it's the one that I have memories of."

"And how come you chose it for this conversation today?"

"I wanted to look great!"

And at 78, Ralph Lauren looks pretty great. But remember: It's how clothes make you feel.

"I feel cooler now than ever," he said.

Why? How? "Because I've enjoyed my career, and I'm still working really hard and well."

"Fifty years and counting?" Pauley said.

"So, let's hope it goes on."

For more info:

Story produced by Kay Lim.