Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren by Michael Gross

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
— Oscar Wilde

It doesn’t really matter whether you believe he’s a fashion genius or the world’s luckiest tie salesman, because anyone who has read the book on Ralph Lauren knows that he’s both, in addition to something else: an ice-cold businessman with a heart of steel. What else would you expect from a man who has amassed a fortune of $2 billion, on his way to becoming what his biographer, in a rare flash of eloquence, calls “the haberdasher of modern ambition”? Yeah, an outfitter for the arriviste, rather than for those whose money is old and tastes are new. That’s always been the knock on Ralph Lauren: the non-designer’s designer, pandering to the pretentious, and, on top of that and inevitably: a self-hating Jew. You’ll have to dig to find it, but in Michael Gross’s Genuine Authentic, Ralph Lauren answers that one in a way that will hopefully make all the snobs and bigots shut up for good: “I didn’t want to be a phony. I just wanted more than I had.”

A Bronx neighborhood: Penny and Garry Marshall lived there, and so did Robert Klein, in addition to (in the kind of weird coincidence that is hardly plausible even in nonfiction, and which might make you think more about religion) Calvin Klein. And there was little Ralph (you’d change your name too) Lifshitz, lazy-eyed and speech-impeded, sitting on the stoop with all the housewives and old ladies, lonely (or at least lonesome) and self-conscious. Why, little Ralphie Lifshitz didn’t even play spaldeen with the other kids. He graduated high school, and the yearbook asked him what he wanted to be. One can only guess if the multi-billionaire Ralph Lauren can forgive the high-schooler’s low expectations and ambitions: “Millionaire.”

It never sounds right when someone says they’re too good for anything, but Ralph Lauren was probably too good to be a tie salesman, at least a very effective one: he knew too much, had too many big ideas; he saw the kind of vistas that can be inhibiting if they remain in the imagination. It was only a matter of time before Ralph Lauren would become an explorer and a conqueror. He began designing his own ties, cut wider than the standard. Norman Hilton, the great third-generation suit manufacturer — Old Money if there ever was such a thing — noticed something: “People who were really hip began showing up with beautiful fat ties.” Some of them were Lauren’s, while some merely belonged to very successful and sincere Lauren flatterers.

He had the kind of ambition and arrogance that, if channeled properly, could conquer worlds. “I can design anything,” he said, “even automobiles.” Ties, automobiles — it’s all the same in the mind of the genius. Not even his biographer seems quite sure when the arriviste truly arrived. It might have been with his first appearance in a full-page ad; it might have been with the release of his first fragrance; it might have been with his first Coty (or what is now known, less stylishly, as a CFDA Award). As for Lauren’s old Bronx contemporary (on whom Gross does not spend nearly enough time), we know this, from Lauren’s employees: “There was more jealousy on Ralph’s part than on Calvin’s. Calvin was a tall, handsome devil. Ralph had a short man’s complex about him, and he verbalized it.” And: “If Calvin got a headline, it’d be a black day. He’d lecture us for hours about Calvin, ranting about what a terrible person he was.”

Dynamic personal relations between two fashion titans from the same neighborhood — that’s not the kind of thing that concerns Michael Gross. He’s too busy giving us the lowdown and the machinations, financial and otherwise, behind the latest Polo fragrance or the latest women’s line. He must go on for dozens of pages about Lauren’s disastrous venture into public ownership, but at least he has enough courtesy to let the man himself stand up amidst the rubble and offer a word or two: “Wall Street is the trendiest business around.”

Indeed — unless you count fashion journalism. Some people do useful work in this life, while others write sewing-circle gossip for the New York Daily News: “This season’s Palm Beach scandal is a doozie.” People like this are allowed to vote. It’s a great country. Then they write flattering profiles in glossy magazines that consist, almost entirely, of advertisements for the subjects’ company. Then the subject thinks he has found the right man to tell his life’s tale in a book, and the man, the author, says that that would be great, but you know, don’t you, that I’m going to have to write about Kim Nye, the fashion-model mistress of yours who hasn’t found work in this town, or any other of note, since you broke up. Relations between subject and author go swiftly south. Then the book is written, in spite of the subject’s uncooperativeness and suggestions toward friends and associates to also be uncooperative.

Michael Gross gives us long sections on whether or not Billionaire Sex Symbol Ralph Lauren is truly happy — as well as patronizing dissertations on Narcissus and Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud, as if we didn’t already know where Gross went to get his clichés. Various friends and colleagues provide the sound: “I always wanted to give him a hug,” they say, about this man who is “frustrated about growing older, about losing his looks.” Or: “He wants respect and doesn’t realize he already has it. It haunts him ’til this day.”

But what if Success isn’t the new Failure? What if it’s still just plain old Success? Someday somebody will write that book, and it will be a real doozie. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a lone quote, straggling in the wind, lost and disappearing: “He’s the warmest, most gentle person you could know, quiet, reserved, modest, no bullshit, no airs. He told me he wants to give back because he feels so lucky.” That, and one more thing as well. For all those thinking of pursuing a career in greatness, be careful. All great men get the biographer they deserve.