I used to think fashion was something reserved for those who only liked fashion. My fashionable friends shopped online a lot, talked about clothes with other fashionable women, and spent a lot of money on clothes. I envied their ability to put together outfits that emulated the current celebrity it-girl as I put on my leggings, boots, and sweater combo that I rocked six months out of the year (it’s either that or a Nike ensemble that I wear because I’m too lazy put on two outfits in one day). But keeping up with fashion seemed exhausting. Also, kinda shallow. Shouldn’t I focus on more intellectual pursuits?
My bias also came out of working in Washington, DC for eight months. I came to equate adult-fashion with business-professional-fashion, which needs to die a slow, horrible death. The waistbands on suit pants make me feel like I’m strapped into my office chair with some kind of harness to prevent me from escaping. My job didn’t have a dress code, thankfully, but I pitied the business-professional-clad people I saw on the metro strapped into their harnesses. After interning at an ecommerce startup, however, it has occurred to me that maybe fashion is more than just stuffy Kate Spade dresses.
Some of my favorite entrepreneurs are fashion designers. Fashion designers basically have to start their own label, because mass-produced clothing companies often don’t keep designers in house because they can just replicate the fashions coming out of Milan and Paris cheaply by using mass production (The Limited pioneered this business model that most clothing companies use now).
One of my favorite fashion designers is Ralph Lauren. His clothes are clean, crisp and classically elegant -- I don’t have to be a fashionista to know that an RL button-down will look good ten years from now. In an interview on the Tim Ferriss Show, Glenn Beck mentioned that Ralph Lauren has cultivated a brand so thorough it hardly needs a label -- Ralph Lauren stores so uniquely and fully capture the Ralph Lauren essence that you’d know you were in a Ralph Lauren store without ever reading a sign. For me, Ralph Lauren has also always been an inspiration.
Ralph Lauren’s birth name is Ralph Lipschitz, the son of Jewish immigrants who lived in the Bronx. He served in the military for a short period of time after high school, before working as a clerk at Brooks Brothers. After attending his first polo match, he was inspired to create a line of clothing that channeled that high-society atmosphere he experienced there. He began by designing neckties that were a radical change from the style at the time, and sold $500,000 worth of ties in one single year. Now, Ralph Lauren has a net worth of about $7 billion.
I love this story because, aside from being a rags-to-riches story, it demonstrates how fashion is not inherently elitist, a hobby for those who enjoy conspicuous consumption and excluding people based on their appearance. Old-money New England WASPs wear clothes designed by a man who was raised by poor Jewish immigrants in the Bronx and only has a high school diploma. That’s kinda beautiful.
The fashion industry doesn’t care who you are, they just care what your clothes look like. Your creative vision is the only thing that matters. Ralph Lauren created a brand that encapsulates all-American luxury -- purely from his imagination. He didn’t grow up going to polo matches and charity galas, but his clothes tell a story of someone who summers in Martha’s Vineyard. Ralph Lauren’s most famous quote aptly describes his propensity for storytelling through clothing: “I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.”
So, maybe I misjudged fashion.