black and red polo Unauthorized bio of Ralph Lauren relies too heavily on hearsay
Did reaching for your dream steal your joie de vivre, as some suggest?
“Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren” by Michael Gross is an expose that would have the reader see its subject as a tycoon with wicked ways, a cheating husband, tyrant, man ashamed of his Jewishness, an egocentric, self absorbed nontalent in the fashion industry.
Lauren is described as perpetually tan (since when is that a crime?) and a power at the cash register (that’s good), but also a pretender, neurotic, unbelievably tenacious, insecure, socially shy, the ultimate wannabe, a pathological narcissist and control freak.
“Beneath the argyled veneer beats an insecure pulse,” Gross writes.
Sex, lies and tape measures, you might say. But Gross says this is reality.
This book has everything except, of course, the permission or cooperation of the designer.
According to Gross, he and Lauren were to collaborate on a biography, and, in fact, Lauren had actually approached Gross to consider it.
But when he realized he couldn’t control what the book would contain, Gross says, Lauren balked.
Don’t forget, this is Gross’ explanation. I am not sure Lauren would have the same story.
Gross is often petty.
What is the point in reminding us the man is short and won’t stand next to his tall models or to insinuate he “probably” had affairs with every pretty young thing in his employ, male or female? That he has a lisp and a lazy eye or complained to a magazine when his hair looked too frizzy in a photo and had to see a psychiatrist when he turned 50? So what?
A complex man, he is. I don’t think you rise from the Bronx, one of four sons born to Russian immigrants, to world prominence without more than a few pitfalls and enemies along the way.
Still, I read this book with all its gossip and pettiness and disappointment and came away in awe of Lauren, much as I felt when Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote his 1988 book, “Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique,” which essentially was a kinder, gentler look at Lauren.
Much that is in this new book was also in Trachtenberg’s, telling us how Lauren has miraculously merchandised a concept. And that he has done.
Lauren has said, “I’m not creative in the same way critics think of being creative. I don’t do a shoulder. I do a world.”
I don’t doubt that he is difficult. But I like him. His is an incredible story.
Robert Ruttenberg, a Pittsburgh native who made millions in the cosmetics industry, first with Estee Lauder, then Revlon, then Warner/Ralph Lauren, and for a short time, Cosmair, describes his eight year business relationship with Lauren as “wonderful.” He did not see the man Gross describes.
It was Ruttenberg who initiated the idea for the first back to back men’s and women’s fragrance launch in 1976 for Polo (for men) and Lauren (for women). They remain classics.
“I don’t see him often,” he said in our phone conversation, “but Gross did ask to interview me for the book. I called Ralph about it, and he told me that it was up to me.”
Gross states that Lauren advised many of his top executives and friends and family not to talk to him.
Ruttenberg said he was more than willing to talk about those early days when Lauren entered the fragrance arena, but Lauren’s personal life was off limits. He’s quoted only a few times in Gross’ book, probably because of that fact. No dirt.
He has read the book. He describes it as “scathing.”
Through the years, my association with Lauren was pleasant. I was the fashion press, and he knew how valuable the press could be to an up and coming designer.
I found him accessible. He once called me after reading my review of his collection, which glamorized men’s smoking jackets for women. He said he wanted to frame it. Did he? I doubt it. To this day that was one of the most beautiful fashion shows I have ever seen. I’ll never forget it.
Often, I didn’t understand what he was aiming for. This time I did.
In later years, he would always send notes, whether I had given him a good review or not. In the book, it is explained his public relations people encouraged him to send notes to enhance his image and “play the publicity game.”
I’m not naive. That could be true. But I sensed in every note he was trying to explain to me just what he hoped to achieve, even if others had learned to copy the childlike scrawl of his signature. The thoughts could only be his.
I recall questioning in my coverage the rubber rain boots he showed with women’s clothes. He later wrote and attempted to explain his vision for the collection. Most designers don’t bother. He cared.