January 19, 2020

‘Very Ralph’ Reveals Fashion Icon’s Origins

Susan Lacy and Ralph Lauren; Photo by Neil Rasmus/BFA.com

How did Ralph Lifshitz, the son of Jewish immigrants with no fashion training or connections, become Ralph Lauren, a classic American designer with a multibillion-dollar global lifestyle brand? Interviewing friends, family, colleagues, fashion insiders and Lauren himself, filmmaker Susan Lacy tells the design icon’s origin story in “Very Ralph,” premiering Nov. 12 on HBO.

“Everybody knows the name Ralph Lauren but you don’t know him. He comes from a very modest background, he believed in himself and he built one of the biggest fashion empires that ever existed. That’s an amazing story,” Lacy told the Journal. 

Lacy had always wanted to make a film about a top fashion figure during her three decades as the creator, executive producer and sometimes director (encompassing 250 portraits) at PBS’ “American Masters,” and her choice of Lauren made perfect sense. “But I knew it would be a tough sell,” she said. “He’s a very shy man. He’s never done anything like this. It took him a moment [to say yes].”

Although Lauren was wary of ceding control and concerned about how he’d look, he imposed no conditions or restrictions on Lacy, who assured him that she wasn’t digging for dirt. “I’m more interested in why a person is important and how his work relates to, influences and represents our culture than I am in the gory details of their life,” she said. 

Lacy interviewed Lauren eight times at several of his homes, including his Montauk, N.Y., estate and his Colorado ranch. “I’m careful when I’m making a film about someone with great wealth,” she said. “Where do you draw the line between the work and what the work made possible? I don’t ever want to step into ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ territory.”

It was a challenge, she said, to figure out how to depict a designer who doesn’t drape, sketch or sew and explain the story behind his success. “He’s not cutting-edge. He’s not interested in that. He’s interested in maintaining quality and timelessness. Where does that vision come from in a kid from the Bronx? A lot of it came from movies and I wanted to portray that,” Lacy said. “I found it fascinating that he had no plan. He didn’t know where any of this was going to go. When he pulled his ties from Bloomingdale’s because they wanted to use their labels instead of his, he didn’t have a penny in the bank. It took a lot of guts and belief in himself and his vision. I think that’s the key to Ralph Lauren. He had a vision and he stuck with it.”

The director also wanted to show that Lauren is still working every day at 80 and has a playful side, seen in home movies with his wife, Ricky, and children Andrew, David and Dylan, famous in her own right for the Dylan’s Candy Bar sweet shops. Lacy also includes his Jewish upbringing and why he changed his last name at his brother’s suggestion. “He had enough of being made fun of,” Lacy said. “He’s not Orthodox but I think he’s very conscious of his Judaism. He went to yeshiva. He goes to synagogue. His wife comes from a family that escaped the Holocaust. That’s in the film. [Judaism] has an impact on his life, for sure.” 

“Everybody knows the name Ralph Lauren but you don’t know him. He comes from a very modest background, he believed in himself and he built one of the biggest fashion empires that ever existed. That’s an amazing story.” 

— Susan Lacy

Born and based in New York, Lacy discovered she had much in common with Lauren. While some of her subjects have had very difficult childhoods, “that’s not true of Ralph and not true of me,” she said. “Ralph had a very happy middle-class background. He was a modest guy who achieved incredible things. We both had a vision and believed in ourselves and didn’t take no for an answer. I think that’s true of many artists.”

Lacy, whose German Jewish father lost many family members in the Holocaust, “grew up with a real consciousness of what happened from a grandmother who talked about it all the time. On rainy days in the summer, the pictures would come out and she’d tell me about the family I would never get to know.” 

Lacy added that she feels a strong connection to her (half) Jewishness, but it isn’t the reason she has made documentaries about Steven Spielberg, Leonard Bernstein, David Geffen and Annie Leibovitz. “Let’s face it, the smartest, most talented people in the world are Jewish,” she said. “It’s natural I’d be drawn to that.” 

The editor of her high school and college newspapers, Lacy wanted to be a journalist but had always been a film buff. After getting her master’s degree in American Studies from George Washington University, she went to work at WNET-TV, the New York PBS station. There, she became involved in arts and performance programming, and sought to expand the parameters beyond plays, ballets, dance and music. “I was always interested in the social, political and cultural context of the work and the people who create it. I wanted to make real films that stood the test of time and were as excellent as the subjects. That’s where ‘American Masters’ came from,” Lacy said. “It wasn’t easy to keep the funding going, but it’s one the most decorated series in the history of public television and it’s still going. I’m so proud of it.”

Now making films for HBO, Lacy would like to add narrative features to her repertoire. “I’m quite interested in the hybrid between documentary and narrative and I think my next project will be along those lines,” she said. As for the subject of her latest endeavor, Ralph Lauren “is very touched by the film,” she said. “He said to me, ‘I never could have made this good a film about myself.’ I think his only criticism is he wishes he didn’t look old. But I think he likes it very much.”

“Very Ralph” premieres Nov. 12 on HBO.