Hardcover: 416 pages Publisher: HarperCollins ( Published January 21, 2003)

About the Author Michael Gross, the best-selling author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women and My Generation, writes "The Word" in New York's Daily News and is a contributing editor for Travel & Leisure. His articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the world, including The New York Times, New York, GQ, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

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Book Review: Genuine Authentic - The Real Life of Ralph Lauren

In the interest of full disclosure, I'd like to report that the way Ralph Lauren started on his more than 35 year career as fashion mogul with his revolutionary wide ties is exactly as I remember it. This happened during London's peacock revolution in the 1960's. Marvin Traub, the head of Bloomingdale's, had invited me to his office to see the revolutionary work of a new men's wear designer, which was entirely different from what conservative, traditional minded men were wearing. The ties were an instant success.

I mention this to confirm the authenticity of the new book. "Genuine Authentic" written by Michael Gross about the astonishing career, both personal and professional, of who is probably the most widely known member of its fashion family. His best known competitor would be Calvin Klein.

As a matter of fact, Calvin Klein's name turn up twice in the first pages of the book. This is where Gross explains that, though Lauren originally wanted the book to be written, he had changed his mind. It is an unauthorized biography. We'll get to the reasons presently. But first it's time for another disclosure.

Some time ago when I was a relatively new member of the New York Times fashion staff, I suggested an article for the Sunday magazine. I thought it had a catchy title: The Boys from Mosholu Parkway. Both Ralph and Calvin who were the newest fashion designers to attract attention, lived a few blocks apart in the northern reaches of The Bronx. I knew the area. I went to Hunter College, just a few blocks away. At the time when fashion was filled with snobbery and the greatest designs were considered French, these two young designers offered clean cut, modern clothes.

My editors didn't care much for the idea, but Calvin and Ralph were jockeying for position. They're still at it today. Along the way they hired designers from each other's staffs. Calvin even married one of them, Kelly Rector. They're still married, though living apart. Calvin doesn't remember Ralph from those days--at 60 he's just a few years younger than Ralph--but Ralph remembers him playing basketball.

Well, it's not that kind of book anyway, with children romping in playgrounds and lots of after-school games. Day dreams about life in the fashion business is not much part of it. There are plenty of business deals, clashes with competitors and so forth. It's pretty turgid, not lighthearted at all. Gross has done his work thoroughly and I'm convinced accurately, but it's not fun and games. Perhaps if Lauren had been part of the picture it wouldn't have been such a heavy read.

The fashion business has changed monumentally in the past decades. When Calvin started his business for $10,000 and Ralph for probably less, fashion companies were hardly part of corporate America. People bought clothes because they made them feel good. There was always a certain amount of one-ups-manship, but that was part of the deal.

The Lauren book charts every step on the designer's route to becoming a millionaire, actually s billionaire, and finally taking his company public, It is like reading the financial pages. Volume today is somewhere in the billions.

The financial matters are covered in excruciating detail and, if that appeals to you, there's plenty to keep you interested, but it's not light summer reading. There is plenty of attention to personnel changes, including some names that might be dimly familiar, like Tasha, the designer who went on to Calvin Klein, Sal Cesarani and Jeffrey Banks, who designed men's clothes. But the main person was always Ralph.

What I found particularly dreary were the myriad chapters devoted to Ralph's family in Eastern Europe and, eventually in The Bronx. Everybody seems to know by now that Ralph changed his last name from Lifshitz to Lauren. I didn't know he'd hated his name for years, but how significant is that? Norman Norell, probably this country's most prestigious designer, changed his name from Levinson when he first came to New York from Indiana. That was in 1919.

If the purpose of all this background was to point out that Ralph, known for his British and Wasp clothes was Jewish, I do think it was overkill.

While he certainly has made plenty of money, Ralph doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. He has homes in Colorado, Jamaica, Bedford and Montauk. He doesn't care for parties, but he loves cars. He has a fleet of them in his Montauk estate. The black Bentley seems to be a favorite.

He has been married for almost 40 years to Ricky, the mother of his three children. He often worked late, until 11 pm keeping many of his staff with him. His staff called themselves the "polaroids." It's one of the few jokes in the book and it is frequently repeated.

Since he was a child, Ralph enjoyed the movies. A high spot of his life was designing the clothes, with Theoni Aldrich, that Robert Redford wore in "The Great Gatsby." Redford apparently came to his Colorado home to visit.

The book is filled with the names of people Ralph hired, depended on for a while, paid handsomely, and then fired. One of the few who remains almost from the beginning is Buffy Birrittella, his right hand. She refused to be interviewed.

The reason Ralph gave for not cooperating was an affair he was supposed to have had with a model named Kim Nye. Michael said he could not eliminate the information which had appeared in gossip columns. Ralph consequently asked relatives, friends and business acquaintances not to speak with him. Possibly the book would have been cozier if he had helped. But still there is plenty of minutiae. The author hardly seems to have left a stone unturned.

There may be more than you care to know about his move to wide ties, men's shirts, suits, chimos, home furnishings, perfumes and other parts of the Lauren enterprise. If you want to know how a boy from The Bronx made those things happen, you will find plenty of information. But at a time when Enron, Tyco, and other big business concerns are filling the financial pages with their shenanigans it's hard to believe Ralph Lauren isn't squeaky clean.


-Bernadine Morris

About our contributing editor Bernadine Morris: She was for 30 years the senior fashion writer for The New York Times. Bernadine is one of the most respected fashion journalists in the world. If you have questions or comments about her review e-mail Bernadine Morris.


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