Talk of the New Year brings about coverage of those famous individuals who are to be honoured by the Queen with knighthoods. One of those most talked about is American fashion designer, businessman and philanthropist Ralph Lauren, who has been made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE).
A Knight Commander is one of the highest ranks in the UK honour system, whilst Honorary makes reference to the fact that Lauren is not a citizen of Commonwealth Realms. However, he is in the exclusive position of being the first American fashion designer to be recognised in this manner, although he won’t actually be able to officially use the title Sir.
For all those reading and sighing, ‘why, he’s just a fashion designer’, it is worth looking at how Lauren’s life and fashion journey epitomise why he is so deserving of this title, as a symbol of the American Dream and as an international success story.
Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in New York City in 1939 to Jewish immigrants from Belarus. His first foray into fashion was selling handmade ties to students with a $7-10 mark up, whilst attending Brooklyn’s Baruch College, and as a neckwear salesman at Brooks Brothers. At the age of 28, Lauren was working for the tie manufacturer Beau Brummell and began designing his own men’s neckties, with a wider cut, branding them under the name ‘Polo’. Bloomingdales began selling Lauren’s men’s line exclusively, making him the first designer to have his own in-store boutique at the still-revered department store.
In 1970, Lauren was awarded the Coty Award for his men's designs, and just two years later, he had introduced the world to the short-sleeve cotton shirt in 24 colours, embroidered with the polo pony on the chest, quickly became well known as the famous ‘Polo shirt’. Over the following decades he expanded globally and diversified the brand to include perfume, denim plus further luxury labels such as Ralph Lauren Purple and Ralph Lauren Home.
The future ‘Sir Ralph’ is well-known for his love of aspirational style that evokes the British gentry whilst also reflecting the preppy aesthetics of the American upper classes. This passion for preppy styles and vintage looks is something he has favoured personally since he was a young man, reflecting this emotion back into the designs he is most famous for. In the 1970’s, he added costume design to his list of successes, designing the outfits for The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and creating Diane Keaton’s distinctive style in Annie Hall. It is no surprise then that the internationally successful Downton Abbey inspired him in his design creations, and led him to sponsor the final series on American network channel PBS.
Lauren believes that modern fashion is about inclusion. Fashion should be accessible to all and people should be able to look good and feel good whatever their economic reality. Scores of customers love his accessible style, yet his designs have been criticised for being too commercial. He believes in the international appeal of the American style. Lauren said,
“The American sensibility has become a very important international sensibility. We created sportwear. Ours is a more modern culture because of the way we live. We travel, we’re athletic, we move.”
Easy to see how he has worked his way up to creative stardom, epitomising the American dream and gaining fans worldwide, especially in the UK, along the way.
Lauren, howeveris certainly not the only international fashion designer or businessman to have been given this accolade, and homegrown talent is rarely ignored either.
Since the UK fashion industry is worth £32 billion to the UK economy and helps to define the British sensibility of unique style, it is no surprise that numerous individuals both at home and abroad have been honoured with knighthoods. Some important individuals include Manolo Blahnik, revered shoe designer, awarded with the Commander of the British Empire medal in 2007, and Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH, one of the world’s largest luxury fashion conglomerates, was made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order in 2013.
At home, designers Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, journalist Hilary Alexander, and Louise Wilson, the late professor of fashion design at Central Saint Martins, have all been honoured by the Queen for their significant contributions to the fashion industry, and the billions that it makes.
Whilst the Honours List is always an opinionated debate, with division on how worthy someone ‘famous’ is of such a prestigious accolade, Ralph Lauren is a designer who has defined decades of style, built up a major brand from very little, and raised significant amounts for Breast Cancer amongst other charitable causes.
There will always be those who think an individual famous in the world of fashion isn’t deserving of such an honour, but the vast contribution that fashion makes to our economy and the world economy is worthy of recognition. Lauren is certainly worthy of recognition for this and his philanthropic efforts in public health, cancer research and treatment.
However, for such a cornerstone of American fashion, the man uses this term reluctantly: “I’ve never wanted to be in fashion. Because if you’re in fashion, you’re going to be out of fashion.”
Imagery courtesy of Vogue.com and High Snobiety
About Our Author: Katie Calvert's background is in fashion and textiles with a first class honours degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion and experience in trend, PR and events. She decided to take the plunge back into education in 2015 to complete a Master of Arts in Multimedia Journalism. Using these newfound skills and her love of fashion and culture, Katie has been freelance writing for over a year.