WASHINGTON — For Ralph Lauren, the American flag is not just a motif. When he uses the flag as inspiration for his designs — including his U.S. Olympic uniforms — he believes in what that represents.
The 74-year-old fashion designer was honored Tuesday by the Smithsonian Institution for his career and to mark the 200th anniversary of the original flag that inspired the writing of the national anthem. Lauren helped fund a major effort to preserve that flag.
Lauren was awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal “for his embodiment of the American experience” and for “supporting artistry, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship for more than five decades.”
Lauren, the son of immigrants, was born Ralph Lifshitz and grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. He’s gone from selling ties from a drawer at the Empire State Building in 1967 to running a corporation with 25,000 employees.
Lauren sat down with The Associated Press to discuss his five decades in fashion.
What drew you into the world of fashion originally?
Luck. No, you know, I never went to fashion school. I somehow was a young guy, grew up in the Bronx and … I don’t know how I can put it together, whether it’s movies or it’s being in a world where you can read books and go to movies and dream.
Also being the youngest child in the family and getting all hand-me-downs and sort of saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want my own clothes.’ So when your parents are not able to afford the kind of clothes as a kid growing up, I had to work myself and earn my way and buy my own things. I just wanted to look like one of the guys and have the girls look at me.
What does this award from the Smithsonian mean to you?
It’s probably the greatest honor one could have. The honor is mine to give to them because I’m part of this country.
What makes you passionate about the flag and the conservation of the actual flag that inspired the writing of the national anthem?
I grew up inspired by America, inspired by the West, inspired by the Adirondacks, inspired by African-Americans, soldiers — life that I saw — the Native Americans. I saw a world that was different, and I was inspired.
What do you consider your career highlights?
I started with neckties, which are a very small thing, and people aren’t even wearing them today. Neckties helped start my career. When a man wore a tie, it had to make a statement.
I think every time I created a new brand, from men’s to women’s to children to home, they were interesting elements. My clothes are not about fashion. They’re about living. They’re about how you live and how you want to live. And they’re not about in and out fashion that’s trendy or the hot news of the day.
I think most people want stability. They want to feel that if they go out and buy something, they want good quality, good value for their money. They don’t want to spend it frivolously and find that it’s out of style.
How do you define your philosophy of fashion?
I can say that I’m about style, not fashion. I’m about timeless style, about quality, and that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. That means it’s something that continues on because I don’t throw out my clothes. The suit that I’m wearing is an old suit. I didn’t just make this suit. I like the familiarity in a way because it’s mine.
… People say, ‘I’ve worn your clothes for years and my child loves your clothes, my little girl loves your clothes.’ I’ve been very connected to the people out there that buy my things and who appreciate it. And sometimes they stop and say it, so that’s very nice.