When I started working on Very Ralph, the documentary film about Ralph Lauren that I recently produced and directed for HBO, I knew only a few basic facts about the designer. He was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, he got his start by selling ties out of a drawer in the Empire State Building, his clothing and lifestyle products are beautiful and expensive, his ads are among my favorites, and his name conjures up a very specific image of a life of ease and plenty. But over the course of making the film, I discovered the nuanced, multifaceted man behind the brand.

It’s All About the Movies

Like many kids growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Ralph went to the movies every Saturday. The movies opened up worlds to him that he never would have encountered any other way, growing up in a middle-class Bronx neighborhood with parents who were Jewish immigrants from Russia.

At the movies, he discovered his heroes—Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Randolph Scott—and that is where his vision began. A world of penthouses and glamour, the wide-open spaces of the West, the appeal of boating and beach life … all in all, a certain idea of America that was invented by the Hollywood moguls of the 1930s and 1940s. This image of America is what fueled Ralph’s dreams, and he built an empire on it.

Masterful Storytelling

Paul Goldberger has astutely observed that no one other than Walt Disney has persuaded so many to buy into his personal fantasies. Ralph became a cowboy on a Colorado ranch, a country gentleman in a Norman-style stone estate in Bedford, New York, driving race cars like Steve McQueen, or boating in the waters off his homes in Montauk and Jamaica. He created his own, cinematic idea of America, and sold it back to us. When you buy a cocktail shaker or a sweater from Ralph Lauren, you are investing in a piece of his life.

The Family Guy

There is no question that Ralph prefers the company of his families, both at home and at work, to almost anyone else. He relishes and protects his private life. The closeness of the Lauren family was a delight to observe. Ralph’s wife, Ricky, is completely guileless and charming, not to mention naturally beautiful. Their children are accomplished individuals who retain close ties to home. In one of our many private conversations, Ralph confided to me that one of the reasons he built screening rooms in all of his homes was to encourage weekend visits from his kids and grandkids. As a grandmother myself, I completely relate.

Ralph, at age 32, with his sons David and Andrew at the family’s house in Amagansett.

Ralph is a regular guy. Despite his fame and wealth, he is humble, quiet, and unassuming, living with many of the same concerns as the rest of us. He doesn’t relish getting older. He wants his grandkids to really get to know him. He works at staying healthy and trim. He wears the same clothes over and over. He prefers a good hamburger or Reuben sandwich to fancy foods, and he would prefer an evening at home with his family to a night on the town. There’s a quiet dignity about Ralph that I found completely disarming.

The Man of Many Firsts

As Bridget Foley said in the film, “Ralph did a lot of things before they were things.” He was among the first designers to prominently feature people of color on the runway and in his advertising campaigns. He was the first designer to expand his fashion collection into a lifestyle brand. He was among the first to understand that athletic wear would become, as Anna Wintour describes in the film, “the world’s uniform.” He is one of the few designers whose name has become an adjective. He is one of only two American designers who still run the company that bears their name. And he still goes to the office every day.

Rooted in the Present

It’s easy to dismiss Ralph as nostalgic and discuss his work with a certain amount of irony. But as many observed in the film, he aspires to bring the past into the present. He genuinely believes in his vision of America, although he’s mindful that we are living in complex times. He’s as concerned as the next person about where we are headed. And he really does drive the vintage cars he has amassed over the years.

Ralph as a Risk-Taker

Ralph walked away from Bloomingdale’s early in his career because he was asked to put the store’s labels on his ties, instead of his own. He didn’t have a penny in the bank, and he was working with Ricky’s parents to sew the labels into the ties. He had no master plan, and it wasn’t a straight shot to success. He was nervous about taking on women’s clothes, but he took that risk. Building his own store a few blocks from Bloomingdale’s could have sunk him, but he made that leap as well. As corny as it sounds, Ralph taught me that no matter where you come from, you can create a life far beyond your dreams if you have a strong vision and follow your instincts. It’s a pretty amazing Hollywood story.

Susan Lacy’s documentary films include Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Spielberg, and the series American Masters. Her latest, Very Ralph, premieres November 12 on HBO