Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Rueben Lifshitz in The Bronx to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Belarus: Fraydl (Kotlar) and Frank Lifshitz, a house painter. From a young age he started working after school to earn money to buy suits. The four-year younger Calvin Klein, lived in the same Bronx neighborhood but it is not known if they ever met while living there.
Lauren attended the Salanter Academy Jewish Day School followed by MTA (now known as the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy), before eventually graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957. In MTA Lauren was known by his classmates for selling ties to his fellow students. In his Clinton yearbook he stated under his picture that he wanted to be a millionaire. Other notables who attended this school include Burt Lancaster, Robert Klein, and Stan Lee. At age 16, Ralph's brother Jerry changed their last name from Lifshitz to Lauren (his brother Lenny retained the name Lifshitz for many years).
He went to Baruch College (of the City University of New York) where he studied business, although he dropped out after two years. From 1962 to 1964 he served in the United States Army. After his discharge in 1968, he married Ricky Low-Beer. He did not attend fashion school, but worked for Brooks Brothers as a salesman. In 1967, with the financial backing of Norman Hilton, Lauren opened a necktie store where he also sold ties of his own design, under the label "Polo". He later purchased the name from Hilton. Lauren's fashion empire has since grown into a billion-dollar business.
In 1984 he transformed the Rhinelander Mansion, former home of the photographer Edgar de Evia and Robert Denning, into the flagship store for Polo Ralph Lauren. This same year de Evia photographed the cover feature story for House & Garden on the Lauren home Round Hill in Jamaica, which had formerly been the home of Babe and Bill Paley.
In the middle of the 1990s, Polo Ralph Lauren became a public company, traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol RL.
Ralph and his wife, Ricky, have two sons and a daughter: Andrew Lauren (b. 1969 in New York City, New York), David Lauren (b. 1971) and Dylan Lauren (b. May 1974 in New York City. David is an executive at Polo Ralph Lauren and Dylan owns and operates an upscale candy store, Dylan's Candy Bar, at 59th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. Ricky appeared on the television show Martha on December 10th 2006 and stated that her son Andrew is in the "movie business".
In 2003, Lauren's nephew Greg Lauren announced his engagement to actress Elizabeth Berkley. Lauren designed and created outfits for the entire wedding party (including Berkley's wedding dress) to wear. Berkley wore a silk sheath dress with pearled spaghetti straps while Lauren wore a white tuxedo jacket and a black bow tie.
Lauren is also well known as a collector of classic automobiles. His cars have won best in show at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance multiple times. His collection was recently displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Lauren is the subject of several biographies.