Ambassadors of America

Ralph Lauren have been dressing Team USA since 2008, but the thrill of playing their part in Olympic glory has not worn off. David Lauren tells THE RAKE how they aim to project the best of America.

Ambassadors of America

David Lauren has taken watch on the bridge of his father’s eponymous brand since he joined in 2000. His ‘merchantainment’ idea for the website, in which storytelling and commerce were seamlessly blended, outpaced everyone else on the market, and even in 2024 other brands are still to catch up. 

One aspect of Ralph Lauren’s story that David was present to witness was the invitation by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee for the company to dress Team USA for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Since then, Ralph Lauren have dressed every American team for the summer and winter Olympics and Paralympics, an honour not lost on the Lauren family. “When I was a child, I remember watching the Olympics on television,” David says. “It was back in the late seventies and then the eighties. We had a neighbour who lived near us who was a television commentator, and so as a child I was in awe of the Olympics. I remember Eric Heiden and Mark Spitz. These were names that became like Greek gods, they were so powerful and fast and amazing. 

“When someone is the fastest in the world and you are five years old, it is awe inspiring, so that stayed with me and my family, who all used to watch the Olympics together. I remember sitting with my father on the couch and cheering — whether they were skiing or swimming, it was equally exciting to see the winners and the people who didn’t win but had so much heart and love. The stories of each athlete, the passion and compassion that you felt from the athletes together... the team spirit that came out of it was always inspiring.” 

David Lauren, the Chief Branding and Innovation Officer at Ralph Lauren.
The athletes tell us what they feel comfortable in, what gives them confidence, what makes them feel like champions. 

With hindsight, the idea that Ralph Lauren would become the outfitters for Team USA seems a fait accompli, but it was, at the time, a pipe dream for David and his family. He says: “Long before we outfitted Team USA, the Olympics was an inspiration for the clothing design [at Polo].” 

Ralph Lauren have for many years been known as the sartorial voice of America, yet at the beginning of the 21st century encapsulating this in a single uniform for a stage as vast as the Olympics was something they had still to do. The brand provided uniforms for the Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis tournaments, and then in 2008 they received ‘the call’. 

“One day I got a call from the head of the U.S. Olympic committee,” David says. “It was just a few months before the Olympics, and they said, ‘Would Ralph Lauren like to outfit Team USA?’ I couldn’t believe we were receiving that phone call. They had seen what we had done with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and said, ‘You know, Ralph Lauren is the brand to make Team USA feel like ambassadors of America in sport and style’. Just those words — that Team USA were ambassadors on a global stage, and they should wear Ralph Lauren because that is part of the spirit of America — resonated so deeply with me. I remember walking into my father’s office and sitting with him, and the fact that they were so moved that they had thought of us — it was such an honour to outfit Team USA.” 

The process from there was necessarily quick. It involved several athletes, former Olympians as well as the 2008 intake. Ralph Lauren needed to understand what fabrics felt most comfortable for the athletes, but they also had to imbue the uniforms with an intangible quality: the clothes had to make their wearers feel like they were making history, or bearing a legacy. “You have goosebumps sitting there, it was so exciting,” David says. 

The brief for Team USA uniforms includes the outfits for the opening and closing ceremonies and what is called ‘village wear’ — what the athletes wear around the Olympic village when they are not competing. David says: “The athletes guide us as to what they feel comfortable in, what gives them confidence, what makes them feel like champions, what makes them feel like ambassadors on a global stage in Ralph Lauren.”  

Sometimes the victorious ones would meet Ralph Lauren and David in New York. “There is nothing better than an Olympic athlete telling you how proud they were to stand in front of their families, in front of the entire world, holding their medals and wearing Ralph Lauren and feeling a part of American history,” David says of the experience. “It has made all of us feel incredibly proud.” 

Swimmer Bobby Finke.
Swimmer Jamal Hill.
Volleyball player Chiaka Ogbogu.
Skateboarder Jagger Eaton.
BMX racer Kamren Larsen.
Breakdancer Jeffrey Louis.

Polo, he adds, was hardwired for this kind of task — even its name shows it was founded on a combination of sport and style. Yet the important thing to note is that the brand could not define it in one uniform and then repeat it four years later. Each iteration of the American uniform needed to reflect the times in which it was worn. While the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee might sometimes have asked for jackets and ties, topics such as sustainability also came to play a major role in their thinking. David sees this as an issue not just for a couple of weeks per Olympiad, but something people learn about at other times, especially by looking more closely at the clothes and understanding better the fabrics and efforts to practise sustainability. (Their Villagewear line, which ends up in Ralph Lauren stores, plays an important role here.) Technology is a factor, too, of course, with jackets that light up, heat up or cool down, as well as a guaranteed construction quality that means in 20 years’ time a young man may be able to go into a store and say, “My father wore this jacket when he competed in the Olympics”. This highlights how Ralph Lauren are much more than outfitters. They have changed the way people have dressed, which has in turn helped facilitate cultural and societal shifts over the years. David once asked his father, while they were in Central Park, “What was your impact on fashion — what do you feel was your contribution?” Ralph Lauren replied, “You know, David, you don’t even realise that before you were born — you see all these people walking in the park? If you had seen my father walking through the park, he wouldn’t have been walking around in sneakers and sweatpants, he would have had a hat on, he would have been walking on the weekends in a suit.” Which led to the salient point that suits were always designed to enhance the wearer’s confidence and pride in themselves, and the contribution of fashion, and Ralph Lauren specifically, has been to democratise that sense of confidence by allowing people to feel confident and proud in more casual clothes. 

The team at Ralph Lauren believes that that same ethos comes through in the Olympic and Paralympic collections they have created — not just that their uniforms empower the athletes, but that they help make superheroes out of those on the other side of the television, who watch in wonder. 

Ralph Lauren remains a brand that allows people to dream, though it’s not just about achieving goals: when you put on a Polo outfit, it’s about signing up to a set of values. My conversation with David was a great reminder that those values need to be cherished, protected and nurtured. 

: American athletes in Ralph Lauren’s closing ceremony uniform for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Triathlete Melissa Stockwell.
The closing ceremony uniform for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.