The son of immigrants from Belarus, Ralph Lauren’s ascent from Bronx-born necktie salesman to renowned fashion designer, philanthropist and business executive is the very definition of the American Dream. At the age of 26, Lauren created his own line of ties, vending then from a drawer in an Empire State Building showroom. After selling his designs to Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales, he launched his now-seminal Polo Ralph Lauren label, which swiftly became synonymous with American style and luxury. It was fitting, then, that in the late 1990s, the legend set his sights on preserving the national hallmark that epitomized the essence of his clothing—the Star-Spangled Banner.
Lauren, who provided substantial financial support for a multi-year conservation effort to protect the delicate flag from the ravages of time, was today awarded the James Smithsonian Bicentennial Medal in a ceremony at the National Museum of American History. Established in 1965 to honor the 200th anniversary of its namesakes’ birth, the James Smithsonian Bicentennial Medal is given to individuals who have “made distinguished contributions to the advancement of areas of interest to the Smithsonian.” The medal was presented during a naturalization ceremony welcoming 15 new Americans, which also featured keynote remarks by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and speeches from Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough.
Immortalized by Francis Scott Key, the Star-Spangled Banner flew during the decisive Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. It was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, and added to the permanent collections five years later. But although it had anchored the American History Museum's Flag Hall dating back to 1964, conservationists and curators worried about saving the tattered textile for future generations of museumgoers. After intermittent treatments over the years to shield the flag from humidity, temperature and temperature, its faded stripes caught Clinton's attention.
"I was worried at that time, as we were approaching a new millennium, that we were in danger of losing precious pieces of our history," says Clinton, who in 1998 was active in establishing Save America’s Treasures, a United States federal government initiative that spearheaded the ambitious endeavor of examining, treating and preserving the Star-Spangled Banner in a state-of-the-art glass laboratory. "I was disheartened to see that many of our nation's most treasured monuments and historical artifacts were falling into disrepair. I asked experts, 'Is this really happening, or is it just my perception?' And talking to the leadership and experts at the Smithsonian, they said, 'No, some of our most precious possessions are really in danger—and most particularly, the Star-Spangled Banner.' What more could one say? What symbol better exemplified our spirit and our struggle, our commitment?"
Lauren, she says, "responded to the call" with gifts of $10 million to help restore the flag and $3 million to support the historic preservation program. He didn't have to," Clinton said. "But he understood because it was deep within him that part of being an American is giving back."
Lauren, whose earliest memories of the Star-Spangled Banner were the flag that flew from the flagpole in his Bronx schoolyard, wrote in book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon that he is "a product of the American dream, and the flag is its symbol." The flag's enduring legacy is important to Americans, he said, because "those who succeed us will understand our nation's heritage and the ideals on which the United States was founded."