The Patron

Money can't buy love. But it can buy polo.

Outside Goodman Manufacturing, the parking lot was packed with Chevrolets and Fords, and Goodman's BMW was sprawled across two spaces at the front door. His office was adorned with paintings of horses; his large, leather-topped desk was barren of papers. Behind the desk, looking very Brooks Brothers, Goodman didn't know how to use his computer. His gaze was unsteady, his speech uncertain. His secretary had kept his afternoon entirely open so he could get a flu shot.

"I don't know what I do, but I stay busy," he said. Then he added, "But don't make it like I'm real busy, okay? Because I don't want to be like I'm a big shot."

It was Goodman's father who worked so hard he eliminated the need for any Goodman to ever work again. "The air-conditioning business is such a darn good business,'' Harold Goodman told the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News in 1994. "Things have turned out beyond my wildest expectations."

Harold Goodman grew up from his Beaumont origins to become a salesman of window units. Then he became the distributor for a major air-conditioning manufacturer, and finally a major manufacturer himself.

He had five children, and John was one of two sons. John Goodman had a big, blue-collar kind of body, and at T. H. Rogers Junior High, he was on the football team. Then his dad began raising thoroughbreds, and John was sent off to boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no football team at the Winchendon School; John took up lacrosse.

He can't remember ever having a goal as a child. Goodman always knew there was room for him in his father's business. From his Massachusetts boarding school, he went to his Delaware college. After graduating from Wesley, Goodman came back home to Texas with a brand-new marketing degree and an abiding love for lacrosse.

Dad right away made young Goodman vice-president of international sales. Goodman married a girl from the neighborhood (Tanglewood), moved into a $2.6 million house in a better neighborhood (River Oaks), and though the company was soon bringing in about $400 million a year, he went looking "for something to do."

A generation before the patrón, there was a Jewish boy named Ralph Lifshitz who grew up in a crowded apartment overlooking a highway in the Bronx. His father was a housepainter; Ralph wore hand-me-downs until he could buy clothes for himself.

His friends preferred motorcycle jackets, but Lifshitz dressed himself in tweed bermudas and button-down shirts. When his parents suggested he shop at cheaper boutiques, he said no, and that was that. Lifshitz didn't have much in this world, but he was pretty sure he had a sense of style. "I don't know," he told one magazine, "from the time I was 12 years old I looked cool."

He briefly considered becoming a history teacher, because he fancied the notion of dressing in tweed and smoking a pipe. But then Lifshitz rejected that plan, conflicting as it did with the only goal he listed in his 1957 high school yearbook: "Millionaire."

Sales seemed the more practical route. Lifshitz became the ultimate self-made man: He changed his name to Lauren, and wearing custom-made suits, he began tooling around in a used Morgan, selling gloves and ties. He said he thought of himself as Douglas Fairbanks. The clothes were a setting, he said, a dream of another world.

Lauren founded Polo Fashions in 1968. People were marching in the streets then, and Lauren made his first million by designing something different -- wide ties in material that looked like upholstery. Rebellion was never really his area, though, and when in the '70s the revolutionary spirit cooled, Lauren returned to the clothes of aspiration.

His genius has never been as an innovator but as a calculator of the national mood. In a new country based on ideas of equality, Lauren understood the longing for ancient nobility. Every fellow wants to be lord of the manor, or at least to look like one. All the fashion designer had to do was mesh the dream with the cloth.

"For Ralph Lauren," according to a 1975 Polo Magazine profile, "even as a youth, polo meant a great deal, but as a fantasy, not as a way of life. Polo and horses represented a class of people who knew how to live -- people who weren't ashamed of being wealthy, but who didn't flaunt it either."

The silhouette of a polo player was attached to all Lauren's clothing. His advertisements, rather than celebrating the fine craftsmanship of his clothes, displayed the beautifully satisfied people who wore them. Lauren poured money into magazine ads. People who had never seen an English country house became familiar with his magazine version of it. Lauren had rarely attended polo matches, but he taught readers what to wear on such occasions and with what kind of dog to loll in the grass.

"Thousands of people for whom the word 'polo' was quite meaningless five years ago now utter it as a matter of fact," went the story in Polo Magazine. "It's Ralph Lauren who has made 'polo' a respected word in discriminating homes all over the country."

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