Ralph Lauren looks back on Pink Pony’s beginnings and toward its future in an exclusive interview with RL Magazine
n 2001, the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation was founded, and much has changed since then. As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Mr. Lauren talks candidly about the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation and the Pink Pony initiative—the people who inspired their creation, the legacy they have built and his goals for their future.
RL Magazine: When did you create Pink Pony, and what inspired you to do so?
Ralph Lauren: More than 20 years ago, a close friend of mine, Nina Hyde, an editor at The Washington Post, shared with me her diagnosis of breast cancer. She asked me if I could do something to help. Like me, Nina had so many relationships in the fashion community, so I reached out to them and rallied their support. With Katharine Graham, [former publisher] of The Washington Post, I co-founded the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Nina only saw the beginning of my commitment to her and the disease that she battled against. In the same year that she came to me, she passed away. She was only 57.
A parade of models, including Bridget Hall (front), unveils the first Pink Pony tee at the Spring 2002 Ralph Lauren Collection Runway Show in September 2001
In 1994, inspired by our progress, I helped to rally the fashion industry again to take a united stand against breast cancer. The Council of Fashion Designers of America created an incredibly successful campaign called Fashion Targets Breast Cancer® to drive international awareness. I designed their first target logo. But after that, I knew I wanted to make an even more personal statement, and so I created the Pink Pony using our iconic Polo pony. As the finale of our Spring 2002 Collection runway show in September 2001, I sent the models down the runway wearing the Pink Pony T-shirt. It became the symbol of our Pink Pony campaign.
How did the RL Center come to be? Why did you choose Harlem for its home?
After Nina Hyde, the person who most inspired me to focus my philanthropic efforts on conquering this terrible disease was Dr. Harold Freeman. I met with him at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and was immediately humbled by his eloquence, compassion and dedication to providing access and opportunity for health care to those in need. He told me that lack of education and access are the first barriers to preventing or curing cancer at an early stage. Dr. Freeman asked for help, and Ralph Lauren Corporation’s response was to make a grant in 2001 to help establish the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention [also known as the RL Center]. And because Dr. Freeman shared with me the shocking truth of the great disparities in cancer rates and cancer care in medically underserved communities, especially Harlem, we opened it right there in a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering and [the now defunct] North General Hospital.
When I was growing up in the Bronx, I remember so well one particular moment when my mother had a health scare and was so frightened because she didn’t know where to turn for help. I hope centers like ours in Harlem will serve as a model for other communities around the world to provide the emotional and medical support for people just like my mother.
Model Katia Kokoreva sports a screen-printed Pink Pony tee backstage at the Spring 2014 Ralph Lauren Collection Runway Show in September 2013
What do you think has been Pink Pony’s greatest accomplishment so far?
Pink Pony has accomplished so much on so many levels. Since we started in New York in 2001, Pink Pony has become an initiative in 20 countries. It makes me so proud to see how it’s recognized as our global symbol in our fight against cancer, supporting beneficiaries all over the world. And it makes me just as proud to see the results gained by the people that fight cancer every day in the RL Center. Since it opened its doors in 2003, thanks to the wonderful doctors and patient navigators who make treatment accessible, affordable and personal, the center has cared for approximately 100,000 patients and 13,000 uninsured individuals from all five boroughs.
How do you envision Pink Pony evolving to continue the global fight against cancer?
As our company continues its global expansion, so will the efforts of Pink Pony. Twenty-five percent of the purchase price of Pink Pony products, our ever-changing assortment of clothing and accessories available today in 20 countries, goes to cancer charities. In the US, the proceeds go to the Pink Pony Fund of the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, and internationally, we work with a network of beneficiaries. It is incredibly exciting and inspiring to see Pink Pony supporting so many international organizations and partners.
How does it feel to see your personal goal to fight cancer become a philanthropic goal for your company and for the entire industry?
Over 20 years ago, I lost a good friend to cancer, and I promised that I would do my best to fight the disease that took her life. Watching the incredible progress we have made—to not only raise money to fight cancer but also to educate and support people, particularly those in underserved communities, navigate the sometimes isolating experience of patient treatment—is the greatest gift I could ever receive. Beyond that, my greatest personal pleasure is the annual Pink Pony Walk I take with hundreds of our employees in New York City. Thousands of our employees around the world gather to commemorate Pink Pony Day through all kinds of activities that ultimately celebrate our mission and raise awareness and funds for our very special Pink Pony cause.