By Anne VanderMey
October 24, 2012

There are some classics that never go out of style — Ralph Lauren (RL) has the earnings to prove it. The $6.9 billion that it made in fiscal 2012 outstrips by $1 billion what competitors such as PVH Corp. (PVH) (which owns Tommy Hilfiger) hauled in and is twice what Burberry made last year. The preppy-apparel giant is one of the industry’s most consistent performers, second only to the VF Corp. (VFC), which owns North Face, in steady growth. VF increased its revenue 23% last year; revenue at Ralph Lauren went up 21% — and has grown in 14 of the past 15 years. Smart international expansion — including opening several higher-end stores in China to court the luxury market — may tee up the company for a growth spurt: Analysts at Morgan Stanley say it stands to add $2.5 billion to its revenue with overseas sales. Three ways the American fashion house is seeking global domination while keeping it classy.

A good yarn

Chairman and CEO Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz), the Bronx-born son of an immigrant housepainter, has riffed on an idealized American upper crust, starting with a line of Polo-branded ties in 1967. His style has a story, and the story is Gatsbyesque. “Lauren pioneered the concept of lifestyle branding,” says Liz Dunn, an analyst at Macquarie. The U.S. Olympic Committee stood by the company this summer following news that athletes’ outfits had been made in China.

Endless labels

The company ingratiates itself with consumers at every price point by slicing its image many ways. At the top: $3,000 double-breasted cardigan sweaters from the Purple Label. At the bottom: Chaps brand clothing and home goods. Some brands inspire cultish devotion. Enthusiasts called ‘Lo Heads collect Polo and Ralph Lauren gear — ties, shirts, and jackets by the hundreds — from the 1980s.

Savvy expansion

In the past decade Ralph Lauren gained more control of its brand positioning overseas, buying back licenses in Japan and South Korea and distribution rights in China.

World’s Most Admired Rank: 47
Headquarters: New York
Employees: 26,000

The business: Designs, distributes, and sells apparel, home décor, and accessories through more than 20 brands — including Polo, Club Monaco, Chaps, and Rugby.

This story is from the October 29, 2012 issue of Fortune.


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