A great ad story not written: the fashion world's Tarlows

By Published on .

Every journalist has a catalog of stories he should have written but didn't. At the top of my list is the tale of Dick and Sandy Tarlow, the most influential fashion authorities in America.

Sandy ran advertising for Ralph Lauren, almost from the moment Mr. Lauren began advertising. Dick directed advertising for Revlon. Between them, they were responsible for more looks, more styles, more attitude and more supermodels than a lifetime's worth of runways could ever provide.

I never wrote that story. It's not that Dick and Sandy opposed it; it's that they really didn't care. In New York, a city that thrives on fashion and those who command it, the Tarlows were as private as they were powerful.

That was only one of the many contradictions that made them such a terrific story. In a culture where styles change overnight and today's visionary is tomorrow's has-been, they partnered with their major clients for years; Sandy worked for Mr. Lauren for more than a quarter-century. The Tarlows partnered together for decades, too, despite styles-his pugnacious, hers gentle-that couldn't be more opposed. In an industry where no violation is as profane as a client conflict, they worked openly for competitors-who were delighted to have them.

Their partnership began at the old Martin Landey Arlow agency, where Dick, a copywriter who'd previously tried a Hemingway act in Spain, was a principal and Sandy Carlson, a Skidmore grad from Massachusetts, was a young assistant art director. She eventually departed for Young & Rubicam. When Dick left to start his own agency, he persuaded her to leave her secure position to join his quixotic venture. They lived together and worked together, until 2 a.m. most evenings. Advertising, Dick says, kept them together; both prone to sulk silently, the press of business forced them to work out any differences within a day.

Ralph Lauren showed up in 1979, with a few hundred thousand dollars and a concept of the good life. The Tarlows worked for him for a few years, until Dick decided to sell the agency and concentrate his efforts on writing, parenting and sports. Sandy stayed with the account, bringing it to Wells Rich Greene. Eventually, she started Carlson & Partners. It was her shop, but almost entirely dedicated to Ralph and the team he and she built.

Dick came back to advertising, starting up solo to help a friend market Max Factor, and eventually taking on all of Revlon. Soon, Revlon bought his agency; he and Sandy ended up as partners with their clients-and partners with each other-in two agencies that were, in essence, an interdependent ecosystem of style. (The two agencies even split the Victoria's Secret account.)

By all accounts, Sandy was Ralph Lauren's interpreter. Ralph, as Dick relates it, "always had a movie in his mind, a vision of what he wanted his world to be." Sandy was this auteur's auteur, working with Mr. Lauren and photographer Bruce Weber to bring the vision to life. "The beauty, she was all about beauty," Dick says.

Sandy Carlson Tarlow died last month at 59, four months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. At the memorial services, Pastor Bill Grimbol of Shelter Island's Presbyterian Church told how he'd known her for quite a while, but had to tease from her information about what she did for a living. Even at the end, she wasn't terribly interested in telling her own story. Happily, though, Sandy Tarlow's tale remains part of our collective vision of the beautiful life.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

Most Popular
In this article: