Explaining the art of dream-weaving.
Think of the Ralph Lauren lifestyle, and images of the good life come to mind. Whether it’s horses riding off into the Colorado sunset, a handsome extended family at home in Connecticut, an aristocrat fresh off a country walk or the glamour of Old Hollywood, the designer presents a carefully sculpted image that has become ingrained in popular culture. WWD asked top branding and fashion experts for their take on Lauren’s lifestyle branding.
Marc Gobé, chairman and chief executive officer, Desgrippes Gobé: “Ralph Lauren has had as much influence in the U.S. as Dior has had in France and Armani in Italy. He is one of the designers who has an understanding of the psyche of his customers. He crystallized the American style, and nobody had done it before…nobody in an aggregate, with a total point of view, from what you wear to the type of house you live in, the furniture you buy, the car you drive or paintings you surround yourself with. The power behind that brand is that it is true to what he believes in. It’s a brand that has never compromised and never lost its focus and sense of mission. He has given all of us a picture of what our aspirations look like. He has made a reality the type of life people wanted to live but couldn’t…and done it with a high level of sincerity and honesty.”
Neil Kraft, ceo, Kraftworks: “Nobody has done it for longer or more consistently or as well as Ralph has. The key has been his unswerving consistency. When I worked there, it actually had a smaller proportion of women’s business than he has today, and some of that had to do with women, back then, not necessarily buying into the lifestyle [proposition], but they wanted to buy into the fashion. In the long run, he stuck to his guns and now, nobody has a more complete lifestyle than Ralph, from men’s to women’s, home, paint…it’s everything.
“He has an incredible eye. You would bring a picture to him that was slightly off and he would say, ‘That’s great, but that’s not me.’ He has a good eye of what is him. He knows it from the minute he sees a picture.”
Peter Arnell, chairman and chief creative executive officer, Arnell Group: “I would argue that the definition of lifestyle advertising was invented by Ralph Lauren. He wrote the book on it.
“First you invent it, then you build it and then you reinvent, build, reinvent….He took it to different areas and locations. He would never put anything down as a trend or it would become old. He has a timeless style.
“He filled a critical need for simple storytelling on the page. Unconsciously, work I did for Donna Karan was similar to his images that showed ‘America owning the West.’ Instead we did ‘America owns New York.’
“Embedded in my brain forever is the ‘Christmas with Dogs’ image. It touched me in a very deep way. Also, Bruce Weber’s images that showed an extended family in the Hamptons or Nantucket or somewhere like that. The collection of all the images is like something out of a movie.
“He gave us an invitation into his fantasy and created a great party that we all came to. He became a walking testament to the American dream.”
Fabien Baron: “He knows how to create a world and stick to it. He took an Americanized, English heritage theme and then pushed it over the years in a very consistent way. He’s amazing at merchandising and passing on an idea of lifestyle to the customers. He puts it in context in such a way that it relates his vision with power.”
Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Over the years, you had a number of designers who tentatively tested the waters [of lifestyle branding]. You had Cardin doing wine and cars, and Bill Blass doing sheets, but no one understood the power of fashion’s place in lifestyle the way Ralph did. The reason for it is that he thinks more like a movie director than he does as purely a fashion designer. His idea of fashion only has a very small role in communicating the totality of who we are and want to be. From the very beginning, it’s one of the historical coincidences. That actually is very telling about Ralph. The general understanding is that ‘The Great Gatsby’ makes Ralph. Suddenly, he becomes legible as a designer because of his contributions to that film, but, in fact, America’s Golden Age of cinema is what forged Ralph’s really compelling approach to fashion and lifestyle.
“He has created an American history that never existed. It’s through an idealizing lens that he views American social history. He creates an idea that is reflected in every single aspect of its representation. Not only is it a woman in a black cashmere turtleneck and black wool trousers with a black beret, but behind her, she is standing in an environment that is a contemporary vision of an urbane haute bohemia that supports the dressing, at every level, down to what is on the nightstand. The detailing in terms of his constructions of these fantasies is what makes them seem documentary. For instance, when we look at a Southwest collection, we think, ‘That’s how they dress in the Southwest,’ but they never dressed with such panache.”
Charles DeCaro, creative director, Laspata|DeCaro: “I prefer to reference his branding message as ‘Larger than Lifestyle,’ a snapshot into a rarefied world where blue blood flows through the branding’s subtext. Part Kennedy Camelot, part Hitchcock blonde, part House of Windsor. He’s put the capital A in Aspiration Advertising and yet the imagery never seems cloaked in self-importance.
“The myriad brand extensions — RL Home, Rugby, Purple Label, whatever — communicates a proprietary branding mantra that reinforces a distinct and unwavering vision, regardless of price or product.
“It has clearly spawned an arsenal of arrivistes that pale by comparison. Ralph’s narrative conveys the essence of a dream while other attempts seem disingenuous. Remaining true to a branding message only works if it is your message and not an interpretation of another’s point of view.
“There is not a question that, in turning a page in a magazine, one fully grasps that it is a Ralph ad even without seeing the accompanying logo. His brand has morphed into a descriptive — ‘Very Ralph’ has become part of our lexicon.”
Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman, Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners: “Ralph is a genius and he deserves major kudos. He basically invented the modern-day version of lifestyle marketing. He is the ultimate marketing and branding pioneer. He has a macro vision for the brand.
“Ralph is very protective of his brand and has never strayed from his vision. He didn’t make side deals or get caught up with celebrities. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and [Polo] has been so fully embraced by the people with taste and style all over Europe.
“I think he was one of the first to do multiple pages for ad campaigns. He invented it and then we all went along for the ride. He led the way on how to create a world for a client — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the luxury space.”
Raul Martinez, ceo and executive creative director, AR: “He is the case study for most brands when they’re talking about what works. Ralph Lauren has had consistency for 40 years. He has had a vision that has not shifted. He has been committed to the world he created — this world we have all entered, which is almost this magic, fantasy world. He is a true American brand, and wherever you are in the world, if you enter the store, you are entering a space with this Americanism no one else has. Just on that, he is iconic.
“I think the strength of that world, or the nostalgia, or the seduction of the world is one important factor. At the time he created it, it was closer to that style of life, and it has been able to evolve.
“Some brands and designers go with trends, he sticks to what Ralph Lauren does from a design and marketing point of view, and he has been really smart in identifying the different pieces of that lifestyle, which allowed him to enter different categories, from home to Double RL to Rugby.”
David Wolfe, creative director for The Doneger Group: “Ralph Lauren’s business always reminds me of Cary Grant’s statement that he invented himself and then became the man he had invented. I think that’s what happened to Ralph’s business (not the man himself, who seems to still be a fashion industrialist and not an aristocrat, despite his enviable lifestyle…but is it really a lifestyle, or a styled photo shoot?). The business sold aspiration by selling perfectly executed versions of what Ralph knew the upper crust had, or even wished they had. Those seeking upward mobility bought it, hook, line and Polo logo. The phenomenal development was the fact that the excellence of the product and the constancy of the imagery put forth in those huge ad campaigns ended up selling Ralph’s version of the world to the very class that he was exploiting. The integrity of Lauren’s brand is, in my estimation, the secret of his empire-building success. He believes and he sells that belief, not just merchandise.”
Catherine Sadler, president, New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group: “At its heart, lifestyle branding…is about creating a brand personality and image that’s emotional, with aspirations that are unique, strong and broad enough to support brand extensions. Ralph has always understood this. When he was a young man, while his buddies were probably loving everything about popular culture, he was dreaming about life in the Ivy League and listening to jazz…and he built his brand positioning on making that aspirational life accessible. It’s that aspiration of mythic proportions that conjures up images of well-tanned people playing badminton, Cary Grant look-alikes stepping out in a dinner jacket to strings of Ella Fitzgerald. Ralph conjured up this world where people are better looking, better off and more secure in the knowledge that they’re living the best that life can offer — heritage, stability, beauty, family values. He is second to none, he is best of breed.
“Consistency is a core word when you talk about Ralph Lauren. He has obsessively maintained the brand DNA at every single customer touch point, from product to store design to visual merchandising to the images in his advertising.”
Mike Toth, president and chief creative officer, Toth Brand Imaging: “Ralph is the gold standard of lifestyle branding — honestly, of branding of any kind. In part, it’s because Polo is authentically about who Ralph is, what interests him and how he lives his life. He lives and breathes the brand.
“He has been relentlessly consistent for 40 years, defining the American good life in all its permutations without a misstep. He remains true to the brand, even while being relevant to the changing tastes of the marketplace. Whether it is the most beautiful ballgown, a perfectly worn pair of jeans, a store design, a print ad or the simplest hangtag, there’s a consistent level of taste and execution in everything he does.
“You have only to open a magazine to understand how profound he has been, or walk down Madison Avenue or a suburban shopping mall to begin to understand the depth of gratitude an entire generation of companies owes to him, everyone from Abercrombie & Fitch to David Yurman.”
Trey Laird, owner, Laird + Partners: “There is no designer in the world that is more influential and more consistent in branding efforts than Ralph Lauren. No one is in the same league — that’s where I position him. I feel like he’s created such an identifiable style.
“He was the first major player that pushed the idea that lifestyle is more important than products. He’s sold lifestyle and let people imagine how they could live the perfect life. Others tried to do it, but no one owns it like Ralph. There is a fine line between being consistent and getting stale. Sometimes he’ll do things differently; he has many other lines that can help fuel the story. He is able to keep it fresh — there are just so many sides to him: the American West, Duke of Windsor, ‘Great Gatsby,’ American Kennedy.
“He never talks down to the customer — he brings people up. He brings you into this world. I mean, I want to be Ralph Lauren.”
— With contributions from Robert Murphy, Paris