By  on October 15, 2007

Getting into customers' minds drives them into the stores.

As a veteran reporter for WWD, admittedly my perception of the Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. was always first and foremost that of a luxury designer brand and secondarily a retailer. I never thought to weave the Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street (the mother ship of the Ralph Lauren empire) into the paper's articles tracking the progress of the Christmas season at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdale's.

Fittingly, on the eve of Ralph Lauren's 40th anniversary in business, I began an exploration of the designer's stores and quickly learned that, since my last official visit years ago to the uptown flagship, the business has dramatically evolved.

"We're looking at the world right now...even visionary, creative places where maybe no one has stores," said Charles Fagan, Polo's executive vice president of global retail brand development.

Fagan is standing in the two-and-a-half-year-old Ralph Lauren men's store on Bleecker Street in New York's West Village, casually attired in a Double RL ribbed henley T-shirt and trim military chino. One suspects that if Fagan were escorting me through the Rhinelander, as he did five years before, he would be in Purple or Blue Label, and tailored head-to-toe.

But today his look is apropos to this downtown community, and instructional in conveying the guiding philosophy behind Ralph Lauren's accelerating and increasingly complex retail network.

"It's to get into the head of the market," Fagan explained. "Spend time there, understand the mood, the spirit, how people live and why they live there, and if they're just visiting, why they're visiting. That's Ralph's approach to us."

After all the market research, then it's about customization. "The architecture, the decorations, the assortment and the staff — those are the categories we customize. Stores must feel like they live and belong in the community. They can't be foreign," Fagan said as he spread out an array of photos of far-flung stores around the world to underscore the message.

Twenty or so years ago, the opening of the East Hampton, N.Y., shop, with its clean white facade, box planters and overflow of greenery and chic country motifs, broke the mold. "The movement toward customization around the world is not a new strategy in terms of Ralph's approach. It's more about the scale" of what's happening now, Fagan added. There are more stores to be built, domestically and overseas, and always distinctions, on a door-by-door basis.For example, the Double RL store in Malibu, Calif., could be mistaken for an auto body shop, with its cement facade and stainless steel lettering. Inside, the mood is "vintage beach" and the merchandise flavored with striped boatneck T-shirts and washed boot-cut jeans with Western detailing.

The St. Barth's unit has a tropical appeal, with turquoise coloring, teak furniture, sexy bikinis, shell earrings, high-heeled sandals and Black Label party dresses. The Aspen, Colo., store, with a red brick facade evoking a mining town, has the most advanced RLX department of any Lauren store, while the Tokyo flagship, inspired by hotels in Asia circa 1920, has a sweeping marble staircase, black-and-white photos of Hollywood legends lining the walls and a comprehensive assortment covering the gamut of Lauren's offerings, including the Purple, Blue, Black and Polo by Ralph Lauren labels. There's even a built-out department for Double RL, which is weighted toward Western and workwear.

The ultimate Ralph Lauren women's presentation could very well emerge at the upcoming Paris flagship opening on Avenue Montaigne in fall 2008. Fagan said the store will showcase a "fully comprehensive, glamorous women's statement that's very Collection- and runway-driven, with an emphasis on accessories."

Fagan goes on to the describe the collaborative process creating store environments involving several teams. There's a group that works on displays and props and another for product presentation that determines how merchandise gets styled in the vitrines and caselines and on mannequins. There is also staff that focuses entirely on finding the artwork for the stores, and additional staff focused on mill work, fabrics and floor coverings. Airy and light may work for other retailers, but at Ralph Lauren it's about creating rich, heavily appointed environments suggesting exotic locales, moods, bygone eras and elaborate odes to the luxury lifestyle, particularly in the large flagships.

But whether it's a flagship or a boutique, the process of creating stores is intensified by efforts to create distinct outfits that require stylists to have a thorough knowledge of Lauren's litany of labels. For example, at the women's store on the opposite side of Bleecker Street from the men's store, Fagan showed how one mannequin is decked out in a Black Label cashmere cable zip-front sweater with a shawl collar, a Polo scarf and an RLX stretch twill cavalry riding pant. It's a modern, intricate and elegant look, and one of those "little merchandise stories," as Fagan put it, geared to draw customers close to the merchandise and help them select. This particular outfit is offset by a cooler urban story composed of a suede shirt jacket, taffeta tulip skirt with a crocodile belt and motorcycle boots. Interesting pairings abound: a vintage skirt with a Collection runway jacket, or a Black Label kimono jacket coupled with a Blue Label velvet legging."The amount of stylists we have to train to understand our mix is certainly a challenge," Fagan suggested.

The irreducible element is that there's a consistency to the customization. "There's always a great mix, a sense of individuality and atmosphere," Fagan concluded. "For a particular market, the colors, weight and sizing of the collections might be tweaked. But we don't really alter the line at all, or the look of who we are." And it's always about presenting products and outfits that demonstrate style, function, performance, texture and beauty, not fashion or trend.

The mood of nostalgia seeps in as Fagan heads to the nearby Double RL, the third store in Lauren's mini enclave of shops in the West Village. Fagan pulls out some plaid cotton flannel work shirts, priced at $175, reminiscent of those you could have bought decades ago in the Army-Navy store for a tenth of the price. A Big Oak grease-stained work pant, for $350, conjures a lumberjack in Yosemite in the Fifties. Fagan also showed a $1,500 Western pant with fringe on the seams and handmade whip stitching with handmade nickel silver snaps, of the kind that could have been made long ago on an Indian reservation. "That's what I really enjoy about this company," Fagan beamed. "You can dress preppie today, dress like an English banker, or dress like a cowboy. But it's not phony. Ralph seeks integrity."

He also seeks control, by shifting the balance of the business from licensing to ownership, including the stores as well as manufacturing garments and other operations. Fagan said the company is "moving the needle" and that currently, it's roughly a 50-50 split between owned and licensed stores. "Ralph always says that whether we own the store or not, it's still my store," Fagan added.

In fiscal 2007, the corporation reported net revenues for retail represented 41 percent of total sales, while the wholesale business accounted for 54 percent, and licensing contributed 5 percent. Eventually, it is likely retailing will account for the bulk of the business. Ralph Lauren's fledgling Rugby label, which launched in 2004 with the first opening in Boston, is Polo's play for younger customers and lower prices. The chain will be an important growth contributor.With that in mind, I stop at the two-year-old Rugby store in the East Village, on the corner of University Place and 12th Street. When I arrive, there's a setback. A sign on the window indicates the store would open at 11 a.m., an hour late, due to work on the visuals. So with about a half-hour to kill, I decided to peer into the windows. There's plenty of activity — one worker tests where to position a fogger, another twists and turns a long rope so it gradually forms the likeness of a big horse's head, and on the sidewalk, there are about 10 saddles and saddle stands that would no doubt become prominent on the Rugby set. When the doors opened, I found the visual cues and props were everywhere, from the vintage luggage, oars and rugby team photos, to the antique brass clothes hooks in the dressing room. Albeit on a much smaller scale and much lower price point, the theatrical spirit of the Rhinelander seemed present. The rugby shirts, sweats, T-shirts — a significant portion of the assortment — are priced under $100, although there were more expensive jackets and suits for an older audience, with only a handful of products discounted. Sales in the Lauren retail enterprise are quarterly affairs, not everyday occurrences.

At the tiny Double RL shop on the corner of Crosby and Mott Streets in NoLIta, I learn from a tattooed associate that the label has been around since 1993, and matured into a freestanding retail format not too long ago.

Then it's up to the Rhinelander, where Lauren began to establish his retail signature that has since grown into a sophisticated, complex network of flagships, medium-sized shops and quaint boutiques with a great deal of commonality in their theatricality, meticulous merchandising and feeling for history.

At the Rhinelander, there is a large floral arrangement just inside, at the very spot where a guest would be announced when the site was a private residence. Right behind, there's an assortment of cashmere cable and V-neck sweaters, priced at $370 to $425, in a range of colors, which are said to be among the bestsellers. Deeper into the store, the products get more expensive, like a $975 alligator belt, or a $3,200 canvas and leather Cooper bag that I'm told was inspired by the fabric interior of one of Lauren's cars.Then it's up to the women's floor where, as I gaze at a detailed and tapered leather jacket, an associate offers me coffee, which soon arrives on a silver platter. I'm encouraged to explore further and visit home furnishings, where the current inspiration is Normandy with earth tones, patchwork pillows and furniture with curved legs. Again, one has been transported to an aspect of Ralph Lauren's world. I convey the sensation to an associate, who responds, "It's an experience coming here. We're not just any store."

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