“Stores are not dead.”

So proclaimed no less an industry maestro than Ralph Lauren during a conversation last week.

This story first appeared in the January 13, 2016 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Thirty minutes with Lauren can go anywhere. When he’s passionate on the topic, he’s more than happy to stray beyond the specific matter at hand. And Lauren is plenty passionate about the entirety of his work. Last week, he previewed his men’s fall 2016 Purple Label collection with WWD, walking through the vast installation at his New York headquarters, the setup conceived and installed with characteristic impeccable attention to detail, even though the official presentation is in Milan on Jan. 16. Nearing the end, someone brought up the industry’s overall lackluster holiday season, prompting Lauren to riff on retail. The man knows what he’s talking about. A pioneer of high-end vertical retail when that meant one thing only, four walls and a selling floor, he is also in the forefront of e-commerce. Want a stack of Polo shirts monogrammed in the color and font of your choice? You can expect delivery in just a few days. Lauren loves the current convenience and untold possibilities of e-commerce and m-commerce. He also loves a chic store of the brick-and-mortar sort, especially in the quest for luxury.

“Certainly online is growing,” Lauren noted. “But there’s nothing like walking into a beautiful shop, touching the clothes and putting them on and feeling like someone is talking to you about the products. You’re asking questions and they’re giving you answers. When I walk into a ski shop and they’re talking about the skis…yes, you can press a button and say order [these skis] or that Mercedes, but there’s more to that. When someone explains a [ski] helmet, you get the magic.”

That said, ignition of that moment of conversational magic takes two, and Lauren acknowledged that retail traffic is off. “Business is bad,” he said. “People are not in the stores. No matter where you go, it’s quiet, it’s empty.” And emptiness breeds — emptiness. “When you walk into an empty store, when you walk into a restaurant that’s empty, you want to [leave]. Even if it’s good food, you’re leaving it because it doesn’t feel good to be there. I think we’ve gone through that kind of period this past year. The dollar changed, everything we’re living through, the weather…”

Solutions aren’t pat, and can come in surprising guises. For example, the opening of The Polo Bar in the Polo store at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street wasn’t sprung from a philanthropic desire to bring great steaks and corned beef to a neighborhood lean on fine dining. “We put a restaurant in our store and that worked in a different way,” he said. He built it, the throngs came, and a year after the opening, reservations remain impossible. New Year’s Eve “was amazing,” Lauren said, boasting that the evening’s highlights included a singing waitress. As she walked the room in song, “one of my thoughts was, ‘Let’s see how I’m going to deal with this.’ It’s about how to make retail more exciting.” He’s now working on a coffee shop concept, though he didn’t divulge particulars, location included.

As he approaches 50 years in the business, Lauren has seen just about everything the economy, the markets and the competition — not to mention the vicissitudes of fashion — could throw in his path. He has survived and thrived through it all, so his advice is worth listening to, advice all the more fascinating for its lack of preparation; it came from the gut. Lauren distilled three seemingly simple tenets that have worked for him: Don’t panic. Know who you are. Within the parameters of that knowledge, deliver newness.

Rather than panicking one’s way through challenging times, Lauren said a more fruitful approach is to take a long, hard stare into the company looking glass and ask, “What are we not doing?”

Difficult times for business demand that people “start to sharpen up. If people are flying through the store, you think everything you’re doing is great. Then business and the economy change, and you don’t look like a genius anymore. Then [you should ask], ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ That’s the biggest time to make a statement and work hard.”

Inextricably linked, self-knowledge and the need for newness can make antagonistic bedfellows. “Don’t lose yourself,” Lauren warned. “It’s about doing your best and looking for newness without losing who you are.” That juxtaposition creates a question every designer must ask and answer constantly, one both practical and existential: “How do I say something new and still be me?”

Whether one’s business resides at the rare, Lauren-esque iconic stage or a nascent one, he suggested the same approach. “You have to experiment. Not everything you do is going to be amazing….

“You better make your statement, whatever it is,” Lauren said. “If you do it, you believe in it and you know how to say it, then you’re a leader. If you follow the guy that’s doing it, you’re not a leader.”

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