NEW YORK — For those naysayers who doubted whether Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. could produce a spring Lauren by Ralph Lauren collection in only three months, there was no need to worry.

“We got everything done. This is a massive undertaking,” said Ralph Lauren, chairman of Polo, dressed somewhat casually in a navy blue double-breasted suit, blue polo shirt and white sneakers, as he gave a tour Friday of the Madison Avenue showroom housing the spring line — one of the company’s biggest initiatives in years.

“This is how it all started,” said Lauren, referring to the original concept for the eight-year-old Lauren line — to broaden the designer’s reach with stylish sportswear at better prices that reflected his aesthetic.

Since Polo got the Lauren license back from the Jones Apparel Group on June 3, Polo has been working feverishly to staff up and get a line ready for today’s introduction to retailers. The lifestyle collection, which will be manufactured in the Far East in many of the same factories used by Jones, will be shipped to stores beginning in late January.

“The intention was to continue with what I do for women with really great taste and style who don’t want to spend the money to buy the Collection. It’s not like it’s a cheap line. This is a quality customer who loves beautiful clothes for the right price,” said Lauren.

Lauren didn’t want to dwell on his company’s relationship with Jones, which still has the Polo Jeans license, nor the current litigation between the two companies over the Lauren license. When asked about the breach of contract lawsuit that Jones filed last June against Polo and Jackwyn Nemerov, former president of Jones, seeking $550 million in lost profits and punitive damages, Lauren would say only, “I’m not worried about it.” Polo has filed its own lawsuit against Jones, as well.

Lauren said his company and Jones spent eight years developing the Lauren by Ralph Lauren brand, and he wasn’t looking to toss aside the huge customer following and goodwill the line had established and start completely from scratch.

“We thought, ‘Let’s protect it and put lots of juice in it.’ We didn’t have to change our image. Let’s invite the audience to see what we’ve got. The goal is not to surprise the audience. The goal is to keep true to our point of view,” said Lauren.The designer said the Lauren collection will generate $400 million in wholesale volume from April 2004 through March 2005. “It will be profitable right off the bat,” he added.

“Our business has been built on professionalism, and we felt we could take it on,” said Lauren.

Although some industry observers questioned whether Lauren will be able to ship this much merchandise into the stores on time, the designer is confident that deliveries will be timely. In addition, he said the company has bought enough fabrics for a full year’s worth of collections.

“It’s exciting,” said Lauren. “I think what’s been very important here is, how good is this organization? How good is this team? Can they really do it in this shortness of time? It was a mission, and if we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t do it,” and he’d have to tell the stores they were sitting out one season.

“Roger [Farah] did a great job in the challenge and the mission,” said Lauren, referring to Polo’s president and chief operating officer. Kim Roy was hired as division president of Lauren by Ralph Lauren in June. “She’s very solid. We all liked her, and we got everything done,” said Lauren.

“I’m involved with this because it’s my company,” he added. “I’ve always been involved with everything I do, particularly now. Taking it back is very important to my business, so I’m involved.”

For several months, speculation has been rife about what will happen to the Lauren real estate in department stores, as rival manufacturers clamor to take over some of that desirable space.

The game plan calls for Polo to cut Lauren’s department store distribution from 1,050 doors to 920 doors, and intensify its distribution with several key retail accounts, including Federated Department Stores, Marshall Field’s and May Co. The company decided to cease distribution to smaller doors, where there are multiple distribution points in the same trading area, and stores that were highly promotional.

Lauren said he is currently working with retailers to redo the in-store shops. “They’ll be updated and elegant. We’re working on that right now.” Lauren will also have a separate ad campaign that will break in March magazines.Down the road, the company will consider opening up freestanding Lauren by Ralph Lauren retail stores and will eventually sell internationally. For now, though, the entire distribution will be with U.S. department stores. (Lauren’s Blue Label collection is distributed exclusively to its own stores.)

Although Lauren has had his beefs with department store retailers over the years about their lack of passion and creativity, he believes they are working hard to make shopping more exciting and pleasurable.

“This has been a successful business, and we built a huge business in department stores,” said Lauren. “Our goal is to make them do more business. I’ve made my complaints about department stores, and they’re fighting real hard to keep their strengths. We can build a better, stronger business. That’s what we did at Polo [men’s wear],” he said.

Lauren believes even though he’s had good relationships with licensees over the years, there’s nothing like controlling your own destiny. “I’ve had better control over licensees than anyone in the business. If you don’t own it, issues will come up and you can’t control it. Jones has been a very good licensee. They’ve been a great partner, but there’s nothing like running your own show.”

Presently, there are 39 licenses for products bearing the Lauren by Ralph Lauren trademark, such as footwear and handbags. “We’re looking at everything,” said the designer. “We’re making a statement with Lauren, and the licenses will get the message.”

The new Lauren collection — which looks as though it would feel completely at home on a runway — is a 180-degree turn from its most recent incarnation. Lauren had been a blockbuster collection in the mid- to late Nineties, but in recent years, the design and merchandising team changed and the line lost its focus and vision. Its styling was more misses’ and it lost its designer feel. Considered “mature” at Jones, the Lauren label generated $548 million in sales during Jones’ last fiscal year.

It is clear from a walk around the showroom, which is rigged with overflowing flower pots, photographs, tennis racquets and golf clubs, that the Lauren aesthetic is alive and well in the Polo-produced line. The spring collection includes many of the elements that Lauren is well known for, such as English tailoring; men’s wear fabrics like pinstripes, herringbones and glen plaids in feminine-cut jackets, and tailored trousers. There’s an abundance of florals, ranging from long, button-front skirts and ankle-length pants, to classic barn jackets. There are also long, black, ruffled dresses and polkadot dresses, short pink trenchcoats, tapestry fabrics and crisp white suits — some of which are reminiscent of Lauren’s recent designer collections.The designer said he has upgraded the fabrics and the make, but that it was imperative to keep Lauren’s prices “as tight as we can to get the consumer confidence back.”

While there is clearly a casual element to the new collection, the line is distinguished by its “go to work” focus. Tailored jackets, which can be worn at the office or for a polished casual look, wholesale at $110. Shirts wholesale between $30 and $60, bottoms are $30 to $145, sweaters range from $30 to $85 and knits go from $15 to $60. Price points are virtually the same as the former Jones’ Lauren line.

The designer plans to deliver an entirely new package to the stores every two months. “It’s sportswear that goes into career,” he said. He noted the line is more of a lifestyle collection and not about “the fashion moment.”

“It’s about knowing what’s going on, but giving a woman clothes to live in,” he said, adding that, as he is designing Lauren, he is also designing the Collection.

“I’m not waiting to see what’s going on with [other] designers and take it down. I know about slim pants and miniskirts. It’s knowing what’s out there and leading. This is the audience and I know her. I know this woman and know what she wants,” said Lauren.

Lauren recalled that, when Jones first launched the Lauren line at department stores eight years ago, “there was nothing in the better market. No one was aiming at the woman I wanted, and this is my audience. At the time it was unique to do it,” he said.

Now, eight years later, nearly every designer in town wants a piece of the better-price market, from Tommy Hilfiger to Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, not to mention Calvin Klein, Jones Signature, Liz Claiborne’s Realities and Anne Klein.

“Don’t forget I was there first. I was there 10 years ago and built a very good business. I never liked the bridge business. I never liked it and understood it. This is where the audience was. The better business was where the woman was needing the value. The bridge business was expensive and didn’t have the point of view,” said Lauren.He believes there’s an audience for all these different lines. “All the designers have images and have built identities,” said Lauren. “The question is translating it and doing it right. I’m not all things to all people. I know my audience and that’s why I’m here. I’m clear and I haven’t gone off it.”

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