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“I’m Batman…I’ve been Batman for a long time, so people give me Batman gifts.”
So says a playful Ralph Lauren, noting the Dark Knight effigy keeping company with perhaps hundreds of desktop coconspirators—dolls (some action figures, some of the creepy retro variety), model planes, cowboy and Indian miniatures on horseback. Lauren said he loves the toys and trinketry, that they inspire him “for my own life, not necessarily about work. They’re about living.” There’s archenemy the Joker; Edward Scissorhands, a gift from Steven Spielberg, and Captain Jack Sparrow, who merited a winning sartorial critique: “I like the style; I like the boots.” A spiffy Forties (or could it be Seventies?) tartan platform shoe is small enough to have been a sales model. Two wacky flying contraptions—one plane, one bicycle—purchased long ago in SoHo hang from the ceiling. A stockman decked out in a hand-painted paper suit jacket and vest made by Lauren’s nephew Greg Lauren stands in front of the window. On the floor, countless framed photos and other artwork rest three deep along the wall. There’s also a spit-and-polish model of Lauren’s Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, one of two such cars in the world, and a late-model Batmobile.
This story first appeared in the April 14, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Lauren doesn’t explain when he became Batman, or who bestowed the distinction. But it makes sense that of all the superheroes out there, the one to whom he most relates boasts no superhuman assets. Bruce Wayne’s dynamic masked alter ego can’t leap tall buildings or convert absorbed solar energy into show-off strength; he has no retractable claws. Rather, he’s full-on human, a guy who channeled drive and ample natural talents into superhuman success.
Speaking of which, the ubersuccessful Ralph Lauren company, currently trading at $158.64 a share, with a market capitalization of $14.2 billion as of April 4, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2017. It’s a success story rooted in part in the founder’s well-documented fascination with refined living, elegant and glamorous. To that end, his original inspirations—not Batman and the various celluloid incarnations of Johnny Depp, but icons of the glory days of Hollywood—continue to inform his work. That real-life glamour set gets its due in his bright white bathroom. Ralph with Audrey Hepburn. Ralph with Princess Diana. Ralph with Cary Grant. Frank Sinatra alone, with the inscription, “Love the ties; they’re smashing.”
As the inner-sanctum tour continues, Lauren reminisces. Once, Steve Ross, then-Warner Brothers (“it wasn’t Time-Warner yet”) chair, threw a fashion week party in his honor. “We were all sitting around a table, a lot of guests, from my brothers to friends to Carrie Donovan and John Fairchild, Tony Perkins and his wife. I sat next to Barbara Sinatra and Sinatra sat next to Ricky, and he was talking to her all night. It was amazing.” Lauren left the table, walked to the room where the pianist played, and started to sing “a little bit. And Frank walks in and wanted the mic and I wouldn’t give it to him. Then I did and he sang. It was like a dream night.”
Sinatra wasn’t the only Lauren idol to pull artistic rank. The photo with Grant triggers detailed musings on the relationship that developed after the two almost met at a Neiman’s event in Dallas. “Bill [Blass] says to me, ‘There’s Cary Grant.’ We didn’t stare but Bill says, ‘He’ll come over.’ He walked right by, so we missed the chance.” Some time later, a friend of the actor asked Lauren to send Grant some ties. “I sent him some Cary Grant ties. I never thought I’d hear from him and all of a sudden, my secretary goes, ‘Cary Grant is on the phone. He’s going to call you at 3 o’clock.’” The two got to know each other. During a visit to Lauren’s showroom, Grant “started a conversation about lapels. And he was talking about ‘Dougie’—‘Dougie’ was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—and these people and their clothes. It was amazing.”
Not just their clothes. In L.A. for the opening of his Beverly Hills store, Lauren received a last-minute invitation from Grant to go to the racetrack. “I told him I had on jeans and a blazer and he said, ‘You can’t wear that.’” After a quick trip to the store for some proper flannels, the two took off to the track—in Grant’s Buick.
Yet for all the delightful recollections, Lauren’s primary focus is on the future—a point made loud and clear this season. Lauren staged one of fall’s most unexpected shows when he presented two lines back to back, preceding his Collection, a treatise on tony glamour, with the launch of Polo Women’s. The last-minute move surprised because, let’s face it, even many longtime industry types didn’t know that, until that point, there was no Polo Women’s.
Such are the power and clarity of the Lauren aesthetic: We had an image of a collection that didn’t exist. For Polo, Lauren worked what he called a “cool eclectic spirit,” drawing on his preppy-tweedy-Southwestern ranges. It positively charmed. It also made for one more example of the perpetual motion of the powerful Ralph Lauren machine. In a talk with WWD, Lauren discussed that launch, his increased focus on luxury, global challenges in a volatile world and (a little bit) the matter of succession.
WWD: There’s so much going on at Ralph Lauren right now, not the least of which is the Polo Women’s launch. Why now?
Ralph Lauren: When I started Polo I never thought I would go into women’s. I was a young salesman working for a tie company and I just had an idea for the ties and I always had a sense of style and things that I loved. What happened was I made some women’s shirts and I showed them to Bloomingdale’s—they would buy everything, they were supportive. I made the shirts very skinny with the little pony on the cuff. And [Bloomingdale’s] said, “What else can you do?”
R.L.: I came out with men’s clothes for women. I made tweed pants, I made tweed jackets, I made V-neck sweaters. Sort of Katharine Hepburn-esque. English men’s wear for women.…So that was my vision. Bloomingdale’s gave me a shop right by YSL. That was the beginning of my clothes. I called it “Ralph Lauren” because women wanted the designer name; Polo was too masculine.
Going forward, people called some things Polo and I realized that I have a great brand in Polo. I thought that this was a business I can really develop. I have Blue Label, Black Label and Collection. Blue was my women’s preppy stuff. I felt Blue Label didn’t have enough of a collection [identity] and I was trading up my whole brand. So I decided to make the [move to] Polo, and [start to build] freestanding stores. And that’s the reason for it. And I thought Fifth Avenue was the right spot, not Madison.
WWD: Why now? It’s been a long time since that first shop at Bloomingdale’s.
R.L.: People were asking me, like my daughter would walk in to a store and say, “I want all of the things that are just for men. I want those plaid shirts. I want those jackets.” Blue Label was not sophisticated enough for where I was going.
WWD: Please explain.
R.L.: All of a sudden Blue Label looked like Ralph Lauren’s less-expensive line. It needed an identity. So I thought that this is a good time to do Polo, and that the growth potential was fantastic. I built some men’s stores but I didn’t build men’s and women’s. I didn’t put them together. And that’s why I did it. I felt like I was ignoring a whole business that was sophisticated.
The girl who lives downtown, she’s not the mother who lives in Connecticut, she’s a with-it, working girl. The way I’m doing it, it’s hipper.
WWD: You went back and forth about whether to put Polo women’s on the runway, ultimately deciding yes. Were you pleased with the result?
R.L.: I was happy with the way it turned out. It could have been a disaster; it could’ve made the Collection weaker because it could’ve been too many clothes. We talked about it. I wanted to make a statement about the brand. I felt I had one chance while all of the stores are in town, so I better do it.
When you run it down the runway, [retailers] see it as special. In the store, they see it as they’ve laid it out. When it walks the runway, it’s like, “This is it.” So I think I achieved what I wanted to, [while marking] the difference [from] Collection. After all these years, I’ve been known for both, you know, “Oh Ralph Lauren, he’s sporty, tweedy, preppy.” I was sort of caricatured. I wanted to establish a real statement about what Polo is and for whom, and to make a strong statement about Collection and what that was about. There are two worlds.
WWD: You’ve said that you think of fashion as art. Do you think about that when you’re working on a collection?
R.L.: Honestly, I say, “How do I do this?” I don’t even know where it’s coming from because I do a lot of things. There’s a world of beautiful things that are more commercial, they’re more available. And then there’s a world of things that the piece feels like art. When you have to create something, it’s got to hit you emotionally. For me, I’m making a movie. I think maybe a lot of people say, “Why is he doing that? Why does he do themes?” I don’t do themes. I need the inspiration, I need [a thought] that tells me how to move because I have a lot to do. I’m not just sitting there dreaming of Collection all day. I have 15 million things to do.
Building something strong and big is one thing, but building it in different worlds is another. RRL, Polo, Collection—totally different. How do you do all of those and make it work? Because I work; I’m not just floating around.
WWD: I don’t think anyone thinks you are.
R.L.: But you know, people say, “Does Ralph really do all of that?” That’s what I do.
WWD: Rei Kawakubo once told WWD she finds it harder to do new things because she’s already done so much. Do you find it increasingly difficult to do new things?
R.L.: It takes more out of me to really come up with something. Now it’s like, “What does Collection look like? What does Black Label look like? What does Polo look like? What does RRL look like?” I find it exciting and interesting and I find it scary.
WWD: Exciting, interesting, scary—really?
R.L.: Exactly, I worry about it. I worry about it every minute. It’s like having a term paper to do…now it’s pre-fall and pre-spring and regular spring.
WWD: How important is the runway today?
R.L.: The runway is one of the many ways to express clothes. For Collection, the excitement of live models, the excitement of how to show your clothes—people are excited to see how they look…there’s a clarity when you put it on the runway. The stores are there, the editors are there; it has an effect. No matter how many times I show a [men’s] presentation and everyone says, “I love it,” still, some young guy will say, “Why don’t you do a fashion show?”….The question is [how to show].
In Europe they do a spectacular showcase and it’s mind-boggling. Is that the only way someone should show? Does everything else look weak after something like that? So I think there are a lot of questions about shows. Should a show be small or should it be killer knock-down? You go to Europe and the big names have huge shows. Being that theatrical, is that helping the designer? It makes it interesting. It’s fun, and on some levels it’s very entertaining. Does it really make you want to buy the clothes? You know who’s good and who’s not, and they can express it any way they want to.
WWD: Ralph Lauren the company is approaching its 50th anniversary. What does that milestone mean to you?
R.L.: I’m going to be married 50 years, too, next year. I don’t know where those years are. I still think I look pretty good…
I don’t want someone to say, “Oh he’s old hat,” so I keep working. I know it’s coming and people are asking me about it, but at the same time, I don’t know what that means. In a business that is changing and moving and looks for newness, the ability that I’ve always admired, whether it’s the writer or the actor or the singer, I’ve always admired the ones that have moved with the times—and not just have lasted, but that are at the top of their game. I feel that I’m at the top of my game. I don’t feel like I’m old news, I think that I’m new news. Or my news.
WWD: The long-term founding designer-ceo is rare. There’s you and Giorgio Armani.
R.L.: I was there before Armani. He’s older but I’ve been there longer. I think I like him for that reason. I’ve always admired that he’s stuck to his guns and believed in who he is.
I do what I do. I don’t do it to be old news. I do it to be on target because I have a company and stores and a lot of people relying on my products and my direction. This is a public company. With a public company you have to be very clear, you have to be very sharp and you have to perform.
WWD: Burberry recently named Christopher Bailey ceo, adding to his role of creative director. Do you have any advice for him?
R.L.: I think he’s doing very well. I don’t know Christopher, I’ve never spoken to him. But I admire Burberry. I think it’s a good company and Christopher is evidently someone who has different talents. He’s not just the guy who’s designing, but he’s leading the company in advertising and direction. That’s a big thing, given the way some companies are today. They’re not just fashion companies; they cover the world, they have different brands. So I think he’s one of the good talents to come along. A lot of designers don’t do that. They think only fashion and they do the next collection and they want the next big look, the next gown. That happens to be not the only thing I think about. I love to do it well and be creative, and I feel I am. Someone [else] isn’t doing it, who then says “sign your name”; I’m there working and that’s part of my chores. But I know I have to perform [on numerous levels] for every brand.
WWD: As the head of a public company, you have to think about succession.
R.L.: People ask me that all the time. I have a lot of good talent working in my company and we have a team of people; it doesn’t depend on one person, so my business won’t go down the drain if I’m not here tomorrow. I like to think that I’m vital to the company and that I’m exciting and important. I also know that I have built into this company people who are talented, who can do a good job and really understand everything I’m talking about…
The key is how to grow successfully, what’s next, where do you go? I’m in Europe, but I’m not there like I can be, so building Polo and building Ralph Lauren are two very important things. We’re also building children’s and so many other brands that are big businesses here.
WWD: If tomorrow you decided to retire and enjoy the spoils of what you’ve built, are your successors as ceo and creative director—I’m assuming two positions—in-house now?
R.L.: Possibly, but you never know….I have lots of good talents. I’m also aware of talent that should stay here. People who have been in this company and will grow with this company. I value relationships, I value people who work for me, I value talent.
WWD: People who work with you say you make them feel valued.
R.L.: Look, I’m a happy guy. I have a nice family; I have children. I value people who are working for me. It sounds cliché, but I love the people I work with because we work together all day long and we work on newness and we work on excitement.
WWD: Do you think that in the fascination with China, Americans forgot about Europe?
R.L.: No. I think China exploded. You say, “Wow look at the volume of business they’re doing.” So it caught everyone’s eye. Europe has been there, and you have to think clearly about what Europe is and what it does for you. I think the European countries are very Ralph Lauren.
R.L.: Because they understand the timelessness. In other words, when someone buys my clothes there, they value it and they get the message very clearly and they understand it.
WWD: Are you worried about the business in China?
R.L.: I’m not worried. We’re going forward, but you have to pay attention to it. You can’t just think, “Oh, the doors are open.”
WWD: You’re not worried about the slowdown of luxury?
R.L.: I can’t say that I understand China like I understand other countries, but I think some brands slowed down because they’re oversaturated. Maybe logos got saturated. I think certain companies start out flamboyantly and the people love them, the clothes are flashier, and all of a sudden then they realize that people are getting more sophisticated. They need a real look. They don’t just need a name and logo, they need the real thing to look good.
There are locations that are filled up with Europeans because of bags and accessories, and I would say that’s going to change. We experimented with stores but we’re now focusing on what we’re doing with luxury and where we’re putting it and what’s right and what’s not…is Polo right? Is Ralph Lauren right? Where is the growth? What is the potential? It’s such a big country that I can’t believe that the potential isn’t there. I’m sure it is. It just changes.
WWD: You went in to Russia in a very high-profile way. What are your thoughts now?
R.L.: I can’t predict what’s going to happen. It’s a little scary to see what’s going on.…I think when you’re dealing with foreign countries anything can happen; they can change the law. Certainly in China that could happen easy, and it could happen in Russia.…you have to have a spread-out buyable world that balances you…
I feel like when I went to Russia, I’m there with all of the Europeans and I got very proud. I felt ‘There is Ralph Lauren representing America…”
I don’t know everything about Russia; I don’t think anybody does, and I don’t know much about China. I think that you have to be aware.
WWD: You recently brought in Valérie Hermann to oversee luxury. What is your luxury strategy?
R.L.: My luxury strategy is to almost divide the company on some level. We brought in Valérie as president of luxury so she’s going to look at what stores to show to. When you have a lot of different products sometimes it gets mixed and they use the high price to sell the low price and it doesn’t stand on its own. When you go into a private luxury store in Europe the voice is very clear: This is Gucci; this is Prada… They’re not department stores. So there is a difference.
Department stores are very important, their growth is very important. But at the same time, the specialty stores, the quality level, the voice comes out: “That’s a Ralph Lauren bag, that’s a Ralph Lauren shoe.” It’s clear. I’m clarifying my brand, just like I clarified in the show—you saw what Polo looked like.
WWD: So is that the point—to clarify?
R.L.: To clarify, because you walk into a store and you get the message right away. You walk in that store on Madison Avenue, you know you’re in a classic store, you know you’re in a quality store and you know the prices are going to be higher. The same with when you go to Bergdorf’s—you get the same message. You go into other stores and you know it’s a median. You go to a larger store, you know it’s a mix of a lot of things. But when you want status and class and glamour and you want the voice, you have to say it. There’s also a different way of selling, a different way of working with clients, it’s personalized, it’s mindful. You have to know and build your client.
WWD: How do you spin off luxury internally? Valérie came in with Jacki [Nemerov, president and chief operating officer, Ralph Lauren Corp.] already here.
R.L.: They work together. Jacki is a strong executive; she runs a big amount. They’ll work together and talk together; they’re not behind closed doors. [Valérie’s] mission is to build that specialty store sensibility, [make sure] that we’re not in the wrong stores and that we sell in the stores that we believe can carry the clothes. A lot of people say, “Oh that’s Ralph Lauren; it’s not luxury.” They think you belong in one department. It’s clarity for the brand, it’s like cutting the company in half.
WWD: If one half is luxury, how do you classify the other, nonluxurious half?
R.L.: We have a lot of brands. When you talk about Lauren, that’s not luxury. When you talk about Polo, that’s semiluxury. Polo in America is luxury; presidents of companies wear Polo. Polo is heritage. Is it high fashion? No. It’s more obtainable, more accessible.
WWD: Today, everyone seems obsessed with moving toward an IPO. When’s the right time, when’s the wrong time and would you give any advice to executives deciding whether or not to go for it?
R.L.: I don’t think I can give that advice. I wanted to grow and I felt I was too small to be public and too big to be private. I had a vision of expanding to Europe.…I talked to a lot of people….The key is that when you are public you have obligations to be able to present your numbers. The public is investing money in your company; they’ll buy your stock. You can’t let them down. They buy your potential based on what you’re doing now and what you’re doing in years to come.…[Going public is] for companies that have built a solid foundation where the brand doesn’t rely on the next colorful bag; they have to stand for something. You have to have a voice.
The fashion business is one that’s known to be trendy, but in trends comes lack of security. I think I’ve proven that we can be quality, we can show consistency and be a stylish and reliable company to invest in. Being hot for one or two years is not enough. Then, talent to work in your company and run your company because [being public] is another world.
WWD: There are so many younger designers out there now…are there any you think have the potential to build a Ralph Lauren-scale business?
R.L.: It has a lot to do with management mentality. You’ve got to bring in the right people with the right vision. I’ve made mistakes, but I feel like I’ve brought the right people in at the right times for their talent. You can’t do it on your own. You have to have an army.
WWD: How do you deal with it when someone major in the company—Roger Farah, for example—says “I’m retiring” or “I’m leaving?”
R.L.: Roger is one of the very good talents. I’d say that Roger really helped me have a successful company, someone I have great respect for. If he decides to go, then hopefully he’s built enough people behind him. Jacki was a licensee first and then I asked her to come here because I thought she was great. She’s now COO. She and Christopher Peterson who is [chief financial officer] work very well together; they’re both very smart. Roger’s not out of the company. He’s vice chairman. He’s here, but not as full-time as he was. But you need talent.
WWD: Which is harder to find, good design talent or good management talent?
R.L.: Good management is not hard to find. Great management talent is hard to find. Great designers are hard to find. There’s a lot of people who think they can design.
WWD: As someone who has dedicated so much of his life to this world, does it annoy you that just about anyone with any name recognition seems to think, “I’m a designer?”
R.L.: No it doesn’t. I think everyone has an opportunity. If they’ve built a name, people know the name and they want to put the name on products, that’s one thing. But I believe things filter out. I think there are trends, there are moments—and the people who are not making the statement will filter out. [Also] it takes money to build a brand. You have to be there, nurture the brand and nurture the product. You have to come up with new things and see that they’re delivered. There’s a lot to go with it and also, when they get financing, you know financing is not free.
WWD: You bought Club Monaco in 1999. Have you ever considered investing in other fashion businesses, perhaps building a U.S.-based luxury group on the model of LVMH or Kering?
R.L.: As a public company grows, you have to figure out how it grows. You have to move, you have to look to the future, where you are, what Wall Street sees. They want to know where you’re going, what’s your story, what’s your potential, how are you going to grow?
I remember when I was on my IPO trip and one of the investors said, “How do I know where you’re going? How do I know you’re not at the end of your line?” I said, “I can’t tell you. I think I have a good track record. I really believe I had something to say that was solid, that was not a fly-by-night, and I had a voice.”
When I bought Club Monaco it was very early in my thought process. It looked like a creative company that was young and a lot of young kids that worked for me at the time were going over there. It’s taken a long time but we’re nurturing it and it’s now looking very good. The question is, will I be looking for more? Yes. Will my eyes be open to other investments that might be interesting? What will work, what won’t work? Will it be designer or not designer? Will it be a hotel or restaurants? I’m opening a restaurant in the Polo store. It’s probably going to be called Polo Bar.
WWD: Fashion is a very philanthropic industry. You have been at the forefront of that for a long time.
R.L.: I feel like I’ve had such great success, and I feel like there are things to be done that I would like to do [philanthropically]. I don’t think I’ve done enough. I’ve never done anything [to impress] anyone else; I didn’t do it for the status. I did it for my own self, inside. I felt like I had success.
WWD: You said you’ve made mistakes. Is there one mistake that still sticks?
R.L.: I know I’ve made mistakes. People choose the wrong people; you don’t recognize some people who could be good. I don’t know, in this business and in the world so many things happen and change every day. But on an overall basis, I think that I’ve done what I said I was going after. And I’ve just worked and done. I’m aware of the world and notoriety. I’m aware of success. I know what this all is about and honestly, I never said, “This is who I am, I’m going to be this star.” I’ve always admired Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and people who have lasted and had integrity. I think that’s what I do: I try to make products great, make them better and better and try to be original.
WWD: You’ve accomplished so much. Can you articulate of what you’re most proud?
R.L.: The nurturing, the growing and the reaching are very fulfilling in a lot of ways. I enjoy growth. I enjoy the people I work with…
I believe in the substance; I believe my products have integrity. I believe what I design comes from my heart. Knowing my way around the business is not out of a dream. It’s out of experience. My challenge is to always be as good as I can, and know I always have something else to say. If I don’t, then I might have to quit.