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Ralph Rebuilds Bridge: Sees $100 Million Biz With New Blue Label

<CS:BOLD>NEW YORK -- Ralph Lauren is headed back to the bridge market in a big way.<BR><BR>Next month, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. will debut a women's lifestyle sportswear collection, Ralph Lauren Blue Label, with ambitious plans to generate first-year...

NEW YORK — Ralph Lauren is headed back to the bridge market in a big way.

Next month, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. will debut a women’s lifestyle sportswear collection, Ralph Lauren Blue Label, with ambitious plans to generate first-year wholesale volume of $100 million globally.

“It’s a larger picture of Ralph Lauren,” Ralph Lauren, chairman and chief executive officer of Polo, told WWD. “It’s not about bridge, it’s not about price or department stores. It’s about lifestyle. It’s about rounding out the picture of everything I believe in.”

Lauren called the new Blue Label line “the counterpart to Polo” and said it represents a piece that was missing from his women’s business.

Blue Label, which will hit retailers for fall 2002 selling, will be geared to Polo stores around the world, as well as such select specialty and department stores as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Bloomingdale’s, said Doug Williams, president, global business development at Polo.

While Blue Label will have its own point of view and design statement, Williams said it will compete with all bridge and upper bridge resources, including Kors, DKNY, Tahari and Ellen Tracy. “The plan would be to put it in the right environment to showcase the products,” said Williams.

Based at 550 Seventh Avenue, Blue Label will have its own showroom and dedicated sales staff. A head of the division will be named in the next two weeks and will come from within the company, said Williams Blue Label is being designed in-house and will be distributed by Polo in the U.S. and Europe. It will also be produced by its overseas licensing partners for distribution in countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Canada. Williams said the line will stylistically reflect Polo’s core values and heritage. It will be officially introduced to retailers during market week, beginning Feb. 18.

Asked if this wasn’t a difficult retail environment to launch a new collection, Williams replied, “Ralph has something to say that’s different, and we think it’s a huge opportunity for the company.”

Beginning in fall 2002, the Ralph Lauren Sport line will be discontinued and its lifestyle component will be incorporated into Blue Label. The more active elements of Ralph Lauren Sport will be absorbed into the RLX Polo Sport label. However, some of the Ralph Lauren Sport licensees, such as swimwear and footwear, will continue to use the Ralph Lauren Sport moniker, Williams said.

A collection with a strong weekend focus, Blue Label will consist of modern interpretations of classic Lauren styles. Looks include weathered chinos, corduroy pants and skirts, Shetland and English tweed jackets, Fair Isle hand-knit sweaters and cashmere blend cable sweaters in an array of colors. There will also be the requisite washed oxford shirts and plaid shirtings, as well as camel hair Polo coats, toggle coats and weathered canvas weekend jackets.

The line is designed by Lauren’s design team, headed by Lauren and Buffy Birrittella, executive vice president, women’s design and advertising, and will be manufactured in Europe, Asia and the U.S. While price points aren’t set yet, the bridge line is priced above the Lauren Ralph Lauren better sportswear collection that is produced under license by Jones Apparel Group, and below Lauren’s own Black Label line, which is a notch below designer price points.

Williams pointed out that Blue Label will have a much more selective distribution than the blockbuster Lauren Ralph Lauren, which is sold to major department stores. Lauren Ralph Lauren sportswear currently generates approximately $550 million in wholesale volume in the U.S., and is not distributed outside the U.S. Polo Jeans, which is also licensed to Jones, generates about $350 million at wholesale with its women’s and men’s sportswear lines. Jones also produces a Ralph juniors line under license.

“We’re very happy with our business [with Jones]. Jones has been an incredible partner and had a very successful holiday season,” said Williams.

Describing Lauren’s medley of labels, Williams said the word “blue” won’t appear on the new bridge label, but the label will be blue and will carry the Ralph Lauren name. In the same vein, Black Label merchandise carries the Ralph Lauren name on a black label. And the women’s Collection carries Ralph Lauren’s name on a purple label. The women’s Collection is the counterpart to the men’s Purple Label clothing and sportswear line that was shown to critical acclaim on the Milan runway for the first time last week.

Williams noted that Blue Label is part of Polo’s overall retail strategy and is one of the cores of the company’s European retail expansion plans. Besides selected wholesale accounts, the line will be distributed to the flagship and Polo stores in the U.S. and overseas, where it will take over the space currently occupied by Ralph Lauren Sport. There are no plans to have freestanding Blue Label stores, however.

Williams pointed out that Blue Label differs from Lauren’s earlier foray into bridge in 1994 under the Ralph label. “Ralph was more modern and had a different face to it. Ralph Lauren Blue is focused on being the complement to Polo,” said Williams.

Lauren’s company, which went public in June 1997, has recently been on a roll. In the fiscal year ended March 3, 2001, Polo achieved record revenues of $2.2 billion, compared with $1.96 billion the prior year. Income rose 16 percent to $166.5 million from $143.5 million the previous year.

Overall, Polo generates $4.8 billion in wholesale volume through all its products and licensees. Men’s apparel accounts for $2.1 billion, women’s apparel generates $1.2 billion, and the remainder is garnered by accessories ($435 million); home ($402 million); fragrance ($386 million), and children’s ($282 million).