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I have spent 35 years in this business. When I started I was 6 feet 3 inches, about the size of Roger Farah. Now I’m 5 feet 8 inches, OK, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches,” quipped Ralph Lauren, the opening night keynote speaker at this year’s WWD/DNR CEO Summit.
This story first appeared in the November 18, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
On a bare stage, with only a microphone and a white backdrop, the designer spoke eloquently and intensely off the cuff for a good half-hour before answering questions for another 30 minutes. Wearing a black double-breasted suit, white shirt and black tie, Lauren proved once again how comfortable he is speaking in front of a live audience as he cracked jokes (even threatening to sing at one point) and roamed the stage like a seasoned performer. Acknowledging the summit’s theme, “Fashion’s New Rules,” he said, “There are no rules. There were never rules. If there were rules, that’s a problem.”
But Lauren nevertheless proclaimed some rules of his own. The preeminent one: have passion about whatever you do. Others included hiring a great team, a willingness to listen to advice, taking risks and deciding whether you want to be big or small — and being the best at either.
He regaled the audience with a faux anecdote or two about how he got his start and his career. “You all know my story,” he told the group of industry heavy-weights. “I was born in Paris, grew up in the couture. I was trained by all the best at Dior and all the others. I don’t have the other story anymore,” which brought laughter from the audience.
On a serious note, he disputed one of the biggest myths that has surrounded his company for 35 years: that Bloomingdale’s gave him his start by buying his wide ties. “I went to Bloomingdale’s, but they didn’t start me out. They were the toughest customer and I couldn’t sell them,” Lauren said. He said Saks Fifth Avenue looked at his ties, but told him they didn’t need any more resources. It was Neiman Marcus that gave him his first order for 100 dozen wide ties.
Throughout his illustrious career, Lauren probably broke every single rule in the book, while never wavering from his singular vision. He was the first designer to recognize lifestyle marketing, the first to launch an Internet venture with NBC, and the first to sell Colorado beef.
At one point, the designer rhetorically asked the audience what they thought was the biggest shortage in the world today. “It’s the people,” he said, adding it’s imperative to have someone in the bullpen ready to take over when someone retires. “The Yankees always had a bullpen. There was Mickey Mantle behind Joe DiMaggio. These beliefs didn’t come from textbooks or from being a genius, well, maybe a semigenius,” he joked.
He said it’s vital for companies to take care of their customers, that their store windows look right, and that attention is paid to details.
“I don’t think we should get cheap because the economy is bad. My business is 27 percent up. Why? It took 35 years of fighting, growing, trying and building a business. It’s very tempting to move different ways. A lot of people want to move different ways.” But, he added, you have to resist and stick to your guns.
He also expressed some frustration that buyers and the press always look to Europe first for validation of trends, rather than America. Remembering the launch of his women’s line, he said, “I showed my suits and women’s clothes, and buyers came up and saw the glen plaids and said, ‘This is very nice Ralph,’ and then they went to Europe. They came back and said ‘It looks very good. We’re going to buy it.’
“We didn’t know in our own country what we were doing was good, unless we went to Europe. [But] people in America have taste and talent. Yes, Europe has great talent, but this country has piles of young people with talent.”
When he was growing up, he said designers would copy Christian Dior. Lauren even kidded about copying Yves Saint Laurent in the past. But today, “The good ones have to stand for something. They’re not copying, they’re leading. Now that American style is international and the world has changed, there are no rules. I have stores in London and Paris, and possibly will have one in Russia. There are no rules of who’s American and who’s Italian.”
Lauren said these days it’s more about “who’s good, not about Europe versus America…It’s an accomplishment for this country. This is not about rules, it’s about believing in what you’re doing. No matter what business you’re in, fashion or restaurants, you have to know who you are and stand for something. Don’t think it’s the guy across the street with the European line. The reason the company has gone on [for 35 years] is everyone knows who we are and there’s a point of view and direction. We try to work with all our partners and work with department stores. Knowing who you are first, otherwise you’ll bend, and with the economy, you’ll lower prices and go out of business.”
Several questions after his speech dealt with his decision to take Polo public. For Lauren, being a public company has been a mixed blessing, with “lots of good, and lots of bad.”
“I very rarely look at my stock. It’s not what motivates me. If I make $100,000 in a day, I don’t care; if I lose $100,000 a day, I care about that,” he laughed. “We went up a lot today. The numbers are good. I went public because I wanted to build a better company. It’s exciting and challenging to see how far I can grow.
“Going public could be good or bad. I wanted to build stores and grow the business. Did I sell out by going public? Does being public kill your creativity? You kill your creativity by not paying attention. If you don’t go downtown or go to the right clubs, and learn about music. Being tuned in to young people is very exciting, and that’s what you need to do.”
But he told the audience that it’s not “all work, and no play.”
“I love to play, I love to take vacations. I think it’s very important that we travel. It’s important to stay young. I’m 63 and girls looked at me when I walked into this room. It’s about working out. I went public because I wanted to build a company. It’s a challenge. You get report cards when you’re public and when you do a fashion show. Two reports cards is tough work.”
But Lauren pointed out there’s beauty in being small, too, and not everyone’s cut out for the public life. “If you want to be small, stay small and boutique-y. Don’t be jealous of the other guy who’s building this huge business. If you’re a restaurant, stay a small restaurant.”
However, for those who want to be big, Lauren had this advice. “If you’re going to do that, you need the money, the work and the team. If you’re going to be big, [management] is entitled to the incentives. You have to share your life and wealth.”
Much of his presentation was a highly personal recapping of how he started and where he ended up, which kept the room hushed throughout his speech. Lauren said his real start was far from his joke of beginning in Paris and working in the atelier of Christian Dior. “I really started in a drawer in the Empire State Building. I grew up loving sports, and the Bronx was an interesting life. When I grew up in 1978…” Lauren joked, “it was a wonderful world for me. I didn’t have a bicycle or [baseball] glove, or the things we all take for granted. I’d borrow someone’s or steal the bike. The world was unfolding. It was before TV. I’d listen to the radio. Who remembers ‘The Shadow’? There was a mysterious guy. I’d look inside the radio to see if I could see him. It was so mysterious and exactly for me.”
Lauren said he grew up in an environment that was exciting and bigger than real life. In his mind, he got to know John Wayne and Cary Grant, and spent a great deal of his time wondering, “What will I be?” and “Who will I be?”
“I didn’t know where I was going to go and didn’t want a Cadillac. I wanted a Rolls-Royce. Kids were wearing leather jackets, and I wore a white tennis sweater,” he said.
Even early on, he was a true believer that clothes make the person. “I liked clothes. It transitioned me into a world I wasn’t a part of. I’d watch Hopalong Cassidy and I was Hoppy. The world is more sophisticated now. As I went on in life, looking good was really important. I shopped at Brooks Brothers and liked certain places.”
At 23 years old, he took his first job at Rivetz Co., a neckwear firm that was selling preppy ties to such accounts as Paul Stuart and J. Press. “I was enamored by that, and I didn’t know about designing. I didn’t go to fashion school. I had an eye and had a vision, but I didn’t have the background. I drove to small accounts and sold a few stores, not too many.”
When he turned 26, he began to like wide ties and wanted to sell them to Bloomingdale’s. However, his neckwear firm was filled with old men “who looked at me like I was from outer space.” With his two-button suit with side vents, Lauren fashioned himself as a star. “In my head, I looked like John Kennedy,” he said.
“When Jackie Kennedy came out with the pillbox hat, every woman wanted a piece of Jackie Kennedy. They didn’t want to be her, they wanted a piece of that world. I looked at the tie line, and I saw 1930s, Yale, Harvard, white baggy pants. I saw them in the movies, I wanted to be that. When I explained that to the guys in my company, they said, ‘The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.’”
Instead, his bosses wanted him to make cocktails for the buyers. “I didn’t know how to make a drink. They’d say, ‘Make a vodka Collins’ and I’d say, ‘What’s that?’
But Lauren had a one-track mind that was filled with wide ties. “All of a sudden, the competitors did wide ties and rep ties, and I wanted to get into Bloomingdale’s, which had hot swinging fashion. They wouldn’t let me. I convinced Beau Brummel to let me start Polo.”
He decided to name his line after the game of polo because he felt it was more exciting than calling it “baseball or football.” Although he didn’t know any polo players at the time, he said, “I thought the people who went to polo matches looked good.”
As for the new setup, Lauren explained, “They gave me a drawer, not an office. Retailers would come up and I said, ‘Let me show you my drawer.’”
Lauren recalled that someone from Neiman Marcus told him that he liked his ties, and that he should show them to the buyers in Dallas. Even though the designer was afraid to fly because he had three small children, he flew to Neiman Marcus and got his first order for 100 dozen ties.
He said that Bloomingdale’s loved the ties, but thought they were too wide. The store wanted to call them Sutton East and change their look. “I turned Bloomingdale’s down and got very sick when I left the office. I knew I was right about what I believed in. I didn’t have anything to lose. I turned and walked out the door. I wanted to sell them and had a lot of respect for the store. Six months later, Bloomingdale’s came back. And every Thursday night I visited the ties with my family. We visited the rack.”
Soon after, he noticed that another vendor had knocked off his ties. “I said, ‘Uh, oh, it’s all over for me. My ties are knocked off.’ One of the buyers said, ‘Ralph, the difference between your ties and the other ones on the rack is love.’ I was involved with the ties. That was my statement to you. I left the company, and built these wide ties, and turned the doors on Bloomingdale’s. I watched them being made. I went to Sulka, which was the best manufacturer in New York. I watched them press it. My wife thought I was nuts. We turned those ties into a $10 billion business,” Lauren said.
“It’s not only neckties. It’s in everything. It’s been done with passion. It’s loving what you’re doing, having a vision and a point of view. It’s going from ties to shirts to suits. Shirts can be copied, ties can be copied, but the men’s suit business can’t be copied. Once a man loves a suit, he’ll stay with it. I was building a brand.
“Now I’m going to sing for you,” the designer joked before turning the discussion over to the lively question-and-answer period.
Asked which of the Lauren brands he plans to sell in Europe, Lauren replied, “All of them.”
He said he did a men’s show in Milan this year to build his Purple Label collection, believing that if he showed it in Milan, it would have more cachet. “Sometimes when you show it in this country, it doesn’t work as well. We showed it against Gucci and Prada, and it did better,” he said.
“We present the best of Ralph Lauren. We always stand for tasteful, classy, understated. We’re going to go there and build brands.”
An audience member noted that Lauren came up through the design ranks, and asked what he knew about the business end.
“Not much,” the designer joked. Seriously, he said, you have to be smart enough to realize the parts of the business you don’t know and get the right people in. “Without the proper people, you’re not going to go anywhere. To help me build the business, I had Peter Strom with me 20 years, and Roger Farah is with me now.” In addition, he pointed out that he had people in the audience who run design, the window displays and the retail division. “I’m up here and get a lot of credit. I built a company of people,” Lauren said. “We work as a team and work as a family. There is a point of view. There is a dictatorship on some level. I am the dictator, but I’m not.
“You have to know when you’re wrong and you have to listen. You have to bring in young people who have another point of view. You have to know the world is changing. Fifth Avenue is not the answer to this business. Madison Avenue is not the answer to this business. You don’t need a big giant store,” Lauren added.
He explained that the Gap proved you can put three or four stores in the same city, or even in the same neighborhood, but cautioned about oversaturation. “They built a huge business. Maybe someone took their eye off the ball. Maybe they got too rich. I’m in there, and I’m worried about my business and everyone in the company. They work late. They work weekends and fly around the country. They’re motivated and love what they’re doing. Hopefully they’re making a good life for themselves. I have to make sure they’re tuned in. We have to take care of our people. Good people are our life.”
In response to a question about what keeps him up at night, Lauren quipped, “My wife.” He then added, ” I sleep very well. I work out. I run around the park. I drive one of my race cars. I have a very happy life.”
Pressed further, Lauren replied, “I don’t want to worry. If things are too good, we should worry. I’ve had many nightmares that I’ve lost my job and was looking for a job. That came from my childhood. I remember having nightmares that the ties got a little too wide, or that giant store in London is too big. We all worry about things. I worry about my children, my wife, my friends, that I’m losing my hair. I love my family and my work. I love being number one.”