By  on October 15, 2007

Ralph Lauren's women's business is on course to one day rival his men's.

When Ralph Lauren celebrated his 40th anniversary with a show in Central Park in September, he chose to stage his milestone moment without a single men's wear look on the runway.

"I think I've shown men's and women's together maybe once or twice, and I think it somehow gets confusing," he told WWD days before the show. "This is also a working event, I'm doing a collection. It's not a separate party. I still have a job to design a collection where writers are going to write about it and do their critique.

"I thought about it," he added. "For a while I was going to do it, and then I changed my mind. I change my mind a lot of times."

Lauren's final decision is also further proof just how serious he is about the women's business. His roots may be in men's wear, which continues to be the engine of the Polo Ralph Lauren empire, but women's is catching up quite nicely, both from a perception and a sales standpoint.

Buffy Birrittella, executive vice president in charge of women's design and advertising, said the gap is closing between the two, if the numbers are added up across the various divisions.

"Lauren is almost up to Polo, and Rugby women's is bigger than men's," Birrittella said. "We have a fantastic men's business on every single level, but there are still the accessories — there's a bigger business to be done in women's than in men's accessories. I think there's a bigger women's business to be done on every level. We want to surpass [men's]."

Birrittella clearly knows what she's talking about. She has worked with the designer for more than three decades, and closely familiarized herself with the aesthetic even before, when she was a fashion editor at WWD's brother publication Daily News Record and was introduced to the designer by the paper's in-house illustrator Michael Farina. She started at Polo in January 1971 as a part-timer after asking Lauren to hire her, and joined full-time only months later.

"I told him, 'Hire me three days a week,'" she said, recalling her hopes to continue writing freelance on the side. "And then I went on an assignment to Israel, then on vacation with my boyfriend. About a month later, Ralph said, 'When do you come to work? You either have to work full-time or I'm going to find someone like you.' I said, 'There's no one like me,' and he recognized a similar spirit as himself in me.'"Birrittella quickly began accompanying Lauren on fabric appointments, being involved in the design and merchandising of the men's wear, traveling to factories in Europe to pick out fabrics and embroideries and even serving as the occasional fit model for pattern makers. In the process, she learned to speak the Lauren language fluently.

"It's about a color sense, it's about understanding when he says, 'I want Marlboro red' as opposed to Masai red, or Nantucket red, you get the frame of reference," she said. "You're getting the historical context, you're getting the context of the design and how he works."

While Lauren is obviously the ultimate creative force behind the Polo empire, Birrittella clearly understands the designer's eye, and believes in and embodies the lifestyle. Lauren, for his part, appears to trust her instincts like his own, and Birrittella is full of anecdotes about the 36 years she has worked there, particularly when it comes to the sourcing trips she and Lauren would take to Europe.

"For some reason I got designated to carry all of the mill books and all the samples, and I also somehow got designated as the translator," she recalled with a chuckle. "When we were in a store, Ralph would turn to me and say, 'Ask them if they have it in a small in French blue.' I could do this in Italian and I could do it in French. However, we were in a bazaar in Athens — I can't remember what it was that caught his eye — and he turned to me and said, 'Ask them if they have it in red and in what sizes.' And I actually turned to talk to this street vendor and I opened my mouth and I said [silence], and I turned to Ralph, I said, 'Ralph, I don't speak Greek.' And he looked at me incredulously, like, 'What do you mean? What do you mean you don't speak Greek, why not?' And I thought, 'OK, I get it. That's Ralph.'"

Today, Birrittella works with the designers and design teams on all the women's collections, from Lauren Ralph Lauren to Black Label, Blue Label, Rugby and Collection. Birrittella frequently discusses ideas with Lauren in design meetings, where concepts for every single division are presented to the designer. "Typically on Collection, he's picking every button and he's at every fitting," she said. "He's not at every fitting for all these other lines, but he's approving the concepts and the directions. He's talking to them about what he sees in the stores from those particular groups, what he thinks they need more of, or less of."Birrittella added that as the company has grown, the nuances for each division have evolved — though every single item must also be filtered through the essence of Ralph Lauren, from American country and thoroughbred to Hollywood glamour and tailored sophistication.

"We look everywhere," she said of the inspirations. "Sometimes it's an old picture, sometimes it's something from our archive. Even when it's a movie that's inspiring us or the concept of a movie, there might be one thing in that movie that then becomes our movie. 'Casablanca' morphs into 'Out of Africa,' which morphs into 'Lawrence of Arabia' and into 'A Passage to India,' so it becomes a blend. And we hope that the movie we're doing is expansive enough. It's not one-dimensional. It can fit the lives and the lifestyles of all the consumers that buy Ralph Lauren."

In recent years, the company has been making major strides in accessories, driven by its iconic Ricky bag, which Birrittella sported in crocodile on the day of this interview.

"Ralph's goal was to first establish an icon," she recalled. "We had been working on that for several years and it was the hardest thing to come up with a bag he felt was the 'It' bag for him — not just the 'It' bag of the season, but an iconic Ralph Lauren bag. He also knew that the handbag collection, per se, could not live alone on a crocodile Ricky bag but needed to expand into lots of different categories, items and fun things. Not everything needed to be $14,000 to $17,000, but establishing the level of luxury and an iconic bag were very important to him at the launch of the handbag line."

When Lauren opened a flagship in Moscow in May, he made sure the interior reflected the focus on accessories and filled the whole main floor with them — and some women have been known to walk out with three or four crocodile Ricky handbags, paying in excess of $100,000 at once.

"There is no sticker shock about prices and accessories, and I think they're willing to spend for accessories to change the look of an outfit that they may have in their closet," Birrittella added. "They see it as a long-term investment."For many major designers, the Collection tier has become an image rather than a selling tool to promote other products at lower price points. Not so at Ralph Lauren.

"It's not there to sell perfume," Birrittella said. "It needs to be a meaningful business, and yes, it definitely has a halo effect for the entire company. Are we going to sell as many $20,000 evening dresses as we sell polo shirts? No. Will that one $20,000 dress be interpreted in many different ways in the other things that we do? Absolutely. But it's not just there for that. It's there to sell, and we believe there's a Ralph Lauren consumer for it. It's not just a window piece. We believe it enhances the brand."

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