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NEW YORK — At the beginning of his career, Ralph Lauren debated naming his brand Basketball, rather than Polo, due to his affinity for the sport. As a Bronx native, he had never been to an actual polo match, but he decided, fortuitously, to go with the grander name.
“He had this vision of this really beautiful life that he could never live and never thought he could live, because there was no money in the fashion industry and there was no such thing as a designer,” remembered David Lauren, executive vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Ralph Lauren Corp. — and Ralph’s younger son — at the third annual Executive Marketing Summit, hosted by NYSE Euronext, Interbrand and The New York Times, on Tuesday at the New York Stock Exchange.
To this day, that founding ethos permeates the company’s strategy and corporate culture. “We are not about selling a single shirt. What we do at this company better than any brand in the world is we tell stories. We’re making movies. Ralph Lauren is in the entertainment business,” explained Lauren, who was interviewed onstage by the Times’ Dealbook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is also coanchor of CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We’re telling stories through a line of clothing that conjures up images of the American West or conjures up images of safari or thoroughbred ponies. It’s not about the shirt.”
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In fact, Ralph Lauren designed safari clothes for decades before actually going on a safari. “He didn’t go on safari until two years ago,” said the younger Lauren. “When he got to safari, he’s like ‘This isn’t quite what I thought a safari was.’ ”
Similarly, Ralph Lauren has designed collections inspired by Spain and Vietnam without traveling to those countries. The designer and his family may now own the sprawling Double RL ranch in Colorado, but his vision of the West is still cinematic rather than reality-based. “His interpretation of the American West is his interpretation of what it was, or should be and never really was,” said Lauren.
Of the wide range of price points and labels in the Ralph Lauren universe, Lauren dubbed them “different movies coming out of the same studio,” pointing out that “Warner Brothers makes great gangster films and they make great romance films.”
Despite the reach and global appeal of Ralph Lauren — a single issue of the New York Post has shown pictures of Prince Charles and a Brooklyn-born rapper wearing the brand, pointed out Lauren — the company strives to imbue all of its various labels and products with an aspirational quality. “As big and mass as you may think Ralph Lauren is, it’s very boutique,” said Lauren, emphasizing that each of its stores is tailored to a specific neighborhood, aesthetic and clientele. “If you look at any one of our brands, the quality goes to every brand and every price point.”
China presents fertile opportunities for Ralph Lauren, as the company does less than 10 percent of its business there now — a much smaller percentage than competing luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. Ralph Lauren bought back its China license two years ago, and in the past month has opened six stores in the Asia-Pacific region, including two in China and units in Macau, Tokyo, Hong Kong and South Korea.
“In China, they might not respond to the same magazine ads. They might want to do gigantic automated video billboards, and that’s exciting. There will be tons of new technology,” said Lauren, adding that Ralph Lauren has been a pioneer and early adapter in a host of new technology platforms, including luxury e-commerce, mobile commerce, QR codes, online interstitial advertising, digital kiosk shopping and even “4-D” light and scent shows.
Asked by Sorkin for any lessons learned from the summer uproar over the U.S. Olympic uniforms made by Ralph Lauren in China, Lauren acknowledged the industry faces enormous challenges in reviving domestic apparel manufacturing. “I think people expected that everything would be made in America and they realized it’s a lot more complicated in a global ecosystem. It takes an entire industry to get together to get product made in America,” he explained. “We’re going to do what we can to lead the charge and the change to try to bring some of it back. But it’s more complicated than people think to get the volume, the craftsmanship and the details at prices that are affordable.”