“I also pioneered the outlet stores.”
This story first appeared in the October 26, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Not a point one expected Ralph Lauren to cite, but he often eschews predictability. He injected the line into a visitor’s rundown of his accomplishments during a conversation preceding his acceptance on Oct. 18 of WWD’s inaugural John B. Fairchild Honor. The award recognizes Lauren’s brilliant creative vision and business acumen, and the audacity with which he fused the two into a $7.5 billion dollar global empire.
The bestowing of formal accolades is very new to WWD. In determining whether to develop an Honors initiative, we went back and forth — should we or shouldn’t we? In a world of statuettes, how would we distinguish our Honors with unmistakable validity? Ultimately, we concluded that, at a time when the industry faces challenges from across a broad spectrum of business and cultural components — digitization, globalization and celebrity overdrive to name a few — a program to celebrate genuine, lasting creative vision, performance and leadership in this most volatile of industries would make all the sense in the world.
While whether to launch the WWD Honors proved a matter of significant internal conversation, once decided, Ralph Lauren was our only and obvious choice for the cornerstone citation. The award is named for John B. Fairchild, the editorial pioneer who put his own indelible, brazen mark on this industry by focusing coverage not just on fashion, but the designers who create it and the people who wear it. Ralph Lauren’s story unfolded in Fairchild titles — first Daily News Record, Fairchild’s launch title that chronicled the men’s industry, and then WWD — from Day One.
That’s almost a half-century and counting, as next year Lauren will celebrate his brand’s 50th anniversary, an unprecedented achievement among fashion luminaries past and present. Only Giorgio Armani, who has worked continuously since launching his house 41 years ago, comes close in tenure as a founding creative leader of a major fashion brand.
Lauren’s story is one of legend. Beginning famously with a drawer full of wide ties, he built a company on business savvy and a dream. “I never went to fashion school; I didn’t grow up in the fashion business,” he says. “And I never cared about my mother’s clothes.” (He delivers the Mom remark in deadpan monotone, making it unclear if he realizes its inherent humor.) Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., he did care passionately about style, soaking up far-flung stimuli like a voracious human sponge, drawn as much to the dash and swagger of screen idols Cary Grant and Fred Astaire as to the sports stars of nearby Yankee Stadium and, downtown, Madison Square Garden, whom he adored and sought to emulate. Inspired by all, he started to develop his personal style m.o., embracing items — a leather jacket, sneakers, snappy tweeds — he found representative of cool. In that sense, Lauren was his own first muse, dressing for the life he aspired to live. He loves to say that he started to see life as a series of movies he would write and direct, and in which he would star.
Mental movies don’t pay the bills. Early on, Lauren sought to channel his love of style and apparent knack for it — his look was considered hot stuff in the neighborhood — into a career, one that began modestly, in sales. Along the way, he identified a decided lack of cool as well as a gaping hole in the men’s arena. There was, he says, “no such thing as a men’s designer. The industry made shirts, ties, suits. The companies in men’s wear never put together their clothes. They didn’t combine a look or an image or a point of view. What I did in men’s wear is I put it all together…. I wanted something higher level.”
Wide ties beget clothes inspired by Eastern prep school culture that beget others informed by tony British life and still others, by Lauren’s love of the American West. Yet he bristles (his nonjudgmental version of “bristles”) at the thought of a calculated development of house codes. “What’s a code?” he asks, the query more genuine than rhetorical. “I don’t know what that is…these are things I love.”
With foresight and passion, Lauren fused those loves into an elegant core aesthetic that he exploded into a groundbreaking lifestyle-based concept that would eventually encompass women’s and men’s clothes across categories from evening to sport to intimates, accessories, children’s wear, fragrance and home. He delivered it all through an aspirational lens focused primarily on the American experience, yet recognized and lauded around the world.
“Every time I see or think about Ralph Lauren, I am deeply impressed by the exceptional talent of portraying and narrating so specifically a part of this world,” notes Miuccia Prada.
Karl Lagerfeld goes a step further. “He is so much more than a designer,” Lagerfeld notes. “Ralph should be the next president of the United States and Ricky would be such a perfect 1st lady.” (While at this point many might agree, unlike many American designers, Lauren keeps his own political views private. In fact, we spoke after the second presidential debate, to which Hillary Clinton wore one of his pantsuits. Asked if we would see a reprise for the third debate, he said possibly. Pressed for a clue, he answered, “A suit.”)
For American designers, he long ago established the gold standard for success. Michael Kors calls him “the ultimate cinematic storyteller” and “a true American legend.” Carolina Herrera dubs him “American fashion’s global ambassador.” Says Marc Jacobs, “Ralph Lauren IS American Fashion.”
And a nice guy to boot. For Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, “He’s the only designer that we still feel star-struck by when we’re around him, and he is the only designer who ever sent us a personal congratulatory note after we won the CFDA Designer of the Year Award. We still have that note framed.”
In fashionspeak, “aspirational” typically refers to a customer eager to access a brand positioned north of her pay grade. For Lauren, the descriptive has less to do with an entrée-level customer buying in than with an appeal to our better natures — the yearning in most of us to live well from the inside out, core values of civility and respect expressed via stylistic manifestations. Over the years, he has been both lauded and mocked for that rose-colored perspective, an example of the latter coming as recently as this summer, when his Olympics uniforms triggered some social media scorn. Yet today, especially given the ugliness of the presidential race, his half-century stroll along life’s high road feels poignant and powerful.
“Ralph Lauren has stamped his impression of the American spirit in popular culture in such a way that his vision has acquired the mythical dimensions of what we all collectively consider as American taste, aspirations and lifestyle,” says Derek Lam.
Stella McCartney credits him with inventing “the phrase ‘lifestyle’ and when you say Ralph you know what you’re getting…. He is gold dust sprinkled over cinema, music, art, furniture…the all-American dream all rolled up in one big fashion house that we all can see ourselves living in.”
True enough. Yet in business, a dream unrealized is just a dream. Lauren didn’t merely create the dream, he sold it when it was brand new, and continues to sell it, advancing and evolving it with each new season, new launch, new direction — and now, as his company and the luxury sector in which it resides face considerable challenges.
We associate Lauren with idealized Americana — an accurate yet incomplete assessment. When, in 1967, he pitched a new division to Ned Brower at the Cincinnati-based Beau Brummell, he thought a brand name with an athletic reference would create excitement. But despite his obsession with American sports, he didn’t pilfer a term from baseball or basketball. Rather, he chose “Polo” for its international-man-of-mystery ring. “The Europeans play polo. It’s a glamorous sport, a playboy’s sport. The players were very glamorous. I saw the clothes as glamorous,” he says.
Innovation paved Lauren’s path to the top, and remains core to his work. “While many people would describe Ralph Lauren as classic, traditional or preppy, he has always been resolutely modern in his approach to business,” says Bergdorf Goodman’s Joshua Schulman. He runs through a litany of Lauren “firsts,” including Lauren’s transformation of the classification-oriented men’s business to a designer construct, going global and taking seriously the consumer quest for experiential luxury, realized most recently in “creating the intimate manifestation of his brand (and the ultimate Reuben sandwich) at The Polo Bar.”
Such firsts coalesced into an identity now so deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche that it’s difficult to appreciate just how bold a design renegade the young Lauren was, or the mettle it took to prove the validity of his vision to the highly skeptical men’s wear establishment. For example, early on, he declined a significant tie order from Bloomingdale’s, one contingent on the buyer’s mandate to “make them skinnier and change the name to Sutton East,” a store label. Lauren refused. “I said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I’m not going to sell them to you.’ That was one of the great moments of my life,” he recalls. (For the record, Bloomingdale’s eventually came around.)
Growth came fast: a full men’s range; in 1971, the addition of women’s and with it, Lauren’s name to the label; in 1972, his famous embroidered polo player on those now-iconic mesh shirts. Also in the early Seventies, Lauren started licensing a series of freestanding Polo stores. In 1986, he dared to go head-to-head with his most important, tony retail accounts in New York, opening his first wholly-owned Ralph Lauren flagship at the Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue. That was the start of a vertical retail operation that now circles the globe and practices a specific take on high-low, perhaps its only genuinely successful single-brand iteration, one put into practice before the hyphenate header was coined. Today, at his flagships, you can purchase a four-figure gown or tuxedo, a five-figure watch and an $85 polo shirt. The development of an intricate pastiche of subbrands, largely via licensing, also broadened the Ralph Lauren reach, but also fueling the over-distribution now perceived as problematic.
Which circles back to Lauren’s comment about having pioneered the outlet business. Though a bane to full-price multibrand sellers during the best of times, he brought it up. For all his visual romancing of reality, Lauren doesn’t avoid facts. When most brands considered outlets a tawdry necessity best left unacknowledged, he saw a vehicle that served a dual purpose. Years later, he’s not about to apologize for it. “There was a reality to the fact that you have overages and mis-cuttings and you don’t know what to do with the stuff,” he says. “That was a way of legitimately building a business with things that you have too much of, [while reaching] people who didn’t have the money, and they had good taste, and they wanted good style…. I never thought things had to be expensive.”
Karen Katz of Neiman Marcus notes such a duality ingrained deeply in the Ralph Lauren brand. “He educated all of us on keeping a balance between creating a dream for the customer to aspire [to] and making clothes people wanted to wear,” she says.
Katz identifies in Lauren an essential fusion of forces. Call him a pragmatic idealist or idealistic pragmatist, that duality informs everything he does, from his broad-stroke philanthropic work to the tough business decisions he continues to make. On the former point, among numerous notable endeavors, he embraced the cause of breast cancer research and treatment long before the rest of the industry, spearheading multiple initiatives. And he’s a major supporter of initiatives beyond those of his own company’s. “He’s done it so respectfully, it’s never been kind of obvious,” says Donna Karan. “He’s always been there, when we started — Seventh on Sale or Super Saturday.”
As for the business moves, at the dawn of its second half-century, the Ralph Lauren empire faces significant challenges, some specific to it, others in the context of fashion’s current volatility, particularly across the luxury sector. The company had seen a decline in its stock price from its high of around $189 in 2013, as well as pressures on revenue and profit growth. The stock currently trades at $98, representing a market capitalization of $8.05 billion. Last year, Stefan Larsson joined the company as chief executive officer, the first executive other than Lauren himself to hold the title. His “Way Forward” program focuses on streamlining the business across the board, which includes management restructuring, layoffs, store closures, a de-emphasis of the outlet business and reevaluating subbrands while focusing on the three core labels, Ralph Lauren, Polo and Lauren.
Lauren remains every bit as engaged and committed as ever — and as willing to try something new. To that end, for his last show, he pulled a fast one of sorts — a last-minute announcement that he would go the buy-now-wear-now route, one of only a handful of luxury-tier designers to do so, leading the way once again.
He continues to do it all without compromising his integrity. While labeling him an industry outsider rings ridiculous — his is the singular success story virtually all other American designers long to emulate, and globally, he resides in the megasuccess pantheon shared by a rarefied few — he does work and live according to an admirable different-drummer code. Though hardly a hermit, he cuts an infrequent swath on fashion’s social circuit. Years after taking his company public, he continues to think of his closest work associates as “family.” And he hates gossip. “It’s not my style,” he says. “I don’t want to hear gossip about myself, so I don’t want to hear it about other people.”
Besides, staying focused on driving a complicated, behemoth business in the forefront of global fashion at a time of industrywide and cultural upheaval, leaves scant time for idle chatter. “You know, it’s about doing it,” Lauren says. “It’s going forward always. It’s not about standing still. If you’re in business and you’re a public company, you must keep going forward. But you can do that honorably. You don’t have to be a killer.”