Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Polo Ralph Lauren said Thursday it was bowing out of the bridge category.
Lauren’s five-year-old bridge collection will be discontinued after holiday shipments are completed in November. The collection, formerly known as Ralph, was renamed RL in anticipation of this fall’s launch of Ralph by Ralph Lauren, a line for young women produced under license by Jones Apparel Group.
During the spring 2000 market week, which starts Monday, retailers who carried RL will instead be offered selections of the Ralph Lauren Polo Sport collection and the “black label” line, previously called Ralph Lauren Collection Classics and priced in the fast-growing gold-range tier between bridge and designer.
“We felt we could be much more focused developing the so-called bridge sensibility under our other labels or collections,” said Lance Isham, Polo’s corporate president.
Isham declined to divulge the volume of Lauren’s bridge business, but said the company would make up its wholesale volume by concentrating on Polo Sport and black label.
“We’ve developed a very successful Collection business, and we believe the Collection Classics or black label business can be expanded and pick up on what the industry has called the golden tier,” he told WWD.
“We believe by being more focused on these other brands, labels and tiers, we will not lose anything. We will be able to express a much better selection by location than we have in the past.
“If you look at Ralph Lauren Polo Sport, the sensibilities that the brand encompasses are activewear, daywear, casual wear, weekend wear and casual workplace sportswear. The fact is, it’s close to bridge price points. It goes from better to bridge with a Ralph Lauren sensibility.”
Under Polo Sport label, outerwear retails for $230 to $495, pants for $60 to $125 and knitwear for $25 to $150. Black label jackets retail for $650 to $1,250, pants for $250 to $495 and skirts for $250 to $450.
RL was carried in Polo Ralph Lauren retail stores, about 50 to 60 independent specialty stores and multi-unit specialty department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, Isham said.
Reached late Thursday, Frank Doroff, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale’s, said he was surprised by the news.
“We were doing well with it,” he said. “It’s going to be a blow to us in the bridge business. We were doing very well with it and had plans to grow it.”
He added, “We’re doing very well with all the other Ralph products.”
Officials from Saks and Neiman’s could not immediately be reached for comment.
Isham downplayed market conditions in bridge as a reason for bowing out of the category.
In the past two years, however, bridge has stumbled badly. Once a cash cow for big stores, it was hurt with multiple ills: excess inventory, rampant markdowns, creeping prices, eroding margins, sameness in products and sharp competition from the contemporary and better price zones.
Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro, once GFT USA Corp.’s most profitable division and a $150 million bridge powerhouse, recently ceased shipments while the Ferragamos, owners of the Ungaro fashion house, seek another partner.
Other bridge lines that ceased shipments in the past 18 months are Andrea Jovine and Isaac by Isaac Mizrahi. And on Thursday, Mondi filed for insolvency in Germany. (See story, page XX.)
The mothballing of RL was the second major move in Lauren’s women’s business this week. As reported Thursday, Polo said it had reached an agreement to take direct control of its European operations by acquiring Poloco SA, based in Paris, and certain affiliates that hold licenses to several apparel businesses, including Polo Jeans Co.
The company characterized the purchase as its biggest growth initiative since pulling its women’s wear license from Bidermann Industries USA in 1995.