KEYNOTE: RALPH LAUREN
Byline: Miles Socha
What does Ralph Lauren, the world’s biggest-selling designer, think about the state of department stores today?
He summed it up in one word: depressing.
“I think department stores are depressing. I think it’s scary,” he said. “They’re in the business of numbers. They’re not in the business of passion. They’re not in the business of dreams.”
Lauren, who built a multibillion-dollar business by inspiring millions to aspire to a lifestyle of classic elegance and gracious living, delivered a powerful keynote address to a rapt audience.
Coming at the conclusion of two days of panel discussions that often focused on consumer research, Lauren provided a strong antidote, making a case for the creative instinct. He spoke about the importance of taking risks, of having a point of view and of listening to your heart instead of a balance sheet.
And in lambasting department stores for sapping the joy out of shopping, he gave voice to a sentiment that others had only faintly alluded to at the CEO Summit.
“The burning desire, the excitement of wanting to own something exists,” Lauren said. “You can’t look at a computer. You can’t look at focus groups. You need the talent and you need a point of view.
“I trust my instincts. I know where I’m going. I don’t try to follow what’s out there. I try to lead.”
Lauren said what drives the fashion industry hasn’t changed: the pure joy of acquiring something that makes you feel better about yourself and the world. And he provided a compelling personal example.
When he was a 12-year-old boy growing up in the Bronx, he fell in love — with a pair of brown suede shoes. They were featured in a window display at a neighborhood store and he would visit them frequently, craving them.
“Why I wanted them, why I dreamed of them, I’m not sure,” he said. But there’s no denying the compulsion. Lauren asserted that “people still love to buy.”
“It’s entertainment for the world,” he said. “The people who shop department stores, they have lots of clothes, but they want more. Shopping is entertainment.”
Or rather, it should be.
“I don’t think the department stores are entertaining. I think they’re robotic,” he said to a groundswell of applause. “Department stores have an age group of 45 and up. What about all the young men from 15 to 45? What about the women from 16 to 38?”
Lauren nostalgically recalled Marvin Traub’s heyday at Bloomingdale’s at the start of his career, when he brought in a briefcase of unusually wide men’s ties. The buyers there, he said, were “hungry” for the product.
“They had a goal: We’re going to be the best store. And they built a business,” he said. “What’s missing today is that kind of passion. I’m not seeing it. Today, the buyers come in with their number sheets.
“This is a business about passion. It’s not about numbers. If you’re going to be in the numbers business, get out.”
But Lauren stopped short of saying all hope is lost.
“Department stores can be exciting. Why can’t they?” he asked. “They have to work harder. It’s not the end of the department store business. It can be exciting. Can it be a Disney World? Yes. I hope they save themselves because I have a very big department store business.”
Specifically, Lauren said stores should become more selective, instead of carrying every single megabrand. And they should support young designers with new and valid points of view on fashion.
“Don’t play it so safe,” he urged. “Discover those young people out there. Consumers today are very smart. And it’s not about labels. It’s about product. And if you don’t stimulate them, they’re walking.”
Drawing a parallel to the film industry, Lauren cited the growth of independent films that now coexist with Hollywood blockbusters. He said it’s a lesson the fashion industry shouldn’t ignore. “There’s got to be room for young talent,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re going to die out.”
Beneath an azure evening sky in The Boulders’ shopping plaza courtyard, Lauren related his now-familiar story of how he got his start in the business.
Speaking without prepared notes and roaming the stage like a seasoned performer, Lauren recalled his first industry job as a salesman for a Boston tie manufacturer. Although the firm spurned his design input, Lauren couldn’t help but notice that many of the ideas he came up with eventually were seized on by competitors. Still, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“They told me, ‘Ralph, there’s no such thing as a designer in the men’s world,”‘ he recalled. “I was 23 and I knew I had something to say. But they weren’t ready for a young guy. They were nervous about a guy who wore a two-button suit with side vents.”
Eventually, Lauren convinced a Cincinnati men’s wear firm called Beau Brummel to let him head up a new neckwear division. They provided him with a drawer and a chair in their Empire State Building showroom.
“I knew that I wanted to do wide ties,” he recalled. “I knew they were hip. Somehow, as a young guy, I had a vision that this was coming.”
Lauren soon would pioneer other new concepts for an industry that was very fragmented, populated by different companies focusing on one commodity: shirts or ties or suits. Lauren, armed with a $50,000 loan from Norman Hilton, created a collection of men’s wear that was revolutionary at the time and made swift inroads in stores like Bloomingdale’s.
Ultimately, his instincts and taste level would drive him to expand into ever-more product categories. For example, he launched children’s wear simply because he couldn’t find nice cotton shirts for his own children. He launched a women’s collection because he was eager to bring to women the tailoring and quality of men’s wear.
And his most recent venture, a collection of better sportswear for young women labeled Ralph bowing for fall 1999 with licensing partner Jones Apparel Group, is based on his belief that many young consumers understand his taste level, but can’t afford his clothes.
“You have to change with the times. All of these things started with my own sense of where the market’s going,” he said. “I had a point of view. I had a style. I had a look.”
During a lively question-and-answer segment, Lauren spoke about the commercial limits of his esthetics and the pressures of Wall Street. Asked if he has any ambitions to do business with Wal-Mart, Lauren joked that he’s not yet ready to acquire the retail giant, or sell it a cheaper version of his blue-blood designs.
“You can’t be all things to all people. You have to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is where the company is going,”‘ he said. “The most important thing is to establish an identity. If you’re me-too, you’ll be me-too forever.
“Not everyone who does men’s wear should do women’s. Not everyone should do home,” he said. “Some designers have something to say. Calvin Klein is a very good designer. He has a point of view on home. And he’s not trying to be Ralph Lauren.”
Lauren said it’s not always the best idea to follow a trend. Asked about the success of his Purple Label men’s wear, an exclusive line of handmade suits that retail for $2,000, Lauren defended his decision to swim against the tide of casual business dressing.
“It got me a little nauseous. Everyone looked the same,” he said. “I saw the economy was strong. People were getting back into wines and cigars — and fine suits.”
He said today’s market is more diverse than ever and defined by an anything-goes approach to fashion.
“Everything’s happening at once,” he said. “We can’t wait for one thing. Girls wear long skirts and short skirts. It’s a very exciting time because people are receptive to new ideas.”
Asked if going public has caused him to compromise or change his approach to the business, Lauren responded with a resounding no. He acknowledged that he feels a responsibility to his investors. He said he also wants to make money. Not that it’s his only priority.
“The reason I was successful was because money was never the dream. I was able to turn down the big stores when I needed to. Money has never been first for me,” he said. Lauren said he went public simply because he thought it would be the best route for the company’s growth.
“The world was changing. The competition was strong. Everyone was going global,” he said. “In order to do that, I had to find a way of really growing because what I’d built was a conglomerate. Going public was a chance to see it grow.”
For all his single-mindedness and his conviction to a certain brand of classic elegance, Lauren still proved he can handle constructive criticism. Fielding a query from Gene Pressman, co-chairman and co-ceo of Barneys New York, who praised Lauren’s outspoken views on risk-taking, Lauren confessed that Pressman had been up in his showroom recently and related to his sales staff that he didn’t like the shoulders on his jackets.
“It’s okay, Gene,” Lauren assured Pressman. “Your father did the same thing.”