RALPH GALLOPS INTO EUROPE
Byline: James Fallon with contributions from Katherine Weisman, Paris
LONDON — Ralph Lauren is spurring his European business into a gallop with the aim of tripling sales here within the next five years.
“I think my impact on Europe has just started,” the designer said in an interview at his London boutique. “I feel my European business will be even more important in the years ahead. As John Paul Jones said, ‘We’ve just begun to fight.”‘
An upbeat and enthusiastic Lauren outlined a strategy that includes plans to:
* Open more freestanding boutiques, including a London Polo Sport store and possibly one in Paris, and expand his existing London Polo Ralph Lauren shop.
* Boost his women’s wear sales in Europe now that he has bought the U.S. business back from Bidermann.
* Bring his jeans line, RRL, to Europe.
* Continue to expand his business with European department stores.
The newly aggressive attitude comes despite the fact that Polo Ralph Lauren is a relatively mature player in the European market. Lauren was the first major American designer to take this market seriously, opening a 1,500-square-foot store on Bond Street here in 1981, first in a joint venture with the fashion retailer Browns and then on his own.
A Paris store followed in 1986, and Lauren now has a total of 13 freestanding Polo stores throughout Europe, as well as 500 retail locations, including shops-in-stores in European department stores.
“When we came here there were no prototypes,” Lauren said. “We didn’t know we were making history; we just did it. Now others are starting to come here as well. The world is constantly getting smaller. I saw Europe as a place my products should be because there was nothing like them over here. I had a spirit that Europeans wanted.”
And continue to want, apparently. Lauren’s European sales have grown by more than 30 percent over the last two years, a company spokeswoman said. Industry estimates are that Europe accounts for about 5 percent of the designer’s estimated worldwide sales of $4.4 billion at retail.
His European growth has recently been fueled by the success of Polo Sport in the UK, the continued growth of his signature men’s and women’s wear businesses and the launch of his new Purple Label line of men’s suits, which are handmade by Chester Barrie in the UK. The London store sold about half its Purple Label shipment within two weeks of its arrival and all of it within a month. Lauren’s five largest European markets are the UK, Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
The London Polo Ralph Lauren store is owned by the designer, while the Paris store is licensed by Poloco, which is the European licensee for men’s and boys’ wear and is a subsidiary of Louis Dreyfuss SA. The remaining stores — from Stockholm to Istanbul — are independently licensed.
Lauren signed the license with Poloco in 1985, opening showrooms in Paris and Munich and offices in London and Stockholm. A women’s wear license followed two years later with Polo Ralph Lauren Fashions of Europe, a privately owned company. With the exception of Lauren’s women’s Collection line, the European licensees produce and source all products for the European market.
Both retail and Lauren executives say the men’s wear business is by far the engine in Europe, with a much more developed product portfolio and customer base. But they believe the potential of the designer’s women’s wear here is relatively untapped since Bidermann’s problems with deliveries of the Collection line affected Europe. These problems should be solved now that Lauren again has control of the business.
“Women’s wear has been a problem for us, and we recognize that and are addressing it,” a Lauren official said.
The designer admits his European expansion program has not been without its hiccups. The London store initially wasn’t a money-maker because of price points that were equal in pounds to what they were in dollars in the U.S., industry executives say. For the type of globetrotting clientele the designer caters to, this meant most customers bought in the U.S. rather than in London.
Only after the licensing deals brought price points down did the store begin to turn a profit. “This shop continues to have one of the highest sales volumes of any Polo store,” Lauren said. “It’s tiny and it’s always packed.”
Lauren tried in the middle 1980s to expand the store by acquiring the building next door. But excessive rent demands and structural problems scuppered that plan.
“We’re now going to try again,” the designer said. “We believe we can do even better if the shop were bigger.”
Meanwhile, the designer is looking to bring his other concepts to Europe. RRL, the jeanswear line, will arrive next spring on a selective retail basis, and Lauren hinted he may look to open a freestanding RRL store in London at some stage.
Polo Sport already has arrived, with corners in Harrods and Selfridges in London and NK in Stockholm. There are plans to open additional locations in the UK, France, Germany and Spain in 1996. The designer also is scouring Bond Street and nearby areas for a space for a freestanding Polo Sport store, which he expects to open within the next year, and he may open a freestanding one in Paris at a later date.
“Polo Sport is just blowing out in the department stores here,” said Lauren. “This place is the closest to the U.S. in business terms, and as we add more concepts in America, we will bring them to London as well.” It’s the new concepts, plus growing sales with European department stores, that will contribute to tripled sales here. For years Lauren resisted going into a department store environment in Europe, but in the last five years he’s firmly embraced the concept.
He started with a Polo Ralph Lauren women’s wear shop-in-store in Harvey Nichols, which now has similar departments devoted to men’s and boys’ wear and home furnishings. Harrods then opened shops-in-stores for women’s, men’s and boy’s wear, Polo Sport and home furnishings. Most recently Selfridges has opened areas for Polo Sport and men’s wear combined, women’s wear, boys’ wear and home furnishings.
“There is a huge awareness of Ralph Lauren in Europe,” said David Elliot, merchandise director for fashion at Selfridges. “He’s all about casual but sophisticated clothing, and he’s been consistent with that approach throughout the life of the brand. That is one of his strengths.”
In France, the designer is the only American to have shops-in-store in all three leading department store chains — Galeries Lafayette, Bon MarchA and Printemps.
“Our business with Ralph Lauren is very important, so much so that we decided to double the space of their stand to about 850 square feet last September,” said Marie-Helene Robinet, the fashion director of Galeries Lafayette. “We have very good results with the product. He brings in a certain style. It’s chic, it’s a very good product that is very well made.”
Pascale Camart, the store’s divisional merchandise manager for women’s designer and sportswear fashion, noted that both the sportswear and dressier items sell well.
The designer also has a shop-in-store for his men’s wear in four Galeries Lafayette stores — two in Paris and in Lyon and Nice. More are planned for fall-winter 1996, said Pierre Pelarrey, the company’s men’s divisional merchandise manager.
The shop in the Galeries flagship is about 1,300 square feet and sells mainly sportswear rather than suits. “He brings French men chic American sportswear,” Pelarrey said. “It’s a refined person who will wear the product.”
For a designer who has never hidden his love of all things European, Lauren’s success here is heartening to him. Especially flattering is that his customers include the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Lauren, who has not appeared publicly in London since the opening of his Bond Street store almost 15 years ago, met the princess for tea while he was here last weekend. He came to London for the Winter Party at the Royal Academy, which Polo Ralph Lauren sponsored.
“I came because the staff here asked me and I was in a good mood at the time,” Lauren said, smiling. “But I find it amazing that people know the label here and that I’m part of the world in a broader sense. It’s incredibly flattering that someone like Prince Charles, who can get his clothes made and has great style, comes and buys things from me.” Lauren admitted surprise at the reception he received at the Royal Academy, where he was mobbed by everyone from actress Patsy Kensit to Viscount and Viscountess Linley. He also got a charge from the increasingly buzzy atmosphere in London.
“There’s an incredible energy here now,” he said. “There was a time in the Eighties when all the stores were dead, but now there are new stores opening all the time. You can feel the energy and it almost feels like an extension of America to me.” While the designer makes few public appearances in Europe, he comes over regularly to work with licensees and suppliers and to soak up the atmosphere. He’s as excited talking about driving an English race car over the weekend as he is about his business. Europe remains central to the Lauren style, whether it be antiques, cars or clothes. But the designer stresses that the look he does isn’t a European knockoff.
“I don’t think what I represent here is European, or American,” Lauren said. “I have something to say, and people buy it because of that. The taste is good, and customers buy it because they like the clothes. “My style is very diverse because it’s very American sport or western, but also very dressy in an English way. They seem contradictory, but I think it’s the sense of utilitarianism out West that links me to England. I love that English style of someone wearing a sweater with patches all over it simply because he likes it and it’s a good sweater. It’s the nonfashionable English I love.” Above all, it’s the European sense of quality that attracts Lauren and that he tries to emulate in his own lines. What Lauren delivers to Europe is a style and attention to detail that disappeared in many places long ago, be it a handmade English suit or a beautifully knit Fair Isle sweater. While his men’s wear is most often compared with Savile Row, Lauren is delivering a look that Savile Row forgot about years ago, when it went for the boringly safe rather than the quirky details one expects of handmade garments.
“Ralph Lauren is all about old-fashioned values,” Elliot of Selfridges said. “There aren’t many designer labels with his consistency of standards throughout — and that means the product, the presentation and the customer care.” The irony is that Lauren drives well-established English brands crazy since they believe he’s copying their style. Yet every attempt by them to copy Lauren’s copy continues to fail because they make it too English. “You have to have a reason and a style for being somewhere, and that has always been the basis of our European success,” the designer said. “It’s also all about organization — the right people, the right stores and the right clothes.
“You’re going to see a major change in my European business over the next five years. There will be more things here in different ways and in more places,” he concluded.