In 43 years, Ralph Lauren has gone from wearing a bomber jacket and jeans to sell his ties to arguably becoming the most successful designer today. Like a bona fide ambassador, Lauren is showing the world just how he envisions American luxury with flagships in cities as diverse as Moscow, Tokyo, Paris and, most recently, New York.
This story first appeared in the November 3, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Last month, Lauren hit another milestone when he opened an imposing limestone mansion at 888 Madison Avenue, which offers a no-expense-spared showcase for his growing women’s and home businesses.
On Monday evening at the WWD CEO Apparel and Retail Summit, Lauren made a case for the importance of staying true to one’s vision, the need to build a solid team to back up a company’s leader, and the global potential of fashion brands today. The meeting was held town-hall style, with Lauren taking questions first from WWD editor in chief Edward Nardoza and then from the audience.
Edward Nardoza: I can make a pretty good case that you are arguably the most successful designer in the history of this business. You just received the Key to the City, and you continue to grow year after year, a long way from the playgrounds of the Bronx. Are you still restless, and what else do you want to achieve?
Ralph Lauren: Tomorrow. Thank you for giving me the compliments. I have a team sitting here tonight that has made Polo Ralph Lauren a strong company. There’s Roger [Farah, Polo’s president and chief operating officer], Jackie [Jackwyn Nemerov, executive vice president]. They have helped build this company and really got me so excited about where we are today. If it wasn’t for my team sitting here, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be in a much bigger place, getting a tan and feeling good.
E.N.: Was there a time, in your 43-year history, a turning point where you felt your business can be so big?
R.L.: I started with neckties, delivering them in a bomber jacket and jeans. I was so excited about what I was doing. When I got a cab instead of walking, I thought I was hitting the big time. Someone asked me today, “How do you feel? When did you feel you were making it?” I said, “I never felt that way. I never feel like I am done.” I feel like I am just starting. We have just built the most beautiful stores in Paris and New York, and I am so high, I am thrilled. When I moved into the store on 72nd Street 25 years ago, I looked across the street, and thought, “That’s the store I want to have.” We are expanding, the whole industry is expanding. The Internet, the world of fashion and the possibilities of exposure are exciting.
E.N.: Before we put the pressure on the audience, I have one essential question. What is the key phone number to get a reservation at the restaurant in Paris?
R.L: Call Ricky [his wife]. We had our store opening in Paris with all the excitement, and I was only interested in how they like the hamburgers.
Audience Question: As you move into Moscow, Tokyo and elsewhere in Europe and the Far East, how do you control the brand values and interpret them for each of those markets?
R.L.: I am very clear on what we have to do. We have been in China before and had a license there. The licensee built the brand, but it had nothing to do with Ralph Lauren.
In those days, when I first licensed this company, I thought I’d never be in China. It was a wonderful deal to have money coming into a young company. Then, as time went on and we started to grow and have the right sensibility and people, we found…the business we had [in China] was really not in keeping with the business in America and Europe. You have to be very clear about who you are and what you want to achieve. The European stores are way ahead of America in that respect. They have been there for nine, 10 years, and they have pioneered China and Moscow in many different ways. It’s one of the things I was very surprised about. I can’t believe that America hasn’t been looking to Europe and Asia for their exposure and advancement. There are many openings in the world and it’s an expanding horizon.
There is a whole group of luxury brands that have really developed a direction and a vision and a point of view and captured the imagination of the Chinese. I was very impressed with Zegna.…Certainly Gucci has done a great job. I think there is a whole world and it’s just beginning. We have a strong vision about our company. We know what we want to be and have to be clear about what we had before and, in a funny way, start over, with a sense that we are going somewhere to be who we want to be. If our products are good, and our stores built properly, the potential is amazing.
Audience: You are well-known for your charitable work, and the company has an office of corporate social responsibility. I am interested in what the corporation is doing in the world of social responsibility, sustainability and to further the next generation of designers beyond giving them jobs at Polo.
R.L.: We try to be socially aware of what we do. We are making all the efforts to do things that are proper, both socially and environmentally.
We are nurturing designers every day. One of the things I have always wanted to do is to build a school, because I think that what we do is like a university. There was once a joke about Polo University and all the people that came to the company and left to build their own businesses. One of the reasons it is a strong company is that we are nurturing young people so that they believe we are the right company to stay with, not just to start with. I always thought it was like a school. It’s not only design, it’s finance, fashion and retail.
Audience: Many people in this room wonder how you have been able to create such a consistent brand across so many different products. How do you do that, and what do you say to your employees when they come in, that this is what Ralph Lauren stands for?
R.L.: I started this business, and I didn’t go to fashion school. When I was a young boy growing up, my parents didn’t have the money to buy me the clothes that I wanted, and so I learned to dream of things I wanted to have when I was 12 years old. I worked at Alexander’s after school when I was 16, hanging up returns in a blue uniform. I worked for Allied Stores as an assistant buyer when I was 20. I worked for Brooks Brothers. Along the way, I learned a lot about different worlds. I learned about myself.
I started working for a tie company and watched them design ties. I was 25, and I said, “Why can’t we change that? Why can’t we do this?” My boss said, “The world is not ready for Ralph Lauren.” So part of the business is the passion and the vision and the love of what you are doing. My business grew out of love for what I was doing. I never had a plan and never thought about it. I knew that I had something to say.
For me, that passion has never lost its voice. I have a team of people in my company that have the same voice. We love and breathe the same air. What we design is not miracles, they are not magical things that float in from the sky. They are real products. They are real things that people need. They don’t go out with time, they will always be beautiful.
Audience: Being a public company ceo, how did you manage through the process of going from private to public and serving very different masters?
R.L.: People think that when you go public you have to change your business. Step one is building a brand and having people know about your company. Step two is being a public company and then arming your company with the kind of talent you must have to deal with the side of the business and the side of the world you don’t know. One of the most important things about a public company is to know that you can’t do it all. You have to have partners and a team. I believe in partners in design, in creativity, in the financial and management side of it, and there has to be respect. Teamwork makes a good company.
Audience: Can you talk about maintaining integrity while going with creative and emotion. How do you achieve that?
R.L.: I think any successful company has to have a leader with a voice, and a direction. I had a vision about what I like and believe in, and I keep doing it and it keeps growing. For many years, they never loved what I did. For many years, I looked at the papers and thought, “What kind of a review is that?” I would be a little upset for that hour or day, then close the paper and go back to what I was doing before. I believed in what I was doing and the consumer believed in it. They were buying my product.
Audience: Can you speak to your formula about multitiering brands?
R.L.: When you look at one person and his life, he may be dressed up in a Purple Label suit now, but on the weekends, he wear chinos, sweaters and casualwear. His son might wear more rugged clothes. The tiering of a brand is about one’s lifestyle. Clothes don’t have to be expensive. They can be cool, rugged clothes. That same guy can drive a Jeep and also a Ferrari.