For Ralph Lauren, the design process of a collection almost always begins in the same way. In a creative process that is the stuff of industry lore, Lauren imagines a movie scenario in his head, then uses the heroine as muse.
This story first appeared in the April 13, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
For fall, Lauren couldn’t have picked a more au courant storyboard. Sitting in his Madison Avenue office a few weeks after the show, the designer recalls the impetus for his triumphant collection. Speaking amid the model airplanes, photographs and other vintage memorabilia he has collected over the years, Lauren explains that this season’s protagonist grew up in a wealthy home in Europe, but like so many historic European estates, the family loses its fortunes and can no longer afford the home’s upkeep. His character inherits the grand home, and has no plans to sell out, even if the material things around her have crumbled. Yet, in spite of her new reality, she’s able to maintain her style.
“It’s what you might call ‘shabby chic’ in its concept,” Lauren says. “The chairs are a little tattered, the beautiful tapestry is a little worn, but it has a patina of beauty, and she mixes it so it looks young. She is considered one of the stylish people because of her independence, her individuality, her style and her heritage—she can wear a tweed jacket with a beautiful dress. There is a vintage quality I wanted to achieve.”
Five months after presenting his hit spring collection—a Raiders of the Lost Ark romp with safari looks, golden tones and some of the best harem pants in the business—fashion is in a dramatically different place. The financial world imploded, the global retail sector has taken a major hit and the rarefied world of the luxury consumer— a place Lauren has called his home for more than four decades— is being radically redefined.
During the past round of collections, many designers grappled with ways to respond to the current climate, their confidence shaken after the financial fallout. Not so Lauren. His collection featured many pale hues and pastels, with vintage pink silk tulle or gold lamé embroidered dresses, dusty pink sweaters accessorized with frothy scarves, herringbone tweed jackets, embroidered shearling and cashmere patchwork coats. Throughout, he made no compromises on his elaborate fabrics, his beading or embroidery.
Lauren says he was particularly keen to give his customers clothes that exuded a timeless quality.
“I wanted to make clothes that were about longevity, have a sense of quality but a sense of newness in how you put them together, mixing velvet tops with pants or jodhpurs, using fabrics with beading so they were special,” he says. “Not ordinary, and with a timelessness.”
With this collection, Lauren sent the industry a clear signal.
“When I’m doing a collection, I’m trying to do the ultimate of what I think a designer is best at,” he says. “I’m doing things that I think are beautiful and special. I think the designers who are going to be here and have been here have to prove that they have something to say that is not ordinary… because at those higher prices, you have to be very special. And in the [current state of] the world, I think people do want something special, so scaling down and being boring is the worst answer for a designer. Be as good as you can be and give it your all to project what you believe in, or else there is no reason for the designer. You have to stand up to your name.”
All this is not to say that he is turning a blind eye to the times. Far from it. On several occasions during the interview, Lauren references the unprecedented nature of the economy, but he remains stoic.
“It’s a difficult mood in the world right now,” he says. “People are really having a hard time financially and emotionally, because the papers keep pounding it into you. However, I have always been optimistic, and am optimistic about America and the world. I think we have a great president in Barack Obama. He has a lot on his plate, but I feel he is what we need right now. He has a vision, a belief, an energy and I believe he has an integrity. There is a lot to do, and it won’t happen overnight.”
With 42 years of Seventh Avenue under his belt, Lauren knows. He makes no secret of the fact that he has had his “shaky early years,” and in the past four decades he has seen more through booms and busts than he probably cares to remember. Yet he always managed to emerge from tumultuous times looking stronger.
Unlike any other American designer, Lauren has built a diversified empire, from his top-end Collection and Purple Label to RRL, Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Rugby, and, through the Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.’s Global Brand Concepts division, the mainstream American Living brand for J.C. Penney Co. Inc.
Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. may have been hit by sales declines in its stores, but while almost every other luxury firm is posting major losses, Polo’s third-quarter profit performance— for one of the roughest retail periods in history ending Dec. 27— still beat analysts’ expectations by a wide margin. The company is continuing its focus on global growth, and cities like Tokyo, Moscow and Istanbul now boast major Ralph Lauren stores. It is also expanding direct-to-consumer reach and investing in new merchandise development, and product innovation continues. Lauren, for instance, continues to raise the brand’s profile with sponsorships for the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tennis championships. Polo is also on the forefront of mobile technology, offering Apple iPhone users an application that allows them to explore the world of the Ralph Lauren Collection with their fingertips, from short films about the designer to video highlights from the show and garment details, as well as information on the latest ad campaigns and accessories.
Unlike some of his designer peers who like to stage runway extravaganzas with theatrical clothes that serve to shift merchandise like fragrance and cosmetics, Lauren says that he designs product and expects to sell it.
“My philosophy on designing is like a report card,” Lauren plainly states. “When you sell it, it says, ‘Hey, you’re good.’ People look and say, ‘I love this. Maybe I can’t buy five dresses, or five coats, or three jackets, or two sweaters, but I’m going to buy a few of these pieces.’ They’re not looking for cheap clothes in the designer world. They want something that’s worth it, or else they shouldn’t be buying designer clothes. There’s so much out there, on every level, that a designer should be very special.”
But even Lauren is thinking about the changing notion of luxury these days. In the past few years, he says, too many people associated it with flash and cash— that iteration will be gone when the dust of the financial turmoil settles. In the Ralph universe, luxury can never be a dirty word, and must always be about “beauty,” “quality” and “something that makes you feel wonderful and special.”
While America’s most powerful designer seems reflective when asked about issues the industry faces, he has a few thoughts about the legions of young designers who seem to have mushroomed in recent years, crowding New York’s fashion calendar like no other city.
“The world has to evolve, and there should always be new talent in our business,” Lauren says. “The fact there are more shows and more people is good. The question is, are they prepared to go out as designers, to have the backing and team behind them? You see a designer come out, he’s undercapitalized, he does a show and then next year he’s shaking and worried and people don’t know if the collection will be delivered. Viability is important.
“The consumer is buying good things—she’s not buying a lot, but she is buying,” Lauren adds. “The designers and manufacturers have to build better teams and support systems to be able to fulfill what they have to say. They have to find someone who believes in them. I started with a $50,000 loan 42 years ago. I had my bad, my weaker moments, and I had my shaky early years, but you just have to stay in there and make your team better. A lot of young designers are good. They get out of school, but don’t know how to get the backing and the support system, and that is the big issue in these difficult times.”
And they also shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about getting their wares on the red carpet, he advises. “If you’re good, people are going to seek you out,” he says. “Don’t concentrate on celebrities. One minute she wears your gown, the next minute she wears someone else’s. It’s not like the days of Audrey Hepburn wearing Givenchy and having a relationship with the designer over a period of time, where he also makes clothes for the movies. That’s a wonderful concept, and I thought that was great for Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn.”
As for Lauren himself, he remains optimistic about the future.
“I think we’re going through a time that I haven’t really seen before, but I believe that we’ll find a way through this,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m doing the best I can to do my job and make beautiful things for people and build beautiful stores and have people enjoy what I make and enjoy what I am doing.
“This is the time to show how strong you are,” he stresses. “This is the time to be solid and clear and strong, and to fight the negative by doing great things.”
It’s something he learned as a young child. “I feel like I’m with the Yankees,” he says, smiling. “As a kid, I always played ball. You rely on the good pitchers—and hitters that are solid. You don’t want to see them crumble. You want to just play the best you can, because when you do, and are really focused, you’re going to be important.”