No less fantastic or surreal than Schiaparelli or Castelbajac…
“Selling a Dream of Elegance and the Good Life”
Monday, Sep. 01, 1986
Come to Laurenland, the images whisper, where fantasy and finery go together like hand in well-stitched glove. Watch polo matches in
Palm Beach, trim in a crested blazer and trousers of crisp linen. Sip cognac by the fireplace of a Sun Valley, chalet, snug under a brightly colored Navajo blanket and clad in a Nordic apres-ski sweater and wool twill slacks. Go on safari in Kenya wearing a bush jacket and khaki shorts that would do justice to Robert Redford in Out of Africa. Sip tea at London’s Connaught Hotel, draped to perfection in a chalk-stripe suit.
Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren grew up a long way from all the things he really admired: hand-tailored clothes, manor houses, sports cars, fine horses and manicured lawns. But call it a yearning process: as an outsider to that world, Bronx-born Lauren dreamed up his own brand of gentility and style. Now he has managed to create an image and a company that have nearly cornered the market for supplying today’s would-be Gatsbys. Shunning hipness and flamboyance, Lauren cultivates the up-and-coming customer’s appreciation for things and dreams that last.
Lauren (pronounced Laur-en) has tailored a thriving conglomerate as well. Rarely if ever has a clothing designer established a product range so wide, a retailing network so extensive, a marketing image so well defined. That company, Polo/Ralph Lauren, expects total retail sales to hit $1.3 billion this year, a fourfold jump since 1981. If Lauren’s company were publicly held, its retail revenues would place it 257th in this year’s FORTUNE 500 listings. The designer’s personal wealth is estimated to be $300 million, plus whatever he keeps after taxes this year on his projected 1986 profits of about $27 million. Lauren, his wife Ricky and their three children — Andrew, 17, David, 14, and Dylan, a daughter, 12 — now live like restless aristocrats, shuttling by private jet among their homes in New York, Colorado and Jamaica.
In the ranking of the world’s designer royalty, Lauren, 46, is the king of American sportswear, which in today’s fashion parlance encompasses everything from swimsuits to semiformal evening wear. He reigns as the natural successor to Bill Blass and John Weitz, the first generation of U.S. celebrity designers. Lauren’s chief rival, as coincidence would have it, comes from the same Bronx neighborhood. He is Calvin Klein, who has crafted an image of sizzling sexiness as singular as Lauren’s aura of rich romance. But Lauren has kept ahead of his onetime neighbor in both popular and negotiable currency: Lauren’s total sales are estimated to be one-quarter larger than Klein’s. Overall, the U.S. champion money spinner appears to be Designer Liz Claiborne (estimated 1986 sales: $1.8 billion), whose company sells primarily mid- priced clothes for professional women. But in terms of product range, prestige and marketing mystique, Lauren is the leader (see chart).
Lauren sells an image of ready-to-wear prosperity, but there was nothing instant about his success in New York City’s gritty garment district. He worked hard, sold hard and survived countless trials and errors. His early lack of strategic planning brought him close to bankruptcy in 1972. In the late 1970s, his Western Wear collection thrust Lauren into the fashion spotlight but failed financially.
More often, Lauren manages to find a lucrative combination of what he likes and what will sell, a spectrum that has ranged from Polo shirts to his Santa Fe collection. In terms of his standing in the industry, he has become fashion’s equivalent of an old-time movie mogul who creates, directs and lives out his own view of high style. Lauren possesses the financial and personal clout to put his name on just about any product, or roomful of products, he pleases.
No matter how diverse they become, Lauren’s wares reflect a rigid design philosophy, a kind of “Polo Manifesto” that his advertising brochures proclaim as “originality, but always with integrity and a respect for tradition.” His newest venture, coming this fall, is a line of upholstered furniture ranging from $535 ottomans to $5,500 sofas. “I want to make all the things I love,” he says. “A lot of people have nice taste. I have dreams.”
To sell his vision of the lush life, Lauren is building an ever larger retail network. The designer now sells his products in 48 franchised Polo shops, 132 department store boutiques and 16 discount outlets. In April he opened what his company calls the world’s largest one-designer store, Polo/ Ralph Lauren, in a 20,000-sq.-ft. renovated mansion on Manhattan’s tony Madison Avenue shopping strip. The Polo palace, which is the first retail store Lauren has owned outright, represents a gamble that one designer can produce enough strong-selling goods to support a department store-size emporium.
If Lauren’s new flagship store succeeds, other big-name designers will want to follow his example. The reason: compared with selling through department stores and franchises, direct ownership gives a designer complete creative control of marketing, not to mention a far higher profit margin. Says Walter Loeb, who follows the retailing industry for Morgan Stanley, the investment firm: “Designers are not always happy with the way department stores select merchandise, picking some pieces but not the whole assortment. The designers feel that the stores don’t fully appreciate their genius and wish they would pick a range that reflects their total fashion message.”
Lauren has gone multinational, a feat that many European designers achieved decades ago but that their U.S. counterparts have never quite managed to duplicate on the same scale. In the same month that he opened his Madison Avenue mansion for business, Lauren unveiled a grand salon in Paris. Says Patrick McCarthy, editor of Women’s Wear Daily: “He is the first American designer to seize the potential for the American look in Europe.”
This month Lauren, who has stores bearing his name in London, Hong Kong and Montreal, is opening another shop, in Munich. Next year he aims to establish two stores in Japan, where he sold $90 million worth of clothes through department stores in 1985, an 18% gain over the previous year. Lauren’s popularity among the Japanese, whose appetite for U.S. styles and trends seems inexhaustible, has helped bring a new word to the native language: Ame- toraddo, for American traditional.
Lauren positions his clothing in a lucrative middle ground of consumer sensibility. He lures customers who think high-fashion styling is too faddish and traditional business garb is not quite sporty enough. His Polo purchasers are typically professionals and other upscalers who feel they have more important things to follow than fashion trends. Lauren loyalists sing of simple virtues: comfy elegance, durability, the avoidance of visual shock. They know they can depend on Lauren for a certain smart sameness, a look at once sporty and restrained. “No one understands his customer as truly as Ralph does,” says Donna Karan, another leading U.S. designer. “He creates designs that match his philosophy, and he never loses his integrity.” Says Grace Mirabella, editor in chief of Vogue: “The thing I admire most is that he stays so highly focused. He doesn’t do one thing that is out of character, whether it is comforters or jackets or men’s ties.”
While Lauren pleases millions of consumers, he provokes no small amount of criticism from fashion purists of almost every stripe. Some devotees of hand-tailored menswear contend that his high-priced, British-inspired suits fall short of the originals in both quality and refinement. “Savile Pseud suits” is what Writer Tom Wolfe, a notably natty dresser, has called them. A few fashion mavens fault some of Lauren’s designs for being too pastoral and sentimental, especially in comparison with Calvin Klein’s sleek, urbane creations. The skeptics view Lauren’s claims of “good taste” as a euphemism for yuppified conformity.
Perhaps against the arch curves of French Designer Claude Montana or the dramatic drapery of Japan’s Issey Miyake, Lauren’s work is stick-in-the-mud. But Lauren sticks to what he knows and has never claimed to be wildly original or abstract. Says a longtime fan, Actress Candice Bergen: “He incorporates the things you’ve loved for years. I’m basically not one who is comfortable in massive shoulder pads or the trendy things.”
The most discomfiting fashion revelation for first-time Lauren buyers may be his lofty prices: $67.50 for basic oxford-cloth shirts, $130 for terry-cloth bathrobes and $338 for cashmere sweaters. One aim of that upscale pricing strategy is to maintain consumer prestige. Cagey shoppers can pick up Lauren’s seconds and overstocks for 30% to 70% discounts at his factory-outlet stores, which are situated in such discreet locales as Appleton, Wis., and Tijuana.
Lauren’s prime selling point is his image of patrician quality, which he polishes like the good silver. Even though most of his wares are manufactured by independent licensees, Lauren wants to maintain a distinct reputation for close attention to detail. He does so by lavishing time and care on his image- making advertisements, which spread the message of his design principles. As part of that studied approach, Lauren prefers lavish magazine spreads to television commercials, which he views as too fleeting to impart his message. “Ralph has some of the best advertising in the business because it sets a mood, it evokes a life-style,” says an ad director for a major fashion magazine.
Lauren spent a hefty $17 million on advertising last year, but Klein spent that much to promote just one of his products, Obsession perfume. The difference in selective vs. saturation campaigning is partly explained by the fact that the competing designers have each staked out an individual theme: status vs. sex. Klein’s dominance of the sexual sell began with his blue-jeans ads in 1980, which featured a pubescent Brooke Shields uttering, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing!” His current magazine ad for Obsession depicts a young man nuzzling a bare-breasted female. By contrast, Lauren’s most ambitious effort was a magisterial 18-page section in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year that portrayed a large, wealthy and blue-blooded American clan enjoying a life of racquets, books and, yes, polo. The pictorial saga reached out to upwardly mobile consumers with “Come join us” rather than “Hey, you! Buy these pants!” In essence, the Lauren approach dangles old-money prestige in front of a new-money clientele.
For Lauren, this year has provided one success after another. Aside from all the store openings, his fall women’s collection was a smash hit. At the clothing’s initial showing in the Grand Ballroom of Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, Lauren watched through a peephole backstage and his tawny-haired wife sat in the front row, wearing an ornately crested Polo blazer, as models taxied along the runway to the strains of Sinatra’s The Lady Is a Tramp. The critical favorite of the day: a navy blue cashmere evening dress ($998) that was far more clingy, streamlined and sensuous than any Lauren has dared before. Another hit: a paisley skirt in shimmering panne velvet ($698), a striking companion piece to a sedate wool jacket ($598). Said Lauren after the show: “It all came together. This is the best I’ve ever felt.”
Lauren’s clothes generally pay homage to the kind of serene, idealized upper-class social milieu that the designer may have longingly imagined as a big-city youth. Lauren grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in the Bronx’s middle- class Mosholu Parkway section, the youngest of three boys and a girl born to Frank and Frieda Lifshitz. His father, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from the Soviet city of Minsk, was a talented mural painter whose rendering of the Manhattan skyline still decorates the ceiling of a furriers’ building lobby in the garment district.
Young Ralph was preoccupied with basketball, stickball and the exploits of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, but he started showing a flair for clothes in his early teens. “The kids I grew up with were wearing leather motorcycle jackets like Marlon Brando,” he recalls. “But at the same time I saw there was a collegiate side of the world. I was inspired by it. I was always very preppie.” Klein remembers that Lauren cut a distinctive figure in the neighborhood by mixing olive-drab Army clothes with tweeds. At 15, Ralph got his first fashion commission: to design red satin warm-up jackets for his baseball team.
It was Lauren’s older brother Jerry, now the head of Polo’s menswear design department, who suggested when Ralph was 16 that the siblings change their surname. “Lifshitz was a burden,” Jerry recalls. “I was in the Air Force reserve, and I got tired of being on the defensive at mail call with somebody fooling around with the sound of my name. It was silly to live with it. It wasn’t some family dynasty.” Ralph and Jerry rattled off potential names to each other and settled almost randomly on Lauren, which sounded euphonious to them.
At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Lauren attended business classes but paid little attention to studies. His adolescent idols were British and American style setters: the Duke of Windsor, for example, and Katharine Hepburn, who stole the show in The Philadelphia Story with her pants-and-pearls look. Lauren’s early fashion education was basically a home- study course that he recalls being a “combination of movies and reading Esquire.” Says he: “Whether that world exists or not, I don’t know. I saw things as they should have been, not as they were.”
Lauren worked part time, accepting returned garments in a budget-price department store, to earn money to buy classically cut clothes at Manhattan’s Brooks Bros. In his high school yearbook, Lauren confidently listed his ambition as “millionaire.” The entry was a gag, he claims today, but his brother Jerry remembers that Ralph had a “constant urge to make something happen. He was always reaching for more.”
Ralph tried a stint at New York’s City College but decided to drop out, at least partly, he says, because it was an aesthetic letdown. “There was no wonderful campus with boys and girls wearing V-neck sweaters,” he explains, as though he still feels he missed something in life.
Lauren subsequently served a hitch in the Army reserve, then got a seasonal job at Brooks Bros. as a clerk during the Christmas rush. At 22 he went to work as a New York regional salesman for Abe Rivetz, a Boston necktie manufacturer. Lauren made the rounds of his Long Island wholesale customers dressed in tweeds and driving a British Morgan convertible. Pondering fashion trends as he traveled, he decided around 1964 that the men who wore the narrow ties of the early ’60s were ready for a change to wider, more colorful designs. While Lauren was not a particularly gifted sketch artist, he knew how to put together a fashionable ensemble. “I would walk (into a room) and my clients would say, ‘I want what you are wearing.’ My instincts were there. I didn’t think I was a designer, but I had ideas.” In those days, garment company bosses generally called the shots in the fashion business, and American clothing designers were only beginning to achieve acceptance as entrepreneurs. Lauren managed to persuade his employers to let him design a few innovative cravats, but when new management took over the firm the budding designer was told the world was not ready for Ralph Lauren. He migrated to a larger men’s-furnishings company, Beau Brummel, which agreed to manufacture his original neckwear. Lauren needed a brand name and wanted something that sounded tweedy and British. Cricket? Rugby? Polo! That was it, even though Lauren had never been to a match. “We thought of everything,” says Lauren . with a grin. “I couldn’t call it Basketball.”
For good or ill, Lauren’s first creations sparked the wide-tie-and-lapel boom of the late 1960s and early ’70s. His ties were four inches wide, compared with the then standard 2 1/2 inches, came in vibrant Italian-silk patterns and were priced at $15, more than double the conventional rate. “For anyone who liked clothes, to have a Polo tie was such a luxury. It was really a coveted item,” recalls a former employee, Anthony Edgeworth, now a noted photographer. Lauren sold $500,000 worth of ties in his 1967 start-up year, when his entire business fit into one large drawer in a rented space in the Empire State Building. At least one powerful department store, Bloomingdale’s, tried to persuade Lauren to make his radical ties narrower. But his novel design became such an instantaneous rage that Bloomingdale’s gave in. Before long, retailers were ordering 100 dozen of the young designer’s creations at a time.
The very next year Lauren struck out on his own, with $50,000 in backing from Norman Hilton, a Manhattan clothing manufacturer. He began producing an entire menswear line, including wide-collar shirts and wide-lapel suits, that was more flamboyant than the contemporary Ivy League look yet not as loud as the psychedelic style of the same era. Before long, Lauren had 30 employees helping to promote and sell his fast-expanding Polo collection. Chic department stores like Bloomingdale’s showcased his collections, and the fashion press took notice. “He’s acquired a certain reputation for clothes that are, you know, with it. But not too with it. Not enough to shock the boys at the bank,” wrote Fashion Critic Bernadine Morris.
It was perhaps inevitable that Lauren would eventually try his hand in the challenging womenswear market, but his touch proved less sure there. His first tailored shirts for women, in 1971, were a success. Nonetheless, his initial attempt at a full line of womenswear in 1972, inspired partly by British riding clothes, was deemed too unsubtly imitative of menswear lines. Critics were startled and yet intrigued. “A phenomenon to bewilder anthropologists,” sniffed The New Yorker.
But soon the Lauren look began to catch on. The designer quickly became something of a champion for well-bred suburbanites who felt manipulated by European couturiers. “Nobody is impressed with elaborate clothes anymore,” he declared in 1974. “A girl who is solid doesn’t want to be known as a fashion lady.” Today his quietly elegant womenswear collections bring in about $210 million at retail.
Lauren achieved something of pop-star status during the 1970s. It started after he began displaying his engaging smile in advertisements in 1974, when Saks Fifth Avenue asked him to appear in a print ad for the store’s Polo boutique. Lauren, 5 ft. 5 or so, projected considerable well-tanned sex appeal. In the same year he designed the male wardrobe for the opulent remake of The Great Gatsby, which starred Robert Redford. In 1977 Lauren’s creations attracted a further celebrity following when Diane Keaton adopted them in a layered, tomboyish look for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Lauren’s label began to proliferate rapidly, appearing on cologne and boyswear in 1978, girlswear in 1981, luggage and eyeglasses in 1982, home furnishings in 1983 and women’s handbags in 1985. He turned down dozens of offers to design such items as telephones, autos and chocolates.
Lauren oversees his empire and its 1,000 employees in a ten-floor warren of offices that occupy a narrow, prewar building on Manhattan’s West 55th Street, about 15 blocks north of the hectic garment district. The decor of Lauren’s headquarters suggests the backstage of a theater: cramped and slightly eccentric, with forest green walls and a bowl of M&M’s on a table in the reception room. Lauren’s personal office contains some of his favorite props: a wood-burning fireplace, a fleet of toy racing cars, family photographs and piles of fabric swatches. He often wears a studiedly scruffy uniform: a cotton work shirt, faded Levi’s and well-worn cowboy boots. “This is who I am,” he claims. “You’ve got to be who you are.”
Above all, Lauren is the boss. He huddles for most of the day with fashion assistants and corporate colleagues, at one moment expostulating before a trio of dark-suited subordinates and the next pondering an advertising display among a group of young designers clad in a palette of pale blue variations on his own favorite garb. Lauren pays his employees well and rewards loyalty, but he can be a blunt taskmaster. “He is absolutely terrible about hiding his feelings,” says Buffy Birrittella, Polo/Ralph Lauren’s vice president for advertising and communications. In an industry notorious for its creative egos, Lauren has long enjoyed a reputation for relative humility, but that could be changing. During the past year “he has got a little bit of a big | head,” says one old friend. Insists Lauren: “I am not aloof. I am very basic.” His descriptions of his work, however, tend to be heavily larded with words like integrity, elegance, traditional and American.
He needs a swatch of imperiousness just to get through his work schedule. He renders his decisions at a tremendous clip, daily passing judgment on dozens of ideas for products ranging from rugs to umbrellas. He generally drafts the broad schemes for new wares, often leaving his staff to come up with many of the specific details, materials and manufacturing plans. “I really love the idea of dark paisley sheets,” he announced at a meeting one day. When his designers scurried back into conclave with fabric samples, Lauren demanded, “No, no! I want them darker, darker, darker!”
Lauren constantly scours his surroundings for design ideas. His taste is eclectic, though not unpredictable: he is chronically hooked on classics. “I love jeans, cowboy boots, tweed jackets, pin-stripe suits, old race cars, Porsches, Indian blankets and baskets,” he says. Lauren once chased down a Colorado cowboy whose battered jeep he wanted to buy on the spot. Observes WWD Editor McCarthy: “Everything he sees or does comes back to his work. He is totally consumed by it.”
Often Lauren finds what he wants right under his nose. One of his first women’s tennis dresses was reportedly a takeoff on an old Hunter College gym suit that his wife kept around the apartment. (The designer met his wife Ricky, a former schoolteacher, in 1964 on a visit to a New York City eye doctor’s office, where she was working part time. They were married six months later.) Lauren took the inspiration for the ruby red glass bottles that contain his women’s cologne, called Lauren, from his favorite antique inkwells. He solicits advice from his daughter Dylan, a seventh-grader, who suggested that rather than resemble private-school uniforms, Lauren’s girlswear should contain more bright stripes and colors. A visitor to Polo’s office once found Lauren and his brother Jerry, 51, huddled over the latest L.L. Bean catalog, sketching items they liked.
As a result of that assiduousness, Lauren has been criticized as being a promoter rather than a designer, a copycat who turns traditional ideas into high-priced knock-offs. Case in point: his lined dungaree jacket with corduroy collar, a $98 rendering of an item that sells for about $35 with the Lee blue- jean label. Yet what Lauren is accused of taking from tradition is & systematically reborrowed from him by dozens of his smaller competitors.
His co-optation of American culture has got him into trouble on occasion. When he called an expensive jacket the Astaire during the early 1970s, the dancer asked Polo to stop using the name. Lauren complied. He stirred protests from folk-art preservationists in 1982 when he took a fancy to antique quilts and decided to cut up hundreds of them to decorate skirts and other garments in his contemporary collection.
Lauren delegates most of his company’s day-to-day financial oversight to his only co-owner, Polo President Peter Strom, 57, who holds 10% of the stock. When Lauren wants to embark on a new venture, it is Strom’s job to calculate what prices they would need to charge and how many items they would have to sell to break even. The huge profits from certain staple items, such as Polo shirts (see box), give Lauren the freedom to expand into riskier products. Example: at any given time Lauren may offer 60 styles of sweaters in his collections, which will include a number of designs that he especially likes but that will sell too few copies, perhaps only 200 or so, to make a profit. Says Strom: “The manufacturer doesn’t even want to make them, but Ralph loves the way they look, so we go with them.”
Lauren is acutely profit conscious. But since the only shareholders he needs to please are himself and Strom, he has leeway to experiment and to pursue a sometimes whimsical strategy. “I don’t have a master plan,” he says. “It gets more complicated as it grows.” So far, Lauren’s whimsy has been highly accurate in locating successful commercial opportunities. Says Strom: “I had no idea it would go like this. I remember saying to myself, ‘If this business ever hits $20 million, I’ll retire.’ But I keep upping the stakes.”
Lauren hired Strom in 1972, in the midst of near fatal financial growing pains. Even though Polo’s revenues were galloping ahead at the time, Lauren suddenly discovered that his enterprise was almost bankrupt because of poor financial management and the costs of headlong expansion. To save the company, Lauren pumped his entire $100,000 savings into the firm and offered Strom a share of the business to come aboard from a management job with Norman Hilton, Lauren’s early patron and manufacturer.
The new partnership made a crucial change in the corporation’s structure that enabled it to grow in a healthier manner. From direct manufacturing, Lauren and Strom switched almost entirely to licensing deals in which the manufacturer finances production, shipping and part of promotional costs. Thus they escaped the necessity of investment in the capital-intensive garment- making process, along with many of the subsequent losses caused by any product flops. Since the manufacturer assumes more of the risks under licensing arrangements, Lauren gets a smaller share of any resulting profits. But the licensing arrangements give him greater freedom to concentrate on design and marketing.
Nowadays the company’s licensees bring to Polo/Ralph Lauren an expertise in making a particular generic item, to which Lauren adds his design, packaging and promotional ideas. His 38 manufacturers produce virtually everything but Lauren’s top-of-the-line Polo menswear. The largest licensee is Cosmair, for fragrances, followed by Bidermann Industries, for womenswear. Lauren retains a final say, which he zealously exercises, over the end products. Recalls Clothing Executive George Ackerman, whose company, Warnaco, makes some of Lauren’s moderately priced Chaps menswear: “A few years ago we did a safari jacket with copper snaps. Ralph loved the jacket but hated the snaps. Too brown, he said. He wanted black metal snaps. Our manufacturer in Korea, who couldn’t make them that color, didn’t understand what was so important about changing the snaps. We told him that this is Ralph Lauren and this is what it’s going to be. So we had to send a man to Japan to pick up the buttons and take them to Korea. All that for a couple of thousand jackets that retailed at about $100.”
While licensees fabricate most of Lauren’s products, the designer manufactures his pricey Polo line of menswear (annual sales: $420 million) at his own factory, a rehabilitated brick mill in Lawrence, Mass., that he bought in 1978. Reason: tailored menswear is the type of clothing Lauren knows best. By making those garments himself he can collect a larger profit margin and keep an even closer watch on quality. At the Polo plant, some 225 workers turn out 350 jackets and suits a day. Lauren’s best Italian-wool suits ($1,200) are handmade by 25 highly skilled tailors, usually immigrants from Italy, Turkey or West Germany.
Lauren has a Broadway producer’s flair for launching large fashion collections. Boldly and with apparent ease, he markets clothing lines that contain dozens of items linked by a single conceptual theme. He came by such ; skills the hard way: Lauren’s first high-volume production, his launch of a splashy Western Wear collection in 1978, was plagued by mistakes. The designer and his manufacturers were several months late in delivering the extensive line of cavalry shirts, prairie skirts, cowboy boots and other products. The women’s jeans, which Lauren tailored with his willowy wife in mind, were cut so lean in the seat and thighs that Women’s Wear Daily called the fit “impossible” for regular-size folks. Some department stores were stunned at Lauren’s demand that they include in their displays so many props. Among them: cacti, split-rail fences and wagon wheels. Lauren soon moved on to other themes.
Things went far more smoothly with his Rough Wear collection, which featured clothes for would-be mountaineers and fishermen. The response was also favorable for his Santa Fe designs, which included such exotica as a ruffled pink suede blouse (price: $778) and a hand-beaded Navajo-patterned women’s top (about $5,950).
Lauren’s productions seem to be growing ever more extravagantly elaborate, raising the question of how much more attention he can continue to pay to all the details. His most recent acme of orchestration is this fall’s version of a huge home-furnishings line, divided into styles variously labeled Chairman of the Board, New England, Thoroughbred and Adirondack, among others. Lauren launched his first home-furnishing series in 1983. He had spent 18 months working with J.P. Stevens, the textile giant, to develop the initial collection of some 2,500 sizes, shapes and styles of products, ranging from stemware to blankets. When the huge assortment made its debut, it suffered immediate problems from late arrivals at retail outlets and uneven quality control. “A disaster! Disaster!” his partner Strom recalls. Lauren and Strom weeded out troublesome items, including glassware and dishes, and now expect the home-furnishings business to grow by 75% this year, to $50 million.
Lauren is a master of minutiae. In advertisements and store displays, he surrounds his understated wares with loads of charming and inventive doodads, many of them for sale. Rather than merely display a blazer or a skirt, he likes to present a whole pile of goodies. The side tables in Lauren displays are nearly always covered with rows of framed pictures that suggest comfortable surroundings of family and tradition. Lauren’s home-furnishing arrangements fairly gush with conspicuous consumption: eight pillows on a bed, all with ruffles and contrasting fabrics. Lauren hopes that customers will buy the whole package, in effect trusting his ability to mix and match. Apparently they often do. Says Cheryl Sterling, president of Lauren’s furnishings division: “People come into the stores and say, ‘I want that bed, just the way it looks.’ ”
That kind of accumulative technique is becoming a model for other designers and retailers, particularly now that Lauren has opened his superstore, in which he has even greater latitude to display such confections. To a certain extent, the Madison Avenue store competes with Polo outlets in New York metropolitan-area department stores. Some East Coast retailing executives were initially resentful of that. Some had supported Lauren in his earlier days or acquiesced to his extensive demands for floor space and elaborate fixtures in their stores. But the retailers are unlikely to shut down the boutiques in protest, because Lauren is a major attraction in their establishments. Besides, they hope the impact of the deluxe Lauren mansion will help make the Polo label even more prestigious. Says Marvin Traub, chairman of Bloomingdale’s: “In the long run it will build up the Lauren business. The impact on us is very healthy.”
The Madison Avenue store, on which Lauren has lavished more than $14 million, is his ultimate showcase and testing laboratory. In many ways the store rewrites the textbook for upscale retailing. Built in 1895 as the home of a wealthy heiress, the five-story limestone structure had been divided into three separate shops until Lauren managed to get a 49-year lease that covered the entire edifice. Estimated annual rent: $1 million. Now fitted with hand- carved mahogany woodwork and custom-forged brass trim, and dappled with expansive Oriental rugs and sprays of orchids, the store evokes the imagined atmosphere of a London men’s club or a distinguished Edwardian hotel. The display space is cluttered with props, including English saddles, bulbous trophies, top hats and a rack of billiard cues. “Lauren is the only designer with the product range to have such a store,” says Nina Hyde, fashion editor of the Washington Post. Some shoppers, though, view the store’s atmosphere as contrived.
Lauren has flourished in Europe, which is tough turf for an American designer. Calvin Klein, for one, opened a retailing outlet in Milan in 1982 but closed it soon afterward in response to slow sales. By contrast, in its * first four months of operation, Lauren’s Paris store on the corner of the Rue Royale and Place de la Madeleine has stimulated the French taste for the preppie look. The New Bond Street shop in London, which met lukewarm response when it opened in 1981, now plans to triple its floor space. Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who wear only British-made clothes for public events, have been seen wearing Lauren’s label on more discreet occasions. The British have not failed to notice the irony of Lauren’s selling back to them a bit of borrowed cultural inspiration, and at a royal ransom.
The designer’s global profits have brought home a lavish life-style for his family. They divide their time among a sprawling apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park; a house on Montego Bay in Jamaica; a working ranch with 1,500 head of cattle near Telluride, Colo.; and an oceanfront house at the tip of Long Island. The family commutes over the long hauls in a nine- passenger Hawker Siddeley jet and covers shorter distances in chartered helicopters. Lauren can be seen gliding through Manhattan in a limousine with the initials RL on the door, but he prefers to pilot his chromeless 1979 Porsche Turbo Carrera, which is custom-finished entirely in black.
Lauren avoids the frenetic night life often associated with his industry. “I don’t live in that world of ‘Daaahling!’ I can’t stand it,” Lauren says. Instead he tends his ranch, drives a collection of antique race cars, and jogs three or four miles each morning. Lauren’s cultural interests tend to mirror his professional instincts. Last year he spent a reported $350,000 to sponsor an acclaimed historical exposition of riding tack and apparel, called “Man and the Horse,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though he professes to be nonpolitical, Lauren openly supported Democratic Hopeful Gary Hart during the 1984 presidential campaign.
The worldly prince of fashion remains an inveterate daydreamer, just as in his high school days. At times he has spoken of opening a steakhouse on Madison Avenue, a project that has yet to materialize. He has talked about starting a record company. Often Lauren has expressed an ambition to be an actor, though he turned down an offer to make a guest appearance on TV’s The Love Boat.
Whatever he does next, Lauren has boosted the prestige of American sportswear at home and abroad. Says Eleanor Lambert, a longtime industry publicist: “He has grasped the solidity and the worth and the drive of American life. He is a very stabilizing influence in American fashion.” The determined dreamer from the Bronx has become a special kind of design star, whose imagination is less a source of amazement than of security for his still growing audience. Says up-and-coming Designer Zack Carr: “Ralph Lauren is respected for his consistent style and intrinsic quality year after year, and I appreciate that.” So, evidently, do millions of customers who have come to believe that Polo is not just an elite pastime but a seductive style for the good life.
by Stephen Koepp