Ralph Lauren’s return to preppy chic bears fruit

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Ralph Lauren is trying to make a comeback by reviving the old styles his label has come to be associated with.PHOTO: RALPH LAUREN/INSTAGRAM

DALLAS • Can Ralph Lauren’s old spice curry favour among younger shoppers today?

In the last century, he built a business empire by sketching out a national fashion identity with each design.

In recent years, though, the influence of his preppy styles has waned. Sales have fallen steadily as shoppers move on to casual wear, fast-fashion or upstart preppy brands.

Now, the 78-year-old is trying to stitch together a comeback strategy. Mr Patrice Louvet, his latest chief executive officer, is helping to lead the charge to reclaim the prestige the brand once enjoyed.

The strategy is to go back in time. Products that are not key to that effort are getting culled, while core items are getting refreshed.

Old styles, labels and symbols are going to be resuscitated.

Ms Bridget Weishaar, an analyst at Morningstar, praises the strategy, especially the decision to jettison some items.

In recent years, the company has pushed all sorts of labels – Ralph Lauren, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ralph By Ralph Lauren, Lauren Ralph Lauren and Double RL.

There was even something called Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren, but that was discontinued.

“They just had so many sub-brands that it got confusing,” said Ms Weishaar.

Lauren stepped down as chief executive officer in 2015, but retains major influence as the creative force behind the brand. He brought in Mr Stefan Larsson, a veteran retail executive from Gap’s Old Navy.

In a two-hour presentation to analysts and investors the following summer, Lauren admitted the company had gone astray.

Mr Larsson left last year and Mr Louvet, a long-time executive at consumer-goods giant Proctor & Gamble, took over.

Management has pinned hopes on classic styles – think oxford shirts, nautical sweaters and peacoats – infused with technical functionality. Washable merino sweaters and stretchy chinos have been rolled out to update old items and have performed well thus far.

Do not forget the polo shirt, still one of the company’s most important items.

The three most popular full-priced men’s polos, based on online sellouts over the past three months, are from Antigua, Nike and Polo Ralph Lauren, according to fashion analytics firm Edited.

Ralph Lauren ranked 21st in that category over a six-month period last year, so that is certainly a step in the right direction.

Jeans will be key too, the company said. The denim business is up 8 per cent year-to-date, yet denim is only about 2 or 3 per cent of Ralph Lauren’s total revenue, a spokesman said.

Rehabilitating the preppy power that defined the brand in the 1980s and 1990s will require more than just culling poor performers.

There are plans to generate hype with limited-edition runs and capsule collections, as well as leveraging on symbols and logos from decades past.

With its marketing spend spiking by 27 per cent last quarter, the strategy is beginning to bear fruit.

Two recent releases were 1990s throwbacks – the Polo Stadium collection from 1992 and the Snow Beach capsule from 1993.

One of the brand’s bestsellers of late has been its old Polo Bear sweaters.

Ralph Lauren is also pulling merchandise from some department stores and ending discounts – to improve margins and prop up the brand so it can regain exclusivity.

But it is not Mr Louvet’s style to celebrate just yet. “We’re making encouraging progress across multiple fronts on product. But there’s still more work to do,” he said.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2018, with the headline ‘Ralph Lauren’s return to preppy chic bears fruit’.

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