When I saw Very Ralph, HBO’s documentary about Ralph Lauren, I realized I’d forgotten about the ads. In the 80s and 90s, consumers and some advertising people (me on both counts) looked forward to the multi-paged color or sometimes black-and-white spreads in the glossy magazines introducing Ralph Lauren’s latest seasonal collection. From Hollywood’s 1930s and 40s vision of glamour – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn — to an old fashioned, well outfitted African safari, from the Western ranch to the Atlantic shore, these spreads evoked life lived to its fullest, richest and most effortless elegance, creating what is now known as “The World of Ralph Lauren.”
Sometimes Ralph Lauren himself appeared in the ads. Astride a horse, wearing a weathered leather jacket, cowboy hat and boots against the soft backdrop of the American West. There was never a size, price point or place to purchase any item shown in any of these ads. Nothing but pure image, the World of Ralph Lauren, conveying a gorgeous scene that one could fantasize about and aspire to be a part of. Quite revolutionary at the time, and yet, an endeavor that created intrinsic brand value.
Ralph Stars in a Movie
Very Ralph was released in November 2019. The film was directed and produced by the well-respected, award-winning American Masters’ and now HBO documentary filmmaker, Susan Lacy. Very Ralph tells Ralph’s story: growing up in the Bronx, son of a painter (houses as well as pictures); meeting his muse Ricky – to whom he’s been married for 55 years; making his first tie, selling it to Bloomingdale’s, but refusing to narrow it to accommodate fashion trends; sticking to his vision and walking away from a big order rather than compromise his style and sensibility.
Ralph Lauren’s journey from tie salesman to the single most influential American designer and lifestyle maker, who transports his particular vision of America around the globe, is documented every step of the way. The camera is focused on Ralph at work in stunning offices and ateliers, surrounded by a cadre of loyal associates, assistants and models. We see Ralph with his close-knit, loving family in home movies and in his various houses — Jamaica, Montauk, Bedford, Telluride and New York, all well-appointed, perfectly designed spheres of The World of Ralph Lauren.
Ralph is not really a designer, but rather an interpreter or translator of his signature vision and style.
Ralph’s peers and other well-known folks in and out of the fashion arena appear throughout the film. Calvin Klein, who knew Ralph when they were each growing up in the Bronx, attests to his stylishness even then. Anna Wintour talks about his humility: “sometimes he can’t believe he is really Ralph Lauren.” Hillary Clinton comments on the company’s donation of $13 million to restore the original American flag, “he is an icon, so he can appreciate an icon.” There are testimonials from Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and Woody Allen — who always finds what he wants to wear at Ralph’s store. New York Times fashion writer Vanessa Friedman suggests that Ralph Lauren’s world “is performance art in which you can participate.”
We see footage of Ralph when he was presented with a CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award by one of his fashion idols, Audrey Hepburn. Ralph loved Audrey Hepburn for her timeless, understated style. Commenting on both Katherine and Audrey Hepburn Ralph says, “…I love timelessness…things that get better with age.”
Ralph tells us and we see that he is not really a designer, but rather an interpreter or translator of his signature vision and style. Ralph Lauren never went to fashion school, cannot draw a design, but nevertheless has inspired a group of designers to create a signature collection each and every season for 50 years.
The film was made in the lead up to the 50th Anniversary of the brand. For each of these collections Ralph tells us the story is “always about the woman.” He creates a story, a narrative for each collection. His style is very personal, imaginative and visual, and “has nothing to do with fashion.” He has a movie in his mind about the story of each collection. And when shown together, you can see that over the years various items of clothing have not changed that much. Rather they evolve, shapes change a bit, but the influences and the imagery stay much the same.
The Image Is Constant as the Business Improves
Ralph Lauren Corp has had some ups and downs since going public in 1997. The company’s most recent strategic plan “Our Next Great Chapter” was introduced in June 2018. The plan calls for five initiatives including winning over a new generation of customers; energizing core products and accelerating underdeveloped categories; targeted expansion in regions and channels; leading with digital and operating with discipline.
The company is on track to meet its goals. Ralph Lauren stock jumped over 8 percent on the announcement of third-quarter earnings as it beat quarterly profit estimates. Second-quarter earnings similarly exceeded analysts’ expectations. Business trends have improved in Europe and Asia. Gross margins, 61.5 percent, the highest reported in 22 years as a public company, are better than competitors. Wholesale sales have been reduced to 38 percent of revenue from 55 percent in 2009. More than 75 stores have been closed, including off-price stores. There is an effort to reduce dependence on the more vulnerable department store sector, although the women’s wholesale business in North America was down 6 percent in the second quarter. Direct to consumer sales have increased, projected to be 70 percent of sales in the next decade, up from 59 percent. Advertising is projected to increase to 5 percent of sales by 2023, up from a four-year historical average of 3.8 percent.
The company is rated favorably because of its work to clean up operations as well as the enduring value of company’s single greatest intangible asset, the Ralph Lauren Brand. Morningstar thinks “the strength of the Ralph Lauren brand has allowed it to grow into one of the largest individual fashion companies,” adding, “the power of the Ralph Lauren brand is demonstrated by the premium pricing achieved by many of its products…” which are sold both “to the masses…Hollywood stars and famous politicians.”
Ralph’s Personal Touch
There are very few companies who can make that claim. Now 80, Ralph Lauren comes to work every day to solidify his brand. To bring his world to life. To keep it timeless, undiluted and untarnished. He is the inventor and achiever of a dream. That of a well lived, well furnished, elegant, polite and well-dressed comfortable life. It seems the team working with him is dedicated to maintaining and preserving Ralph’s world by keeping operations clean, controlled, strategically sound and growing.
The company’s stated purpose is “to inspire the dream of a better life through authenticity and timeless style.” That is pure Ralph. Hopefully they will be able to continue to inspire that dream and to maintain the value and integrity of the Ralph Lauren brand when Ralph Lauren no longer comes to work every day to cultivate it.