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Ralph Lauren Pushes Higher Into Luxury

Ralph Lauren Pushes Higher Into Luxury

If you haven't shopped in a Ralph Lauren store lately, you might be surprised to discover you have to hunt for the brand's popular preppy shirts, sweaters and other sportswear with the polo-player logo.

Stores that used to be plush, clubby havens celebrating designer Ralph Lauren's vision of stylish, casual American dressing are now transformed. Greeting shoppers as they cross the threshold at the designer's New York City men's store on Madison Avenue are $4,100 men's watches with polished stainless-steel cases, crocodile bags and lace-up dress shoes starting at around $500. Polo Ralph Lauren  polo shirts have been relocated upstairs.
 
Across the street and through the door at the Ralph Lauren women's store is a sleek display of Ricky bags, which are Italian-made women's leather handbags named for Mr. Lauren's wife, with a silhouette inspired by vintage saddle carriers and price tags in the $1,700-to-$4,000 range. There is a version in alligator priced at $22,500. A $220,000 stirrup diamond link watch is for sale in the jewellery salon, and Italian-made calfskin leather pumps and boots await in the shoe salon. One flight up is high-end apparel from the designer's runway collection, with more-affordable lines on the third floor.
 
The Ricky bag, though, is the centrepiece of Ralph Lauren Corp.'s push into luxury's upper reaches, which encompasses new stores in Asia and other expensive accessories. It takes a delicate recalibration to nudge the Ralph Lauren name into more-rarefied territory and distance it from the more-affordable Polo brand.
 
Polo's classic preppy staples have always appealed to blue bloods and those aspiring to the lifestyle. The company now wants to make a sharper distinction between the Polo name and Ralph Lauren. At Polo, men's mesh polo shirts start at $85 and suits at $995. That compares with a starting point of $4,695 for a suit in the label's Savile Row-inspired Purple Label line.
 
Now, the label best known for clothing wants to be just as well known for luxury accessories.
The change has been in the making ever since the debut of the Ricky bag in 2005. The next year, Ralph Lauren brought control of production of its shoes in house, rather than license them to another company. The company paired up with Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, owner of brands such as Cartier, Net-a-Porter and Van Cleef & Arpels, to form the Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewellery Co. and introduced luxury timepieces in 2009 at a big Geneva watch fair.
 
Ralph Lauren launched fine jewellery in 2010 at the New York women's store, including pavé diamond links and chandelier earrings.
 
That year the company also started publishing its lavish "magalog," a magazine-catalogue hybrid that immerses readers in glamorous lifestyle images for the brand. It was sent to subscribers of Vanity Fair and Vogue in the U.S. and upscale publications abroad, as well as to Ralph Lauren's best customers.
 
In 2011, the company dropped the word "Polo" from its corporate name. "It was a very clear statement to focus on Ralph Lauren as a luxury brand," said David Lauren, executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and corporate communications, who is one of Ralph Lauren's two sons.
 
Even though Ralph Lauren has long made luxury products, including the glamorous runway fashion collection, the brand has still been most identified in the public mind with moderate-to-upper-priced apparel in the Polo line. Polo contributes a significant portion of the company's sales, according to Joan Payson, an analyst with Barclays.
 
In Asia, a region representing about 12% of the company's sales, a licensing partner had been running the business as "a Polo basics men's business," Ms. Payson said. Four years ago, Ralph Lauren brought control of the business in house, and now, by expanding, "they are setting a different tone and brand awareness" with an emphasis on luxury, she said.
 
Notable store openings this year include a big dual-gender flagship set for fall in Hong Kong's tony Lee Gardens shopping mall and a 35,000-square-foot store on New York's Fifth Avenue dedicated to the more-affordable Polo line. Along with Polo-branded sport shirts and other menswear, the store will feature a new Polo line for women.
 
More than once, David Lauren suggested checking Ralph Lauren's status as a global luxury brand with designers considered fashion royalty. Valentino Garavani, often referred to as "Mr. Valentino" by fashion insiders, said in an email, "He is the only American brand known all over the world. He has been able to keep an all-American style but making it right for any other country."
 
Ralph Lauren expects handbags, shoes and other leather goods to grow faster than the overall company for the next several years. "If you look at a lot of luxury brands today like Vuitton, Chanel, Prada and Gucci, more than 70% of their products are accessories," David Lauren said. "They don't necessarily sell a lot of clothes. Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani are primarily clothing businesses. Our goal is to build our accessories business to be a much larger part of our business." Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton and Prada declined to comment. Gucci didn't respond to a request for comment.
 
"A statement bag like the Ricky, that's a new focus for us," David Lauren said. "Today when you open a magazine you're as likely to see a Ralph Lauren Ricky bag as you are a Ralph Lauren gown or suit."
 
Source: Wall Street Journal, August 2014 

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