Immediacy is Ralph Lauren’s current modus operandi, with new collections available in store the same day they show on the runway. But that’s not so surprising from a man who pioneers change, writes Mark Holgate. Photographed by David Sims.
Immediacy is Ralph Lauren’s current modus operandi, with new collections available in store the same day they show on the runway.
Ralph Lauren is no stranger to crossing frontiers: he’s been doing it for years, decades even, but the territory he’s just lit out for doesn’t come with any signposting. In September last year, Ralph (as with Hillary or Kanye, the first name alone suffices) presented a collection that was available to buy nanoseconds after it was walked down the runway, and globally at that, in his own boutiques, online and in stores dotted around the world. Maybe the gargantuan scale of the undertaking subconsciously influenced the design process, because what he showed is a virtual ode to vastness – from the wide-open vistas of the mythic West (fringing, buffalo plaid) to the towering, twinkling metropolis that is New York (fluid jumpsuits, art deco beading that gleams more than the Chrysler Building around midnight) – coalesced into a collection that’s as much of its time as it is timeless. Newness-wise, the collection has legs, and Ralph knows how to use them: he’s covered just about every current way to wear pants, which (if you haven’t noticed already, you will very soon) are having a moment.
Obviously, he’s not alone in thinking about immediacy. Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry’s Christopher Bailey … they are all in the here-and-now game too. But this is Ralph. That’s major. Still, the man himself, sitting one particularly hot and humid afternoon in his sixth-floor office at 650 Madison Avenue, seems unfazed by the tectonic shift his company has undertaken. Guess it’s the pioneer mind-set: think only of the destination, not the journey. Revisiting the early
conversations about this monumental transformation – not to mention having to work on two collections at once to get this one ready for September ’16 – he insists that his decision was driven forward by a single thought. “Showing clothes, then delivering them six months later … it’s over,” he says with a measured finality. “With the internet, social media … you have to change.”
These days change is not an unfamiliar concept at Ralph Lauren. Ralph’s morning had started with a town-hall meeting to reveal his company’s first-quarter figures, which were encouraging, after a recent less-stellar transit in the company’s fortunes required a substantial rethink of how it operated. Stefan Larsson, the young Swedish president and CEO who was installed in late 2015, discussed the Way Forward plan that he’d formulated for the near-50year-old company, and where it was taking Ralph Lauren, the brand. (On an upward trajectory, he was happy to report.) Ralph spoke of his new way of showing from September onward. “I’ve always looked at the business as an evolution,” he said. “We’re never standing still, and we’re never chasing anyone. Everything is a new chapter.”
In a way, his response to every designer’s challenge today – to make people reconnect with the pleasure of shopping and to speak to our need for instant gratification – is textbook Ralph. Forget the din and clamour of industry hand-wringing and just cut to the chase by engaging with those who are actually buying. “I’ve been through it before, when nothing moves,” he says. “When everything is available, how do you do specialness? How do you create magic?” Part of the dilemma, he freely acknowledges, is finding a place for fashion at a time when it is simply one element of an ever-expanding repertoire of what we rely upon to give a sense of expression to our lives. “Where you see most of the excitement now is in food,” he says. “Restaurants, where to go, what’s healthy: that’s the sensibility that’s happening. There are more diverse ideas about living. The world is into experience, so you’ve got to give experience.” He’s doing his part for that: at the time of writing he was envisioning two shows taking place on Madison Avenue: one for the usual industry types and one aimed at label loyalists – and both in the shadow of his empire, so those right-off-the-runway clothes are tantalisingly close. That night, even familiar terrain will become a new frontier.