An hour before unveiling the first Ralph Lauren ready-to-buy catwalk show, the company’s chief executive Stefan Larsson was hovering outside the flagship store on Madison Avenue where they were staging the show. The shopping district was first pioneered by the 76-year-old designer in 1986, and the entire block had been closed for the event. Storm clouds were gathering: workmen applied the last coats of buff-coloured paint as the first drip-drips of a freak summer deluge began to fall. A good omen? Well, it was a winter show.
Having addressed the way forward for the ailing $8bn business back in May, with an announcement of radical cost-cutting measures to stem the 50 per cent slide in profits and sales at the company in the past two years, Larsson is now responsible for transforming Ralph Lauren into a leaner modern-day operation. He’s also switching the retail model to ready-to-buy. Everything on the catwalk was available in store, on site, straight afterwards.
Under Larsson, who joined Ralph Lauren last October with 18 years’ experience in high-street retail, the US heritage brand has been an early-adopter. This was a big moment. “It’s about designers creating an event around original creativity,” explained Larsson of the decision, which was precipitated, he insisted, by Lauren himself. “It’s about taking ownership of our creativity and closing the six-month gap in which high-street retailers can copy the clothes. And it’s about switching into the consumer mindset. The consumer doesn’t want to wait for six months to buy something any more. They have no issue with the ready-to-wear mode. It’s just the industry mindset that needs to change.”
In fact, Ralph Lauren isn’t selling wildly original product. His brand has been built on a preppy uniform of American classics — tailored blazers, clean shirts and leather jackets — that have been the bedrock of his business since the start. This AW16 collection may have had a slightly more south-western flavour, Navajo beading, blanket coats, fringed suede, cowboy shirts and huge hip-slung studded leather belts among its offerings, but there was nothing here that needed to be understood. The Ralph Lauren wardrobe is based on transeasonal functionality. It’s perfectly suited for the new retail model.
But I had some reservations. Making fashion this fast, cutting manufacturing times, delivering straight off the catwalk, somehow made the product less luxurious-seeming. A little less exciting. With ready-to-buy, the supply chain becomes more brand-controlled, more commercial. Designers take fewer risks and truly original product becomes more scarce.
Maybe it is a mindset thing, but seeing the Ralph Lauren store all stocked with the clothes I’d just seen on a catwalk slightly cheapened them. Even if the prices remained sky high.
Photographs: Sasha Malsov; Catwalking