alph Lauren started off on a humble note by working out of a drawer in the Empire State Building in New York City and selling men’s ties under the tie manufacturer Beau Brummell. With this support, Ralph Lauren quickly expanded to a whole line of menswear which Lauren named “Polo”, paying tribute to his love of sports. In just 2 years, Ralph Lauren was awarded his own in-store shop in the Manhattan department store Bloomingdale’s for the first time. Riding on this early success, Ralph Lauren launched a full women’s collection and later opened his first store on Rodeo Drive in classy Beverly Hills – the first freestanding store for an American designer.
Today, the Ralph Lauren Group manages a total of 17 fashion brands and 4 lifestyle brands across 493 directly operated stores in 30 countries. Ralph Lauren is most well-known for the Polo shirt from the oldest brand in its portfolio – Polo Ralph Lauren. The product lines of Ralph Lauren cover all areas of apparel fashion, including men wear, women wear, women’s watches and jewellery, children’s wear and sportswear. The distinct identity of a preppy, aspirational American look is so powerful that it is now defined as a key element of American fashion. With a multitude of sub-brands under the umbrella brand of Ralph Lauren catering to the needs of various market segments, Ralph Lauren has indeed become one of the strongest fashion brands in the world.
Unlike the usual practices of branding that are normally seen in the consumer goods industry, the branding philosophy in the fashion and luxury goods industry is quite different. Most famous fashion houses like Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Gucci, Versace, and Giorgio Armani were built on the personality of the founders. As design is the most important ingredient of fashion and luxury apparel, the individual style and personalities of these designers became crucial to creating and sustaining the brand strategy of each of the houses. The unique designs and patterns that reflect the personality of the creator gave the brand its identity and helped it in attaining a differentiated image. A majority of the differences between these fashion houses were also driven by the fact that the founders took up roles that influenced the creative vision and direction of the whole house (something similar to what Ralph Lauren is now doing).
In the case of Ralph Lauren, the influence of its founders’ personalities on its products is evident in the emergence of the famous “Polo Bear”. The story goes that Jerry Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s brother and head of the menswear division at Ralph Lauren, was an avid collector of Steiff stuffed bears. In 1990, a tradition was started wherein colleagues presented a Steiff bear version of both Jerry and Ralph Lauren to each of them as a birthday gift. The bear was dressed preppy style, just like how Jerry Lauren dressed at the time. This preppy-dressed bear later became a brand mascot and made its way into stores as both the actual teddy “Preppy Bear”, and as a design icon that frequently started appearing on the brand’s products.
The Ralph Lauren story is indeed a fascinating tale of how the persona and lifestyle of a brand’s founder has created and sustained a fashion brand for over 50 years and has made it a globally recognized icon of American lifestyle.