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Ralph Lauren‘s greatest achievement was creating an all-encompassing aspirational lifestyle disguised as a clothing brand. His labels—Polo, Purple Label, Black Label, RLX—are best experienced in their immersive retail environments and through photographer Bruce Weber’s cinematic ads. The clothing is no less desirable than the styling—the lifestyling, if you will—of the ranches and yachts and rugby teams and shoppable “mansions” Lauren has built around the world.
But the aspirational lifestyle is an evolving concept. Now we find it in the most unlikely places, often via the frenetic streams of Instagram (where Ralph Lauren has 940K followers and counting), Tumblr, and e-commerce, platforms that are free from the confines of physical space. Everything is a brand. People are brands, and they are no less special than actual brands. Labels are as desirable as ever, but their worlds are somehow less vivid than the worlds captured in the more personal accounts we follow. So where does that leave Ralph Lauren?
In the case of Purple Label, the clothes have never looked better. The browns and creams of the haberdashery section were classic and timeless, even with the distinctly old-timey flair of collar stands exaggerated to appear removable. Throughout, there was an emphasis on textured, breathable fabrics, such as a chunky silk and linen twill that felt much lighter than it looked. The strongest statements in tailoring came in shades of blue—the vibrant, French blue double-breasted blazer with wide peak lapel and a lightweight denim three-piece suit that looked more like a rich navy linen were highlights. A selection of Purple Label sportswear could have been billed as Polo’s greatest hits, including bonded leather jackets and trunks in vintage French prints. The safari section—quintessential Ralph Lauren—was given a slight twist rendered in black and tan. Black Label, equally refined, proposed a European take on the Purple Label ethos. Suits were slimmer, softer, and minimally adorned.
The preppy, Polo-wearing jock, meanwhile, hasn’t changed too much over the years. He still layers his clothes with careful dishevelment, contorts his collars and cuffs to turn up at the perfect angles, and mixes his oxfords and blazers with his sports gear. Polo juxtaposed every trope of American masculinity—it was boyish and rugged, nerdy and jockish, preppy and rough-hewn. The real news here is that the Polo guy will soon be getting some female company, with a Polo women’s line and accompanying Fifth Avenue flagship slated to launch this month.
The appeal of Ralph Lauren’s lifestyle hasn’t faded, but the way we experience it is changing. Stores and ads, no matter how perfectly they’re styled, don’t have the impact they once had. Ralph Lauren’s challenge is to figure out how to control our desire in this brave new multichannel world. We consume differently because we see each other and ourselves differently. You imagine a pioneer like Lauren will relish the challenge. In fact, Weber’s portfolio for Polo women’s won’t just appear in print but will have an online life in the form of a video series on ralphlauren.com. It might be an acknowledgment that the guy from the glossy Polo spread isn’t real enough anymore, or at least can no longer stand alone. He may still exist, but you won’t find him only in the mansion.