Ralph's European Invasion

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EUROPEAN COWBOY: Ralph Lauren on the steps of his Milan office-cum-palazzo

It's like trying to sell ice to the eskimos," says a london fashion writer. "it's like trying to sell sand to the Arabs," says an executive at a competing British fashion house. "Like trying to sell coal in Newcastle?" suggests Roger Farah, Polo Ralph Lauren's president, with a chuckle. The news that Ralph Lauren, the icon of American style, is pushing hard to expand in Europe is being greeted with a certain degree of skepticism. And bitchiness. Who needs a mass American brand like Lauren when you have the class of Armani, Zegna, Dior and Savile Row? Sure, Europeans are happy to wear a polo player by Lauren instead of an alligator by Lacoste when summering in Cannes. But will they want to don his $3,000 suits for men and $10,000 beaded dresses for women when they get back to Paris?

In fact, Ralph Lauren is no longer interested in simply selling the odd logo shirt, golf jacket or pair of Bermuda shorts. He wants nothing less than to take the European designers head on. What's more, he feels he has to. Though his U.S. business is doing well, Wall Street dismisses it as just another apparel company. If financial analysts would consider Ralph Lauren a purveyor of luxury goods, the stock price — and Lauren himself, who owns 89% of the company — would be all the richer.

Not that Lauren is a stranger to this side of the Atlantic. He was the first American designer to open a freestanding store in Europe, on London's New Bond Street, in 1981. "I think I had something to say that wasn't being said before," he claims. His clothes not only brought idealized versions of preppy America or Western America or sporty America to Europe, but also reintroduced idealized versions of European classics to the very people who invented them. "When I first came to London they didn't have what I thought they'd have," he recalls. "There were more Italian clothes than English ones." So Lauren presented the Brits with what he thought they should be buying — tweed jackets, jodhpurs, polo shirts.

But Lauren's main focus was still the U.S. business, which was booming. In just 14 years, Lauren had gone from selling the wide neckties he designed himself in 1967 to having the first in-store boutique for men in Manhattan's Bloomingdale's, to being the first American designer with his own store, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, to having complete collections for men, women and boys, as well as his own accessories and fragrances. More firsts followed. In 1983 he introduced a collection of designer sheets and towels and other furnishings for the home. In 1986 he opened the famously lavish $14 million New York City flagship in the Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue and filled it to the brim with pricey antiques. To critics who bemoaned the extravagance, Lauren effectively said, "It's the marketing, stupid." Now much of the real estate on upper Madison Avenue is devoted to similar palaces, showplaces in which designer after designer presents the lifestyle he (or she) is trying to promote.
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