Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ralph Lauren - A Renaissance Man

A multi-billion dollar company all started with just one tie.

That was what we learned at the Polo mansion last Tuesday with my Marketing of Menswear class. Ralph Lauren, like so many people who start companies, recognized what he saw as white space in the market, wrestled with his employer (Brooks Brothers) to fill it to no avail, left and exploited the living Hell out of it.

The little blank area of men's fashion he filled was wide ties... 5 inches wide. That's about the length of your hand. I don't foresee those having the same splash in today's world but it was the right look because it was the right time for them when they debuted.

On a side note, the ability to see what people want before they verbalize it is the most highly paid skill right behind salesmanship.

As Ralph sold his own ties originally, he had a good amount of both.

But let's be honest. You can only do so much business for so long with a polarizing article of clothing. In the 60's, as Lauren was attempting to develop his collection of ties, Bloomingdale's insisted he remove his name from the ties' label and make them slimmer. Not giving into the retail giant Bloomingdale's, Lauren stuck to his guns and refused to sell to the department store under such circumstances, a great example of a designer LEADING, not capitulating to a retailer's past-looking vision.

I think Ralph never saw his business as small though, and the rest is history.

The wide ties he designed gave him the chance to make a name for himself. But likening it to the music industry, they could have been very easily a one hit wonder. I believe one-hit wonders are caused not because of lack of creativity or skill but simply refusing to be one and actually having vision and a game plan to repeat what you've already done once. If you created something incredible once, the only thing stopping you from doing it ad infinitum is your hunger and sense of entitlement.

Rapped succinctly by Jay-Z about his career, he "did it different, did it better, did it nice, did the impossible then did it twice." And thrice. And 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 times over. Jay-Z has outsold Elvis and The Rolling Stones with 10 consecutive #1 albums.  In addition to this, he claims to operate 16 businesses in total, with Rocawear Clothing being one.

Like Jay-Z, Ralph Lauren has consistently put out quality product people respond well to, season after season eating up more market share. He's expanded his world into the brands Purple Label, Black Label, Polo, Double RL and American Heritage. As a musician refusing to be a one-hit wonder, Ralph consistently put out his work throughout his life.

My perspective right now is this trait is more valuable than raw talent. If we look at Leonardo da Vinci, despite his status as an amazing artist, he didn’t really have that high of an artistic output in his life.  

None of his sculptures have survived and only fifteen paintings of his are known.  And though he wrote a lot about architecture, no buildings are credited to him.  Of course his most famous work the Mona Lisa is what people first associate with him.  It is a very nice painting but he also worked on it on and off for years, with many scholars saying the painting shows signs of such a lackadaisical method (a matter of opinion as art critic Vasari commented, the Mona Lisa would make "the most confident master... despair and lose heart.")  However, I believe Leonardo knew he could have lived with more fire and produced magnitudes more, as in his latter years, about his life, he wrote, "“Di mi se mai fu fatta alcuna cosa (Tell me if anything was ever done.)”

Compare da Vinci to a rival of his like Michelangelo whose greatest work was the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  He painted panels like the following in a day’s span:

The man was totally into what he was in.  So much so that, as the book The Life of Michelangelo said “he was indifferent to food and drink, eating more out of necessity than of pleasure and that he often slept in his clothes and ... boots."  He completely loved working and it shows in the consistent output of his work. 

Consistent, peak performance.

I see the same spirit in the way Ralph Lauren has built his business.  Even down to the no-expenses-spared attitude, as we heard about him replacing a $150,000 carpet in his flagship store the same day he noticed it because it simply seemed worn out.  Demanding only the best materials for the goose that lays the golden egg seems to be a common trait among high achievers.

Ralph built his empire with the same intensity of focus as I would assume Michelangelo and Jay Z have built their own works of art.  Among many, another commonality shared by them all is consistency of output of their work… 

While offering wide ties was the right product at the right time, Ralph probably understood that that couldn’t have that be his whole business.  Indeed, things always change.  Just look at a snippet from Thursday’s WWD article: “Slimming down is all the rage today in the dress shirt and neckwear markets.  Driven by demand from a younger consumer, shoppers are responding to narrower silhouettes in both categories, and manufacturers are responding by slicing material from billowy shirts and narrowing the width of their ties.”  

The only way to stay relevant in fashion is to evolve, fill existing voids and know what is most right for the moment, which Ralph Lauren has proven his mastery of in his career.  

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