On April 4, the iconic American heritage clothing brand Ralph Lauren announced it would be closing its flagship Polo store on Fifth Avenue in two weeks’ time. The store was just one of about 50 locations on the chopping block, along with some 1,000 job cuts across the board.
Like many other news outlets and content publications, Business Insider took a stab at explaining what was behind these setbacks, even taking a visit to the Fifth Avenue store to document where it felt the brand took wrong turns, and how.
BI blamed the washed-out window displays, untrendy designs for the women’s and jewelry collections, mono-color rooms where nothing stands out, and pricey clothing items that were far more expensive than comparable items at fast-fashion meccas such as H&M, Zara and Uniqlo. It also addressed the fact that Americans overall are spending less on apparel and accessories than they historically have.
While none of that’s wrong, those conclusions only paint a small picture of Ralph Lauren’s missteps, especially in recent years. Where the brand has really missed the mark is in its approach to tapping into what appeals to millennials, as well as its failure to embrace its impact and influence on streetwear as hip-hop emerged into the mainstream zeitgeist.
Ralph Lauren missed the message. With a plethora of iconic assets such as the horse, the bear and the big and bold Polo Sport logo, to name a few, the brand continues to be stagnant in its innovation – or lack thereof. There is little change among its graphic tees, iconic polo shirts or bright swimwear. Even when re-releasing some of its desirable vintage collections, such as tees and sweaters with the bear logo, the brand makes very little noise, almost acting casually about it.
This couldn’t be more off-base when marketing to millennials, who want their experiences and purchases to adhere to their desire of exclusivity. For someone with such a mindset, making a purchase from Ralph Lauren does little to fulfill this desire. Taking its cue from, say, Nike could be a first step in the right direction. Nike thrives off re-releasing “retro” versions of its sneakers and clothing and turning these re-releases into events. Then there’s Supreme, a brand whose selections come in limited supply, creating a sense of competition and pride amongst its collectors.
Another area where the brand has yet to make its mark is in the collaboration game. With the line between high-end fashion and streetwear continuing to narrow, brands from both sides of the spectrum are developing clever collaborations that push the envelope in fashion innovation while fulfilling the needs of millennials. Last year Gucci partnered on a collection with graffiti artist Gucci Ghost, who appropriates the Gucci logo in his art. Louis Vuitton collaborated with Supreme on a small collection. Nautica, who prevailed in the 80s and 90s, has made efforts to reestablish its presence and embrace nostalgia by enlisting millennial rapper Lil Yachty to push its brand. Guess, meanwhile, is making similar efforts by collaborating with A$AP Rocky in an effort to revisit its 90s style.
This last point highlights perhaps Ralph Lauren’s biggest and least discussed flop.
The brand has long been embraced by the hip-hop community. In the late 80s and early 90s rappers and crews pushed its street presence to new heights. Lo Life, a crew formed in 1988 by the union of two Brooklyn shoplifting collectives from Crown Heights and Brownsville, obsessively collected – and to this day still collects – iconic Ralph Lauren Polo pieces and wears them in their own unique manner. Rappers like Nas and Raekwon, who famously wore the Polo Snow Beach Pullover in Wu-Tang Clan’s 1994 “Can’t it All be So Simple” video, are just two of a large array of 90s rappers who have sported the brand through the years. When Kanye West began to emerge in the mainstream, he was often seen in a pink polo shirt or a bear sweater. To this day, rappers such as Action Bronson and Smoke Dza continue to wear the brand almost religiously.
But despite the longstanding relationship between hip hop and Ralph Lauren the brand never embraced this culture or its support. It is not that Ralph Lauren appropriated from the culture without giving anything back. It’s that although the hip-hop streetwear culture created a huge audience for the brand far different than its original target market, Ralph Lauren never openly acknowledged it. It doesn’t hire artists or influencers from the community to push its products. It doesn’t create marketing or messaging that speaks to these communities. It doesn’t collaborate with the streetwear brands it clearly has influenced. And, finally, it doesn’t even position itself as being able to do those things.
This is where Ralph Lauren clearly is missing the mark. But it’s also where there is a terrific opportunity for the brand to move back into a position of strength in the fashion game. With a vast potential market ready to embrace it, simply recognizing and acknowledging what truly makes its brand special can vault Ralph Lauren to a greater place than it ever was before.