When the FT first interviewed Ralph Lauren in 1989, he laid down a maxim that every designer who puts his or her name on a garment should commit to memory. “You have to be very, very careful with licensing. You must concern yourself with every detail: the quality of the product; how it is delivered to the stores; and how they present your lines.
“Most of all you have to be sure that you control everything. Otherwise the licensee might think that they have a hot name and sell in all the wrong places. Before you know it, your name has gone.”
Mr. Lauren’s name has not gone. But come December, he will have stepped down as chief executive of the empire he built on an idealized vision of how Americans see English tailoring. He will still be executive chairman and chief creative officer, which gives him ample opportunity to monitor the day-to-day decisions of his successor. The designer told Women’s Wear Daily: “This is important to say: there is no toe in the water [of retirement].”
Ralph Lauren, the company, faces short-term challenges from “fast fashion”. Its founder’s step back from operational management must increase the risk of brand abuse, despite rigorous policing of trademarks such as the famous polo player (Mr. Lauren even has the right to the brand on “meat and living animals”, herds of which roam his Double RL Ranch in Colorado).
But the best insurance against abuse of his name is not Mr. Lauren’s continued involvement, but the fact he founded the label at the zenith of “hot” – the late 1960s – with a deliberately timeless look. It should easily outlast him. That is more than can be said for other designer brands. If Mr. Lauren wants reassurance, he need only Google “Pierre Cardin”, currently adorning an extensive range offered by the UK’s biggest discount clothing chain, Sports Direct.
By Andrew Hill
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015
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