"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," sniffs an executive at a competing British fashion house. 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's 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 Lauren's $3,000 men's suits or $10,000 beaded dresses when they get back to Paris?
Lauren, 62, is no longer interested in selling simply the odd logo shirt or golf jacket. He wants nothing less than to meet the European designers head on. What's more, he feels he has to. Although Lauren is the world's biggest-selling fashion designer (retail customers spend more than $10 billion a year on products bearing the Ralph Lauren name), Wall Street dismisses Polo Ralph Lauren as just another apparel company. If financial analysts would consider it a purveyor of luxury goods, the stock price--and Lauren, who owns 89% of the company--would be all the richer.
But it isn't the thought of another home (he already has six), another vintage car (he has 60) or even the desire for a private plane (he has one of those too) that is pushing Lauren to expand. It's pride. Lauren doesn't talk about his stock price in monetary terms. He calls it "a report card, which gets issued every day." And right now--with the stock of Polo Ralph Lauren hovering around $20, some $10 less than its IPO price--the company is getting poor marks. "When I went public, I had a great business," Lauren says. "I don't think the company has gone backward." Global expansion, he hopes, will prove to Wall Street that he's not just a designer but a businessman too.
To that end, Lauren's license partner in Japan has pledged to spend $70 million in the next three years to renovate and revamp Polo stores there. But the company's biggest efforts are focused on Europe--outside of America, it's the part of the world where Lauren feels most comfortable. 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. The New Bond Street store proved so successful that Polo added a second big store nearby, which has enjoyed double-digit growth since it opened in 1999.