Photograph by Frank Veronsky
As indoctrinated shoppers know, setting foot inside a Polo Ralph Lauren retail store is a bit like getting invited to one of Jay Gatsby's parties, minus the gin. Persian rugs, varnished mahogany paneling, gilt-framed oils of thoroughbred horses—it's all part of Ralph's world, an ivy-covered, Polo-scented sanctum where the cuffs are monogrammed and the latest fashion is tradition.
Which is why some did a double take three years ago, when select stores in New York and London cleared the baronial trappings from the front windows to make room for interactive touch screens—67-inch projections that invited passersby to browse the collections simply by pressing their fingers to the glass. Fancy that $425 cashmere V-necked cardigan? A quick swipe of your camera phone captured the corresponding QR code, and the sweater was on its way.
If mixing PRL's country-club aesthetic with the steely sleekness of digital technology strikes you as incongruous, well, don't expect the company's svp of advertising and marketing to agree. "We use the Internet to enhance what was created 40 years ago—lifestyle branding by telling stories," contends David Lauren. "The Internet has opened up a door that this company has been looking for since it started."
The 38-year-old Lauren first stepped through that door a decade ago, when he created the company's first Web site, and he hasn't looked back. For him, the Web is simply the newest way to stage the sort of visual-narrative marketing his father pioneered back in the late 1960s, when he bought 20 consecutive pages in The New York Times Magazine. Decadent? Maybe. But Ralph Lauren didn't just see those pages as ads; he saw them as storyboards—space to arrange his clothing amid a backdrop of marble mansions and British roadsters. Today, his son is doing much the same thing, but online this time.
"There's a sense of quality, tradition and fashion that is distinctively Ralph Lauren," the young Lauren says. "We don't get stuck trying to move one single product. We're selling a world." And, insofar as the Internet offers limitless space in which to sell that world, Lauren couldn't be happier about it. Industry watchers laud him for taking the hand of a company rooted in traditional and classic looks and waltzing it across the parquet straight into the digital space. "David isn't the first marketer to use the Web, but he's been the first in his field to do it successfully," says lifelong fashion industry insider Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group. "And that's where you have to give him credit."
Credit for a certain degree of risk taking, too. Many are the luxury brands that have perched on the sidelines of the Web, fearful that a too-obvious online presence would alienate older customers, dull the sheen of the nameplate—or both. But David Lauren has proceeded carefully. When PRL decided to debut its Lauren by Ralph Lauren Spring 2010 collection online, it was obvious that something as dramatic as a runway show could easily have lost its cachet inside the indifferent frame of a computer screen. But David Lauren retained all the signature elements, from dramatic camera angles to live commentary by top fashion editors from magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. In the end, all the flash stayed intact.
The show didn't upend tradition for the mere sake of it; it gave everyday fashion fans, who could never hope to gain entry to the fabled white tents of Manhattan's Bryant Park, a virtual front-row seat—and the ability to click and buy anything they wanted. "The online fashion show was a seamless blend of editorial and merchandising," Lauren says, "the ultimate blend of shopping and being entertained at the same time."
Lauren has coined a term for this sort of thing: Merchantainment, he calls it. OK, so the term's not as smooth as a Polo shearling ribbon scarf, but you get the idea. Lauren has also deployed this concept for Rugby, the Ivy League-themed collection known for giving shoppers (mostly 18 to 35 years old) a chance to customize their own pullovers with an elaborate selection of patches. Last September—three months in advance of Rugby's own online fashion show—Lauren launched a "Make Your Own Rugby" app that not only let customers design their jerseys, but also actually try them on virtually by uploading photos of themselves, which they then watched while the app dressed them in their custom threads. Shoppers could then create avatars of themselves enshrined below a Ralph Lauren crest, post their jerseys on Facebook, e-mail their designs to friends and, uh, oh yeah, purchase the shirt.
And lately, chilly economy be damned, plenty of Americans have been buying the shirts—and the loafers, cashmere skirts and Deerfield leather duffles, too. In May, PRL's Q4 profits more than doubled, climbing to $114 million from $45 million the year prior. Revenues grew by 9 percent to $5 billion.