Polo's designer confidence

By SHIHOKO GOTO, UPI Senior Business Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Building a fashion empire was never intentional, but rather the end result of a driven man from the Bronx, designer Ralph Lauren said Wednesday.

The 61-year-old Lauren, the man behind the Polo Ralph Lauren brand that sells everything from chunky sweaters to fluffy towels, is also the chief executive officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Co., which was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in May 2000.


He started off in his late 20s, designing wide ties that at the time were revolutionary.

"Once I got the ties, I wanted to make shirts ... and all else followed, piece by piece," Lauren said. He also pointed out he was more determined than the privileged elite whose style he has brought to the mass market.

"Start out in lesser environment, you're hungrier, you're more passionate, you have a bigger dream," he said.


Lauren's marketing strategy is not dissimilar to Martha Stewart, chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Omnimedia who continues to be perceived by many as the doyenne of home entertaining in spite of accusations of insider trading this summer. Lauren has come to personify a uniquely American style of fashion. But in light of the Stewart saga whereby her company's share price has plummeted as a result of ongoing legal investigations, there are growing concerns amongst investors that the Polo label may be too closely tied to a single man and his reputation.

Lauren did not, however, appear to have such misgivings in a dialogue at the global economic conference hosted by Fortune magazine.

Dressed in a narrow steel-gray suit and matching solid gray tie, Lauren brushed off questions about consumer appetite for Polo brand goods eventually waning, suggesting his look was universal and nearly eternal in appeal.

"I know the consumer ... I don't have to shake hands with everyone to know what they want," Lauren said. "It's my magic formula," he added.

Yet, tangible as his products are, ranging as far wide as men's wear to bedroom linens, Lauren's products are like very much swayed by the fickle taste of consumers and vulnerable to fashion trends. Moreover, the company is beginning to be mired in legal disputes that are already beginning to tarnish its image as the definer of sporty-sophisticated American look.


Earlier this year, two former employees accused the company of racial discrimination, arguing that blonde-hair, blue-eyed workers were rapidly promoted while those who did not fit into the image the company wanted to portray moved more slowly.

In another incident, a Polo store manager forced two black and two Hispanic workers to the storage room so the shop could allegedly adhere to the image it was striving for when Jerome Lauren, Ralph's older brother and the executive overseeing the company's men's wear, came to visit.

A California store employee sued the company earlier this month for forcing low-paid sales clerks to buy Polo label clothing from when working on the store floor, even though the bill could run up to thousands of dollars, even with an employee discount.

But while Lauren's company continues to grapple with such legal disputes, the man behind the ubiquitous Polo logo continued to be upbeat about his global business plan.

"Everyone is so much more international ... there are no dark corners of the world out there," Lauren said.

"When I did my first fashion show in Milan ... I was right up their against (Giorgio) Armani, Prada, Gucci, and all those other labels see to define luxury ... until then, the U.S. press thought it was the Europeans who defined class, not us," he said.


"But not after my show."

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