Checking Their Privilege: Racked On The Future Of RL

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The popular fashion website Racked has a lengthy feature on the future of the Ralph Lauren brand. The reporter interviewed me extensively, and I must admit my pessimism shows.

Here’s an excerpt:

Ralph Lauren is going through operational struggles during not only a tumultuous period in the retail industry, but also a time that’s seeing a cultural shift away from what the brand stands for. The prep aesthetic has always smacked of privilege, something accessible primarily to white people with trust funds and monogrammed shirtsleeves. Now, the WASP lifestyle that completely captivated Lauren as a young entrepreneur is considered out of touch at best, offensive and oppressive at worst.

Take, for instance, the media’s reaction to the company’s Olympic uniform designs this year. Headlines announcing the kits included: “Ralph Lauren’s Olympic Uniforms Are Straight Out of Prep School Hell”; “USA’s Olympic Uniforms Are WASPy Bullshit”; “Team USA’s Official Olympic Uniforms are Peak Vanilla”; and Racked’s own contribution, “I Need More From Team USA’s Olympic Uniforms”. The Daily Mail rounded up the best tweets from the debacle. The comments on Ralph Lauren’s own Instagram post of the outfits were littered with prep jokes of varying degrees of wit.

“The uniforms couldn’t play more into the world’s most unflattering stereotypes of Americans unless they added cigars dangling out of the athletes’ mouths, Bibles tucked under their arms, and $100 bills falling out of their pockets,” Christina Cauterucci wrote for Slate.

Christian Chensvold, founder of the website Ivy Style and a regular contributor to Ralph Lauren’s RL Magazine, broached the subject in a series of posts last fall that questioned whether the Ivy League look was still politically correct. This included a satirical post that imagined a social justice warrior responding to different aspects of Ivy style (example: “Dinner jacket: Offensive to the underfed”); some readers were not amused.

“I would imagine that some of your readers would certainly find ‘club ties’ exclusive and elitist,” one commenter wrote, referring to a line joking that club ties should be banned for their exclusionary symbolism. Club ties, identified by their repeating motifs, actually did historically denote membership to elite clubs. “I know clothing itself is not elitist; it is the choice behind what we wear that speaks volumes about who were [sic] are.”

Later on, when Chensvold published an April Fools’ post detailing how preppy style had been banned from college campuses due to the classism and racism that it signified, plenty of readers thought it was real news.

Pour a cup of coffee — or a stiff drink — and head over here for the full read. — CC

46 Comments on "Checking Their Privilege: Racked On The Future Of RL"

  1. I am not worried for the Ralph Lauren Corporation’s financial future, as they are catering more and more to the masses with newer, trendier clothing and redefining what the Polo brand stands for. I am worried for those who have been loyal to the brand, such as myself, as it has been changing for the worse. I too am pessimistic for the brand’s future, it would seem as though Ralph himself is no longer involved with designing for Polo and has left it up to younger people who are, in turn, making the brand trendy. It has become harder and harder for me to shop at Polo as both quality and selection is not what it once was. One can only pray for some sort of sartorial miracle to happen or just learn to appreciate the few purchasable items that are dispersed among their seasonal offerings.

  2. david wintersgill | July 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm |

    it seems that retailers like rl have tried to change its style to that beneficial to a 13 year old. nothing fits true to size anymore and all clothing it tight for the regular person. thank god for ebay.

  3. @david wintersgill thank God for eBay indeed. I bought some old US-made RL polos, the quality is far superior than today’s polos and they fit like a polo shirt should. They also have real mother of pearl buttons.

  4. John Bracken | July 31, 2016 at 3:37 pm |

    I have seen more brands than just RL try to chase the almighty dollar by changing with the times. Look at BB and others. As far as all the opinions on preppy style, I must admit times are changing. Gone are the days where hard work is respected and admired. Now it’s just a game to take from the successful to feed the lazy. I was close, but not a true preppy. I grew up admiring successful people and strove to become one. If you don’t like my khaki pants, white button down, and blue blazer, I don’t care. I don’t really like your waistline halfway down your butt crack and your hoodie!!!!

  5. Somewhat amusing that WASP/Ivy-negative comments have been long heard from the Donnie right: “Hey, watchoo all dressed UP-fer?” “Ya preachin’ today?” “You think you’re bettern me?” “Gotcha one of them sissy office jobs, huh?” etc. The Bernie left might phrase it differently, but they’re late to the game.

    I can’t help getting the impression that quite a few who follow and comment on tailored clothing blogs and sites have never much associated with the white working class. The little “subsidize me” snowflakes aren’t the only ones who see “the other” when they see men dressed traditionally and well.

  6. The only thing I saw that was off with the US Olympic uniforms was the enormous pony and rider and perhaps the tighter fit.

    Christina Cauterucci’s comment about American stereotypes exemplified in the Olympic uniforms tells me that she has a problem with America. You would think that Ralph had the athletes dressed up as Boss Tweed. When you get right down to it, who the hell cares what this woman thinks anyway?

    Perhaps a grey spandex onesie with no mention of this country would suffice.

    Will

  7. @sacksuit RL had the chance to make the Olympic uniforms traditional and classic but instead he took advantage of the grand opportunity and turned it into an advertising ploy. And yes of course the fit is tighter it’s “trendy” and “hip”. People hate the uniform because they’ve been led by Hollywood to believe that anyone who dresses traditionally or “preppy” is evil, even though this is classic American style. It’s a shame that they can’t even recognize their own country’s distinct style, so much for pride in your country.

  8. I was curious to see what Ms. Cauterucci looks like so I looked her up. I was not surprised.

    Will

  9. John Carlos | July 31, 2016 at 8:33 pm |

    Ms. Cauterucci writes for Slate.com. All you need to know.

  10. Huge shift over the last 35 years. In the early 80s, after a decade and a half of hippy fashion followed by disco fashion, suddenly things swung back to a classic, traditional, old-money look, and there was a national fascination with the world (real or imagined) of private schools, private clubs, and the social blue book. Ralph Lauren Polo in particular capitalized on this. Nowadays the Marxist social justice warriors rule the day with their ceaseless discourse on white privilege, microaggressions, safe spaces, economic justice, triggers, and the like.

  11. “Bibles tucked under their arms.” They just can’t resist; always seeking us out even if it’s just to stare.

    RL is a co. with an identity crisis. The girl stating she’d never pay full price is telling. I can’t recall the last time I paid full price for anything from RL. I miss their old OCBD. I have a couple I can’t fit any more from my HS days hanging in the closet for my children. The sleeves on their new OCBDs are ridiculously long. Their chinos rise has gotten shorter as well.

    Kudos to CC for being cited as the custodian of the cause.

  12. The Republican’s choice of candidate tells us how The American Dream has changed. It does not bode well for RL.

  13. A. Postrophe | August 1, 2016 at 12:04 am |

    @Pluperfect:
    It’s Republicans’, not Republican’s.

  14. Straight Arrow | August 1, 2016 at 12:19 am |

    Just got back from a compulsory visit to Middle America, and didn’t see a single pair of chinos.

  15. “Monogrammed shirtsleeves” = dead giveaway.

  16. T. Bearden | August 1, 2016 at 8:40 am |

    Fashion aside, our next president will be a privileged, Ivy-educated WASP.

  17. At the opening ceremonies, during the parade of athletes, do they still refer to what the athletes wear as the “national costume”? If so, then the term is a perfect match for what Polo/RL is in 2016.

  18. To hell with those Jacobins. Let Ralph be Ralph

  19. RL was great in the mid to late 70s, even his sport shirts were sized by neck and sleeve length. the only thing he made with S, M, L, XL were his knits. His original OCBDs had great collars with more of a Gittman body. Then in the 80s the OCBDs collars got smaller and the bodies ballooned.

    Then things went to shit, the “BIG Shirts”, the wash pants etc etc. Now we have low rise pants, high water jackets, and short shirt tails. I remember when shirt tails went almost to the bottom of one’s boxers.

    It all started to go south when men’s shops were no longer the exclusive suppliers, at least here in the mid-west.

  20. Funny, one of the best dressed men I know is a railroad engineer for Burlington Northern. Granted he doesn’t dress well at work.

  21. jerrysfriend | August 1, 2016 at 11:59 am |

    RL is not the only one who is not PC. I got repeatedly reamed out on a forum for using the word “masses,” in talking about how little most people knew about clothing nowadays. http://www.askandyaboutclothes.com/forum/showthread.php?233355-Have-the-masses-ever-known-or-cared-less-about-clothing

  22. The article mentions the Lo Lifes gang. I’m not sure if it was entirely clear to middle America, but the Polo brand, with its obvious logo, was always pretty much aimed at the ghetto. And the fact that the logos have gotten larger and more garish just makes the ghetto connection more explicit.

  23. Mitchell S. | August 1, 2016 at 2:47 pm |

    This article is completely off base. Preppy/Ivy clothing is the most egalitarian, cross-cultural, rags-to-riches clothing a young man can purchase.

    “cameron” mentions the Lo Lifes gang, an African-American gang from NYC that wore Polo clothes in the 80’s. Later, middle class African-Americans imitated the inner-city kids, followed by middle class white kids and finally WASPs. This “trickle-up” phenomenon gave Polo/Ralph Lauren its street-cred, not the Phillips Exeter/Andover crowd. Blacks and Hispanics know what will sell the best at Macy’s, not Dickie Greenleaf.

  24. Remember where you heard it first. Someday, everyone will be “clothed” in identical unisex type clothing reminiscent of the space age doom and gloom apocalyptic stories and movies of the past.

    Maybe, people will illegally congregate in private, wearing Ivy Style attire, fearful of arrest and persecution.

  25. whiskeydent | August 1, 2016 at 2:54 pm |

    I was a frat boy at the University of Texas in the late 70’s and saw RL’s Polo OCBD’s sweep the market. I bought several, but I soon became disenchanted. The cloth was thinner than less expensive options and didn’t hold up to repeated laundry trips. The same for the buttons and everything else. It became clear that I was paying a premium for an image, not for quality. The pony was a phony.

    So I moved on to others and have paid little attention to RL since the early 80’s. I hold nothing against RL, but I have nothing for it either.

    I’d like to know what others think. Did your initial RL experience match mine? Am I off-base? Did RL quality improve?

  26. Two years ago, I stopped in to pay a visit to the Ralph Lauren store in Beverly Hills. As is typical in RL showrooms, every detail had been careful curated to evoke old-world baronial splendor and the epitome of gracious living. This illusion was largely kept intact until I wandered into the Purple Label room. There in the corner was a flat screen TV resting on an easel, tuned in to the Montel Williams Show…

  27. The uniforms the past few years have been disastrous. Give me Bermuda’s team dress any day.

    The problem with Ralph Lauren is how much bad you have to sift through to get to the good.

    Why not just make good stuff? Why make polarizing over-logo’d crap that will just go on sale anyway? SAD!

  28. Sometimes I wish I had never taken the red pill. And Mitchell S, respectfully, what in the name of high school football are you talking about? WASPs got their style from something called a lo life gang? Incidentally, the use of the term “street-cred” is like so 1990s.

    Will

  29. I worked for RL for almost five years at their 867 Madison Ave. location. (5/1/89-2/5/84)

    We were treated well, insured well, dressed well, and if we sold enough, earned well.

    I almost don’t recognize what Polo has become now. It may still look great in Manhattan under the company headquarters’ watchful eyes, but for the rest of the world, they are now tacky, downmarket, garish, and they embody something vaguely ridiculous and decadently passe that conjures up visions of the Reagans and Woody Allen, The Preppy Handbook and Wall Street.

    I might add that while they were a company that promoted a waspy look, in their own hiring practices, up until a few years ago, they were reactionary in the extreme, promoting blue-blooded, blonde haired men and women, and keeping anything ethnic out of sight. Last year, I went into their 867 Madison store, and to my surprise the majority of sales people were African-American, in contrast to the two or three I knew back in the early 90s.

    We serviced many Jewish clients who, when they left the store, were often belittled in snide anti-semitism that was endemic to the store. Hey, that was part of the culture as they say.

    There are still many many overpaid managers who are now in their 50s and 60s and continue to bring in big bucks with inflated titles (Sr. VP of Men’s Socks?) and they enjoyed generous stock options, vacations, clothing allowances and all that good stuff. They were often put in their jobs because of their last names, their ancestors, their schools, their home towns and all they did was stay in place for three decades and reap the riches.

    But hey, the party has lasted a very, very long time. And I don’t think anyone begrudges Mr. Lauren his success as it was built of dreams and hard work and has produced something tangible and rich. I just wish he had known of the ways of some of his employees who ripped off and fucked off while they could.

  30. @ Pluperfect

    “The American Dream” brings George Carlin to mind.

  31. John Carlos | August 1, 2016 at 8:06 pm |

    @whiskeydent I agree with you 100%. I was a frat boy at Texas Tech in the early 1970’s. Wore almost nothing but RL then and into the 1980’s. Found myself looking like the masses plus the quality declined in my opinion. I discovered Bill’s Khakis several years back. Good quality and made in USA, both pants and shirts.

  32. Not RL, but the bar isn’t set very high anymore. From Ace of Spades HQ.

    The suit for Millennials — a “onesie.” It’s all one piece, so you don’t have to keep track of a whole three (3!!!) pieces of clothing.

    One thing I think we all can agree on — a non-controversial, pro-social position that can unite us all in an upbeat, positive way — is that we should put all Millennials on Fun Trains which will in turn take them to special Togetherness Camps where they will be instructed in the fine art of mining hazardous radioactive materials and/or burying people who have died to exposure to hazardous radioactive materials.

    Thanks to Sassypants.

    http://nypost.com/2016/08/01/this-suit-is-actually-a-onesie/

  33. Foster Frost | August 1, 2016 at 10:09 pm |

    How about the “glow in the dark” olympic uniforms? Whisky tango effity effing eff! It’s become like Disney on Ice featuring Electric Cowboy fer petes sake. I think its always only ever been about the photograph and the consumers dreamy relation to the photograph while in the store. Whoever said “identity crisis” has got it right. RL is like a mighty iceberg in the new climate. Drip drip drip.

  34. I don’t see it as an “identity crisis”, they know what they were and they know full well what they’ve become. Whether or not Ralph himself knows or cares is a mystery. It’s a shame that his own brand has taken a turn for the worse in his lifetime. I really think that he left Polo to younger designers, hence the new found trendiness and continued poor-quality. Ralph probably only focuses on Purple Label, the most expensive in the company’s portfolio. I wonder if there was a way to know if Ralph actually designs for Polo anymore, I don’t think he does.

  35. Anglophile Trad | August 1, 2016 at 11:26 pm |

    Were RL/Polo items, be they chinos, polos, OCBDs, navy blazers, etc., really ever as good as, let alone better than, those available from other firms? Did we really buy them because of their quality?

  36. James Redhouse | August 2, 2016 at 1:30 am |

    @Wriggles:

    Re: “Someday, everyone will be “clothed” in identical unisex type clothing”.

    Isn’t that already the case?

  37. At one point they did buy RL because of it’s quality, but it’s been awhile. Polo and others have always hire young designers, lots from the mid-west.

  38. Went to the mall yesterday evening after reading this. In the RL section, the sale racks were full of all the big logo shirts, t-shirts, and cargo pants. The section with button downs, khakis, and polos were all normal priced.

  39. @ James Kraus

    The Ralph Lauren store on Rodeo Drive is being “remodeled” and Ralph Lauren has moved into rather plain temporary quarters next door.

    It will be interesting to see what the “remodeled” Ralph Lauren store looks like.

    Several other Ralph Lauren stores in the area (like the ones on Robertson Blvd) have been closed.

  40. CC – This is my first post on your site, which I greatly admire by the way..

    Two problems for the company not mentioned in the article or virtually any other report that I have read about Ralph Lauren’s (RL) current state of affairs are the paradox of publicly traded corporate fashion houses and the rise of competitors with a similar aesthetic on both new and old fronts; particularly Vineyards Vines and the resurgence of Brooks.

    Since Mr. Lauren’s brand was built around the projection of an “aspirational” lifestyle, it was inevitably going to lose steam once the iconic shirts became available at discounters like TJ Maxx. I know it sounds superficial, but the luster of a brand is often predicated on it either not be attainable for everyone, or by being a slightly excessive purchase for the average person, even when the goal is to become “classic.”

    For fashion organizations that are publicly traded however, the strategy often changes to suit the chief concerns of the shareholders; profit, growth and quarterly earnings. As a result, companies will eventually be forced to create different price tiers, open factory stores or outlets, and sell product through discounters to keep financial figures up every 90 days. The flaw of this model though for a clothier is that it often changes the perception of the brand in the eyes of the core customer, and their disinterest inevitably trickles down to the mainstream as well. This is what happened to Tommy Hilfiger, to Coach, and to Lacoste several times. There is no doubt that RL was able to hold interest for a much longer period before “drying out,” but it is possible that this was due to the company’s profound influence in the world of retail in general not shared by anyone else, except maybe Calvin Klein, and in the fact that the clothing has been considered work appropriate for most employment settings with out carrying the notion of being “old mannish” like Brooks did for many years. Additionally, readers of this blog might be unaware, but the extremely profitable undergarment wing of the company was also popular amongst young African-American males for a period of time between 2006 and 2012 when rappers were often pictured wearing the white v-neck undershirts with the polo logo on the lower left side, and sagging pants that exposed the ‘Polo by Ralph Lauren’ Boxer shorts waistband. Some artists like Lil’ Wayne would even go so far as directly mentioning the brand in their hit songs (Google “Blunt Blowin lyrics” for a prime example). Today, they have moved on from the brand as well.

    The second issue that I have with most articles on RL’s current situation is that they generally project the idea that his aesthetic has become passé. This is false. The Polo brand in particular may be in turmoil as are many other retailers, but the ‘look’ is being carried on at the collegiate level by Vineyard Vines (VV) who has continued to grow and open dozens of brick & mortar stores, year after year, since the mid 2000s. Not only has VV taken over Rubgy’s position in the market but it has also exceeded it at its height; now they are beginning to take RL’s adult customers away too. On the older front, everyone who reads this blog knows that Brooks Brothers (BB) has also enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance with the general public over the past few years too. I think that their determination to take customers back from RL was never more apparent than when they designed the wardrobe for the 2013 rendition of The Great Gatsby. It’s no secret that one of the defining moments in RL’s timeline occurred when he designed Robert Redford’s famous pink suit in the original film, so for BB to take over the character’s modern interpretation, to me at least, came off as a both a big jab at Ralph’s company and a major “we’re back” proclamation for Brooks overall.

    Anyhow, that’s just my two cents. Christian, keep up the great work my man.

  41. The book, “Genuine Authentic” is quite a few years old now, and if you haven’t read it, you would probably find it interesting: https://www.amazon.com/Genuine-Authentic-Real-Ralph-Lauren/dp/0060958480/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470234648&sr=1-1&keywords=genuine+authentic+the+real+life+of+ralph+lauren.

    I find it interesting that “Here in Van Nuys” said that the staff at the RL store on Madison avenue would often make anti-semitic remarks after Jewish customers left the store since Ralph Lauren (nee Lifschitz) is/was Jewish.

  42. @Jacqueline It’s a great read, read it this year and loved the book. I however do not see the supposed anti-semitizm as shocking Mr.Lauren himself has really distanced himself from his Jewish heritage. His brand revolves around WASP style and his workers are reflective of that.

  43. @ GS, Wasp style made, marketed by Jews, God bless them.

  44. Nonsensical. Left-wing bloggers disparage WASP-derivative brand? How earth shattering.

  45. Anything mass produced is not high end luxury. Never was, never will be. Overly obvious logos do tend put one in a lowbrow type of light. Look what happened to Tommy Hilfiger when gang-bangers and rappers were wearing his line as if it were a bragging right. No prep schooler in his or her right mind would be caught dead in that short-tail jacket with the RL logo trying to look like a prep school emblem. It’s the hipster boys that are wearing their clothes too short, tight, and small. That type was never preppy to begin with, so they don’t know any better. They take their cues from current Ralph Lauren ads, whereas old school prep was around before Ralph Lauren, and Ralph took his cues from us.

    Whether fashion wants to admit it or not, any of the lines that are made in China are of the bottom most inferior quality. It has ruined many other companies as well, Burberry comes to mind. RL is one of the brands that depresses me, and I wish it didn’t. I used to buy some Ralph Lauren sweaters back in the late 80s. They were thick, heavy, chunky, cabled cashmere that kept their shape and lasted years. I was still wearing a couple of them in 1998. The so called same sweater now is thin enough to see through and subsidized with enough spandex to pass as a mass chain store label, but they still ask a few hundred bucks for it. The purple label is no better. It’s all thin, poorly sized, and rarely preppy or traditionally styled anyway.

    If Ralph Lauren would simply BE the type of clothing traditional upscale style wants to wear, then they’d be fine. But the company seems happy to merely create costumes for those who want to affect and emulate. And isn’t that what Ralph did himself?

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