Style & Design | COUNTER CULTURE

AMERICAN ICON BUILDS IN JAPAN

Lauren gets his Tokyo landmark

Omotesando, Tokyo’s premier luxury brand boulevard, has recently been furnished with a string of ultramodern shrines to consumable design, crafted in concrete and steel and glass. That makes Ralph Lauren’s vast whitewashed neoclassical monolith — which opened yesterday — seem even more like something from another age, when things were grander and more dignified.

That historical fantasy — essentially of beautiful WASPs living privileged lifestyles — is what underpins the mammoth marketing exercise that is Polo Ralph Lauren, the world’s best-selling fashion brand with annual sales of $2.6 billion. Since its inception in 1968, the label has amassed Lauren a fortune estimated by Forbes at over $1.7 billion, making him the world’s richest fashion designer.

“I have always loved Japan and find it even more exciting today than I did before,” Lauren told The Japan Times at the store opening yesterday. “The unveiling of this new flagship is a huge step forward for our brand.”

The iconic designer is famously proud of never having been to fashion college. Rather than sketches and stitches, he has instead relied on an acute sense of merchandising to build a lifestyle brand that stands for sophistication, class and taste. His concept is reworking classic styles from the past, giving them just a smidgen of fashion appeal. Besides classic Americana — think suede and denim rancher gear — his looks are often inspired by English aristocracy — hence the invocation of polo, a sport closed to all but the world’s wealthiest few.

This fixation with the Anglo-Saxon upper crust perhaps stems from the fact that Lauren grew up in the Bronx, not far from that other great American designer Calvin Klein. Now Lauren is living out the fantasy to the fullest: He has an English-style country manor in upstate New York, complete with a butler who formerly served at Buckingham Palace and an “automobile groom” to look after his fleet of classic cars.

His holiday home in Jamaica and 5,000-sq.-km ranch in Colorado, as well as his private jet, speak to another aspect of the aspirational image he projects: besides the all-American and Brit snob looks, there is also the millionaire jet-setter. The unifying theme to these elements is a conservative vision of good taste — a Lauren outfit is always proper.

The imposing Omotesando store — at 2,200 sq. meters the largest Ralph Lauren outlet on the planet — is testament to the continuing gentrification of the Aoyama area. With the opening of the polo-mallet white structure, luxury brands have made it right down to Cat Street, the spiritual home of Harajuku’s wacky street fashion scene.

The store’s location in such a youthful spot is a metaphor for the recent resurgence of the Polo Ralph Lauren brand. With the formula of classic clothing given almost imperceptible updates seeming to have lost its appeal, around five years ago Lauren went about recruiting several highly talented designers to up the style quotient at his house. The new team’s more overt tweaking of the brand’s classic looks received a warm reception in the fashion world, leading to steadily climbing sales at the relatively stable high end of the market, with accompanying trickle-down effect.

Capitalizing on this success in the key North American sector, Lauren has been seeking to expand in that other big market — Japan. That means extracting himself from license deals that have seen his name put on everything from towels to teapots and increasing the proportion of sales from directly managed retail. This new store, sure to be packed out for months to come, looks set to do just that.

Ralph Lauren Omotesando showcases menswear and accessories — including the coveted Ricky bag — on the first floor and a stately stone staircase inlaid with video screens leads up to womenswear, children’s and lifestyle lines. The store is divided into small, product-packed rooms, which make for an intimate shopping experience akin to wandering around one of the Lauren family’s palatial homes.

Assembled under one roof for the first time here, the Polo Ralph Lauren brand family now offers clothes to attire adherents from cradle to grave, with smocks for newborns and tweed suits for seniors, as well as goods for the home that have branched out from bed linen and bathrobes to include cutting-edge interiors inspired by the iconic designer’s passion for classic cars.

The consistency spanning this unparalleled variety of lines — ranging from the accessible Polo Sport series to the exclusive Black and Purple men’s formalwear labels — has long since had a strong appeal for Japanese consumers. But until 2003, Polo was one of the few big brands (along with Burberry) still under license to partners in Japan. It has since bought back 50 percent of that business and has begun investing in what was a somewhat neglected brand.

This gargantuan store, with its woody, old-world interior filled with precious antiques, is a bold statement of intent. Ralph Lauren means business here in Japan.

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