Bella Hadid headlines the Ralph Lauren New York Fashion Week show.

Landon Nordeman / The New York Times

Bella Hadid headlines the Ralph Lauren New York Fashion Week show.

February 11, 2019

Ralph Lauren Fails to Impress in New York

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“It ain’t no Ralph, though. What’s the name of your clothing line? We don’t know.”

Kanye West’s famed emotional interview on Sway’s Universe might have involved him unfairly putting down one of America’s favorite radio hosts, but it brings up a point — when it comes to quality and consistency, no one measures up to Polo Ralph Lauren.

But what does a six-year-old Kanye interview have to do with anything right now?

Last week, Ralph Lauren released a statement about the brand’s intention to orient their business more towards a younger demographic. It’s rare to see a brand be this open about their intentions, particularly one that’s so deeply entrenched in a WASP-y, Ivy League aesthetic. Almost unintentionally, Polo has its own roots in street culture, but this is really the first time they’ve ever formally attempted to market themselves specifically to younger audiences. In theory, this should’ve made their New York Fashion Week show the perfect chance to embrace this change; instead, they delivered a half-hearted attempt at appealing to younger audiences without seriously attempting to stray from the given Ralph Lauren formula.

One way to finally bridge the gap from prep to street is to embrace the subcultures that keep you viable with people outside of your target audience. Polo is a part of a myriad of subcultures, among them ’80s British dance, 90’s hip hop and modern day streetwear. Currently, vintage Polo is having a moment, which was first made relevant by Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon during their “Can It All Be So Simple” music video and then re-popularized in the 2010s by streetwear icons such as Sean Wotherspoon and the A$AP Mob. It’s prevalence in ’90s hip hop and its resurgence in modern streetwear gives Polo a very solid foothold within youth culture to build on, yet Polo’s attempts to capitalize on this are half-hearted at best.

Ralph Lauren’s womenswear debut at New York Fashion Week felt like a boardroom interpretation of what youth might enjoy. The show took place within its Madison Avenue flagship store, where there is now a coffee shop — as some executive probably read a Facebook post about how millennials love coffee. Bella Hadid was the star of the show, which ordinarily would have been fine . . .  too bad she was the face of the Kith x Versace campaign, which was a much better attempt at appealing to younger demographics. The whole event felt stuffy, from its classical music to its marble floors and Upper East Side location. Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that they had fallen out of touch.

Apart from the coffee shop and Bella Hadid, it’s hard to see what differentiates this Ralph Lauren show from any of its predecessors. All of the clothes were standard Ralph — they were good, just not necessarily appealing to young people. This is a shame; Ralph Lauren is one of the only companies that makes its collections available for purchase immediately after their runway debut rather than waiting the standard six months. In a social media age dominated by constant, seemingly unlimited content, this could be a very legitimate branding strategy if Polo were willing enough to commit to its youth movement.

There is a very precedented way for Polo to capitalize on its already established reputation within youth culture. Collabs are incredibly straightforward and are a fantastic way to expose your brand to an entirely new audience. Winter 2018 saw Polo’s first collaboration through its collection with Palace Skateboards, the unapologetically British streetwear brand best known for roasting its own fans on Instagram. Ralph Lauren’s recent earnings report indicates that roughly 75 percent of the collection’s customers were first-time buyers of Polo, and on average are 10 years younger than the average Polo costumer. This report shows that even a brand as well established as Polo still has new avenues it can successfully reach.

Polo also can draw inspiration from Gucci and their embracing of 80’s custom-counterfeit legend Dapper Dan who styled everyone from Mike Tyson to Rakim. Embracing a fringe culture is a great way to expand your boundaries and show the world that you aren’t some stuck up country club brand reserved for private school kids. Polo has yet to do this, but something simple like a campaign with the Wu-Tang Clan and a line of reimagined retro wear could make Polo one of the top brands for a new generation.

For better or for worse, Polo finds itself at a crossroads. Their efforts to expand to younger audiences might require them to finally embracing some of the figures that helped keep Ralph Lauren relevant, such as Kanye and his famed pink polos or Sean Wotherspoon and the Polo bear. Either way, Ralph Lauren needs to commit fully to their youth movement. With a foothold in streetwear and its power as one of the most legendary American fashion brands, Polo Ralph Lauren has the ability to solidify its status for generations. However, sadly, they were unable to do so through their New York Fashion Week show last week.

Daniel Moran is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at dmoran@cornellsun.com.