YOU WOULDN'T EXPECT the scion of one of America's wealthiest families to take a break from his privileged life and embark on a backpacking trip around Asia, but that's what David Lauren, he of the Ralph Lauren fashion dynasty, did 16 years ago, as he tried to “learn about” himself before joining the family company.
It was his first trip to Asia, a far cry from his most recent visit to the region, a quick sweep through Beijing and a muchchanged Hong Kong, where as soon as he landed he was shuttled to the recently opened Ralph Lauren boutique in Causeway Bay and welcomed like the top-notch luxury executive he is now.
David, the middle child of Ralph and Ricky Lauren, is the unofficial heir to the empire that Ralph started almost 50 years ago. One half of one of the most pedigreed couples in the US (he married into another dynasty when he tied the knot with Lauren Bush, granddaughter of former US president George HW Bush, in 2011), David Lauren is executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and corporate Andrew Lauren, Dyla n Lauren, Ral ph and Ricky Lauren, Da vid Lauren and wife Lauren Bush Lauren in Pa ris communications at the company. He's the man behind pioneering projects such as the 4D fashion show the brand created in London and New York a few years ago, the house's sponsorship of Wimbledon and even a recent foray into wearable technology.
We met the elegant and courteous New Yorker in the plush bar of the Causeway Bay store for a laid-back conversation.
YOU'VE BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN THE SUCCESS OF RALPH LAUREN'S DIGITAL PLATFORMS. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO FOCUS ON DIGITAL?
We were one of the first fashion brands to sell on the Internet and definitely one of the first to sell on a mobile phone. I've always been interested in new ways to express our brand. I didn't know anything about technology when I was hired to do our website, I learned on the job. So in many ways technology is for me just an interesting tool, because what Ralph Lauren has pioneered, building out these glamorous stores or lifestyle advertisements, is just storytelling and what he calls lifestyle marketing, which he helped to create for our industry. The fact that I can bring it to life with new technology is very exciting because the brand itself is so cinematic, so it's perfect. The question for me is not being interested in technology as much as having a story I can tell with the Ralph Lauren brand, but can I match it to the right technology to tell our story ... so learning about technology but also asking questions about how to tell our brand story and just finding the right match-ups.
HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THIS ASPECT WITH THE COMPANY'S CLASSIC AND QUINTESSENTIALLY AMERICAN IMAGE?
America is evolving and changing and growing and pioneering and entrepreneurial, and this brand is all those things. So technology to me is interesting because the contrast of this modernity makes it much younger and newer and more exciting. I think Ralph Lauren has always been about contrast, like wearing a Purple Label suit with jeans. My father was the first person to take a tuxedo and wear jeans and cowboy boots with it. That created a major fashion trend, so he's always liked the mash-up of taking something very sophisticated and making you look at it differently. Technology is just another way of expressing that contrast. It's really meant to tell the brand story more clearly.
WOULD YOU AGREE THAT NOWADAYS A COMPANY LIKE RALPH LAUREN IS NOT JUST A FASHION BRAND BUT IN A WAY ALSO A MEDIA COMPANY?
Ralph Lauren pioneered something called lifestyle branding, which was the idea that he was not about fashion but a lifestyle story, not about a single shirt or tie or a trend or a dress but about a story. When you buy a shirt or a pair of shoes, it's an entrée into this glamorous life, old-money sophistication. What we do in our media and marketing is to help express that story. We don't look at them as ads, we look at them as movies, and we live in that movie. We can live in that aspirational world, and it's much bigger than a fashion brand. Ralph Lauren would say he's not about designing a shirt or designing a dress, he's creating a culture, and it's much bigger. I think he's more like Walt Disney than a fashion designer; he's a much better thinker, and that's why the brand has transcended fashion trends, because people coming here have an experience. You're sitting having a drink, you're shopping because you like this taste level, and that's what we're doing. What the Internet has done, I call it “merchantaining”, so it's about reinventing the way we approach fashion, style and shopping to be more seamless with our lives and to be more about living than just a product that goes out of style. [It's about] products that you live with and make your life better.
DESPITE YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE, YOU STILL INVEST IN STORES LIKE THIS ONE. ARE BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES HERE TO STAY?
The store experience is very unique, and we invest a lot in that. We also invest in the shopping experience and in the service and in the branding you find online, and we find that our best customers are cross-channel; they tend to shop online and in our stores. I think the technology online is still to be developed to make it a really deep luxury experience, but we're working really hard to pioneer that, and in many ways we've built a very successful business online and in our stores and it's important to develop both. The shopping experience is already seamless for brands like Apple, but it gets complicated when products are more complicated because it's a richer experience and it's not just glass walls. I think we're living in an age when technology is very relevant, and brands that can develop technology and use it to their advantage will lead and will change the world. And customers are interested in connecting to each other and to brands that can speak to them in this language.
HOW WAS IT, GROWING UP THE SON OF RALPH LAUREN AND THEN WORKING FOR HIM?
I would say that Ralph Lauren the man and the company are very interconnected. He has had a very fortunate life, and this is a very personal expression of his vision and his dream. And when you step into a Ralph Lauren store or you buy a dress or a suit or you go to a Ralph Lauren restaurant, you're living in his vision, and it's a personal expression. I'm inspired by the fact that he makes his life and his work so personal, and I think that's the key to your happiness in whatever job you do. Whether you're a journalist or you work in marketing, it's to express yourself and make sure you have an impact in whatever you do. His leadership in that area I find very inspiring, so when I think of ideas and when I help him to express his vision, I make sure that my own personal passion and personal love of the brand are real, and that keeps the brand strong.
HOW'S YOUR WORKING DYNAMIC? DO YOU AND YOUR FATHER EVER DISAGREE?
My father and I have a wonderful working relationship. It's compounded by the fact that he's my father, my boss and my mentor, so when he likes an idea I feel great times three, but if he doesn't like my idea it's three times the frustration. But he's been incredible at supporting my ideas as long as they're part of his vision, and he's been great at teaching me his vision so I can be more effective. But I would say that everyone who works for Ralph Lauren feels lucky to be mentored by him, and many of them feel like they're part of his extended family, because he has a very paternal way of teaching and connecting with everybody. So I feel very privileged and very lucky to contribute.
IS THERE SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR FATHER THAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE?
I think people need to know that Ralph Lauren is very real and he's very basic. And while he has these very glamorous stores, he's the first person to be outspoken and funny, the first person to crack a joke in the room, the first person to tell it as it is and to keep it simple. And while sometimes the brand looks very sophisticated and posh, the real Ralph Lauren lives a very simple life, a comfortable life, his priorities being with his family. He's just at home sitting on a park bench or throwing a basketball around as he is designing a fashion show, and he's just as happy standing on a street corner talking about the cool new Brad Pitt movie or the Yankees or a world issue.