Hubert Burda Media

Marco… Polo?

Worn by aristocrats around the world, La Martina is a fashion empire that isn't fashion-led.

Marco… Polo?

Here we are, five hours before La Martina's Adrian Simonetti cuts the ribbon for his spanking new boutique at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Surrounded by the latest lifestyle wear, we talk not about the current Spring/Summer 2014 collection that pairs English tweed and military jackets with floral shirts, or the yet to be launched but highly anticipated range of Cortos boots for men. Instead, for the moment, we talk polo — not the aristocratic version usually associated with the Duke of Cambridge, but the crowd-pulling Miami South Beach variant played once a year on sand.
“The aim is to do something fun and cool on Miami Beach just to democratise the sport a little bit more,” Simonetti says of the La Martina Miami Beach Polo World Cup, which he helped organised just prior to his Southeast Asian visit. The tournament drew over 5,000 spectators over a four-day period. “It marks the end of the US polo season before [all the players] head to England for the European season,” he continues. Listening to him, it's clear Simonetti likes his sport — and this is exactly what makes his brand all the more compelling.
To the regular style-watcher or would-be fashion critic, La Martina is not unlike Polo Ralph Lauren, Paul & Shark or a Raf Simons x adidas collection. Unless they frequent polo games, those infatuated with their polo tees and button-down shirts aren't likely to even realise that the brand supplies the world's most prestigious polo clubs — including the Guards Polo Club, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the polo teams of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard — and is in one way or another involved in more than 100 international polo events each year.
When Simonetti's father, Lando, opened the first La Martina store just a stone's throw from the Dior boutique in Buenos Aires some 30 years ago, all it sold were professional equipment such as helmets and boots. Now, its casual wear is sold in 56 countries through a retail network that includes more than 60 flagship stores extending from Buenos Aires to Las Vegas, Milan, Capri and now, Singapore.
With the sport of kings coursing through the brand's DNA, it's unsurprising to hear that every La Martina apparel is conceived for reasons more noble than the whims of fashion. “Why, for example, would we do a blue jacket? In our world, if you win a trophy and you are going to celebrate, you'll need a jacket. And why do we make shirts with a logo underneath the buttons [rather than at chest level]? Because when you wear a jacket, that's the spot that is visible. There's a whole explanation of why we entered into each product segment,” the La Martina CEO for America explains.
But, I have to ask, is La Martina a luxury fashion brand? After all, beside the cotton shirts hang majolica-inspired printed sundresses. “We're not a fashion house, but maybe we do have fashionable products…when I'm working on our five-, 10- or 15-year business plan, I never say I want to be involved in fashion; no, I want to be involved in style,” he replies. “Luxury today is about having time to play polo, to be outdoors, or to spend with family. That's our definition of luxury, not so much what you can buy. That's our difference: We come from a luxury sport. ”
His father had intimated before that it was perfectly fine if a customer were to walk in and spend an hour in a La Martina boutique without buying a thing, so long as he soaks in the atmosphere, I say to him. “That's completely true…even if we don't convert a visit into sales, if we can convince them of the story, which they may go on to share with someone else — that's the best asset I think we can leave that customer with,” he says.
This is why much effort goes into the decoration of every store, he adds. Whether in Mykonos or Kuala Lumpur, each boutique is characterised by a vintage Anglo-Argentine style — an homage to the traditions of the two great polo-playing nations — that is accented by archival photos of historic polo tournaments and players from the 1930s.
La Martina is, thus, born out of polo and over the years, grew alongside the sport to develop into a multi-faceted, luxury lifestyle business.
Like many of the polo-playing dynasties — the Windsors in the UK, the Astradas in Argentina, the Pahang Royal family in Malaysia — the sport's leading supplier is also family-run. Lando and his wife are the firm's creative and style directors while many of the second-generation siblings and cousins started out in the company, like Simonetti, from the age of 18 on the sales floor. “We want to continue [the business] in a small boutique way. Our mission is to create synergy between our stores and the polo community around the world. Like polo, we're a small family and we're family-oriented.”
As a clothing brand, so unique is the La Martina strategy that Lausannes' IMD Business School has used the company as a case study. It also won the Best China Luxury Sports Brand Award at the Fortune Character-organised Luxury Summit in Shanghai last November — a fete, given that the brand doesn't even have retail presence in the Middle Kingdom.
Now, that's enough polo-talk, the clothes racks are calling.