Ralph Lauren is the hands-down American master of creating lifestyle fashion brands and awe-inspiring retail environments. I love the Rugby product and stores. The brand is very young & preppy with a witty, sexy, irreverent slant. Sometimes the staff is a little “too cool for school”… but please, you would too if you looked that good.
More from The New York Times by Alex Kuczynski – In the display windows of Rugby, the new Ralph Lauren outpost on University Place, there is a framed photograph of the Styvechale Hockey Club. The year is 1906, as noted in the inky script, and the young men are dressed in the athletic flannel typical of the period and region. (Styvechale is in Coventry, England.) Their faces fix on the camera: One young man sits ramrod straight, as if he knows his mother is going to hang this photograph on the wall. Another looks slightly hung over, his eyes dimmed. Another wears a walrus mustache, his chin thrust forward, defiant and eager. Their minds may have been elsewhere, but I feel safe in betting that none of the men in the photograph – not young T. N. Woodward, nor A. H. Jephcott, nor C. W. Clarke – ever imagined that long after they were dead their hockey club picture would be used to sell cashmere-blend tube-top sweaters to teenagers. Then again, Rugby is pure Ralph Lauren, which sells the power of implied ancestry.
Three decades ago Mr. Lauren discovered the collective fantasy of millions of Americans and democratized images of wealth and luxury, making it possible for plain-vanilla Americans to look as preppy as sun-kissed members of Camelot or as tweedy as English bankers. This newest label in the Ralph Lauren empire attempts the same for a younger crowd, aiming squarely at the 15- to 25-year-olds who are served by chains like American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch. As the name suggests, there are plenty of rugby shirts – so named for the English boarding school at which the garment originated – on sale here, along with many other pieces evocative of private clubs and exclusive boarding schools. (One particularly strange item in the Anglophilia vein is a white jacket with blue bordering, in the style of the cricket jackets worn in England in the early part of the last century, but manufactured in fleecy sweatshirt material. It’s as if Juicy Couture sponsored a remake of “Chariots of Fire.”)
But Rugby also wants to appeal to the consumer’s passion for rough-hewn, hipster Americana. On the wall is a framed picture of Jack Kerouac, who in a bazillion years would not have set foot in a place like Rugby. A few feet away is a leather motorcycle jacket, priced at $598. It is a nice enough jacket, but the Schott version of the same jacket – in other words, the real thing – costs less, and is probably available in a dozen stores within a half-mile radius. Turn the jacket around, though, and you see what you are paying for: a tattoolike illustration, which reads “Rugby” and “Ralph Lauren ’04” over a smiling skull symbol. Maybe this jacket finds buyers at Rugby’s other locations in Charlottesville, Boston and Chapel Hill. But in New York City? Home of the Ramones? I don’t think so. The clothing line is meant to carry young people in their teens on into their 20’s, so along with the tweed microminiskirts and cashmere-blend tube tops – which were quite elegant and, at $68, priced well – are wool coats that would look very proper in a first job out of college and perfectly acceptable jackets and suits for men. But many things seem off. A black lace net skirt for $298, which is a lot for most collegiate wallets, did not fit well, and threads were already hanging from the hem. A woman’s black denim jacket with a Victorian silhouette was $198, which also seemed expensive. A purse in orange cable-knit sweater fabric, fastened with rep-tie handles, was embroidered with a figure kicking at an imaginary soccer ball, and cost $68. On the handbag spectrum, this one was far from “collegiate chic,” instead lurching perilously close to “ugly diaper bag.” A black sleeveless polo minidress with white ribbing hung to the right of the entrance, typically a spot where retailers place the hot item to lure customers. But this dress was – there is no way around it – seriously unattractive. Over the breast, in large white letters, it read: “Ralph Lauren. Est. 2004. Rugby.” The fabric was a blend of viscose, polyester and elastane, which I think means you had better think twice about filling up your gas tank or lighting a cigarette while wearing it.
The skull and crossbones motif is omnipresent. Yes, there is something witty about a repeating pattern of embroidered skulls and crossbones on a pair of khaki pants, rather than a pattern of repeating martini glasses or golf clubs or dachshunds. I purchased a ribbon belt festooned with skulls and crossbones for my husband, to add some pizazz to his golf outfits. (It was on sale for $24.99.) But there’s witty, and then there’s overkill: the symbol appears on a significant number of items in the store, including silk rep ties and sweat pants. The skull and crossbones symbol was used for centuries as a tombstone decoration, and as a memento mori to signify the fleeting nature of human life. It sailed on the Jolly Roger flag that pirates flew to intimidate, and a version of it became a propaganda symbol in Nazi Germany. Now we associate it with poison warnings and punk rock. At Rugby the skull appears on shirts and sweat pants, and instead of bones, two oars cross beneath it in a bizarre mélange of punk defiance and collegiate crew-team cool.
Leave it to Ralph Lauren to take a symbol that once signified mortality, intimidation, defiance and fear and slap it on a polo shirt for the ultimate in consumer appeasement: the kids want to look like rebels, but the parents control the purse strings. So Junior gets his skull symbol, but Mom and Dad are happy he is at least wearing a polo shirt. That way he looks as if he might be a member of the Styvechale Hockey Club. Whatever that is. “WOW. Somebody (writer from NYT) is better, eh?” – JP