Tony’s Column: Ralph v. The Brethren

Ralph Lauren innovated the concept of fashionable lifestyle branding. This video is a perfect example of the idealistic imagery Ralph is selling (and we find ourselves enthusiastically buying!)

One of our readers had recently emailed me with a personal essay of his own opinionated narrative. It is simply too good to not share with you all, so I assigned his much appreciated message as an excuse to not only give my direct reply, but to post my own dwelling into the very topic he had brought up; going evermore deeper into the rabbit hole as I attach my resultant exploration of this subject.


The Given Prompt: How does Ralph Lauren compare to Brooks Brothers? The latter decisively being Trad&Prep’s “GrandDaddy” as our most esteemed outfitter? I now leave the Senate Floor to the Gentleman from Ralph Island [edited for publish]:

Lets Talk Ralph Lauren

“Dear Tony,

We both know the greatness of Granddaddy Brooks. However, I’m starting to believe that maybe Ralph is up there. Growing up, I watched my father wear Ralph Lauren polos, sportshirts, and dress shirts. He had a black leather Ralph Lauren wallet, which I now proudly use. Now he opts for his brown leather Ralph wallet that his old college roommate bought him.

In the past year, I’ve spent more time studying Ralph’s clothes in stores. I had the pleasure of purchasing a beautiful gingham OCBD from a Ralph Lauren store in the Abu Dhabi International Airport during a layover. Now, we both know Ralph Lauren and his pony is very mainstream. The majority of people that I speak to about his clothes only buy them to sport a little pony on their chest. That is obviously a big turn off for someone like me that knows better. Instead, I go off to Brooks Brothers, or marveling at J. Press while in D.C.

Now as much the brainless masses go to Ralph Lauren just because they believe the pony makes them look cool, they’re also benefiting from their ignorance. Regardless of the stupidity of Ralph’s customers, his clothes are indeed of superior quality. The polo’s that my father has passed down to me are still in excellent quality. It is so easy to look at PRL with disgust because of the mainstream crowd, but the reason why he also does well is not just his branding, but also the quality of the clothes really do speak volumes. To be honest, my decade old Ralph Lauren polo’s are doing better than my year-old Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece polos, which is very odd. Another thing I’ve noticed that Ralph does really well is the cut of his clothes. The fitting , to be frank, is more modern. That OCBD I bought in Abu Dhabi fits better and tucks in better in my chinos than my OCBDs from Brooks Brothers here. Maybe the mainstream crowd does know what it is doing with Ralph Lauren? Of course, I naturally aspire to be wearing Purple Label one day…

Sincerely, P.K.”

Foreword(I)

Thank you Mr. PK for humoring me with your correspondence and for using my blog memes to tell your position. For those with a confused and/or horrified look on his face, please refer to this glossary. And to my psychiatrist.

Foreword (II)

Master PK and I both assuredly agree with your rolling eyes. Why does it matter to decipher the relationship between Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers? Afterall, the following consequential forum between our two parties (The Honorable PK and Tony) involves an increased level of intuition that the brainless masses will likewise have increased disdain for. And not that they are wrong either, since this exercise is purely out of trivial pursuit. Because lets stay grounded and be meta on our outlook…we are diving into the dichotomy of two fashion houses and their individual merits, as judged by some mystical barometer of unofficial final conclusiveness…I mean, how #firstworldproblems can we get?!

Preface

Tony would like to acknowledge Supreme Commander PK for his voluntary inquest and this proceeding forum.

Introduction

His Excellency PK purports to establish Ralph Lauren in the same grace as an already-chiseled face on our Mt. Rushmore of Greatest Trad&Prep brands. Similar to the formulating origins of the Holy Trinity, this superior mountain range of select fashion houses is known for their respective major contributions and influences to our style lexicon, and live prominently on in our wardrobes just as they had for generations before us. They are the revered tailors that you can trust your entire lifetime’s wardrobe to if need be, and Brooks Brothers is easily the utmost peak of these highly regarded few. Tony seeks to comment on Sir PK’s thought process in this reply, as well as put forth corollaries from his own narrative trajectory.

Bodied Response

Dear PK Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the Tradly Empire,

I too have had similiar fondness for Mr. Lauren in my childhood memories with growing up in my patriarchal Generations of Style. My older brother and I are the lineage torchbearers of late, carrying our namesake’s Pride of the Sartorial Arts on our chests. And oh my, what is this marked impression on our said marked chests, that overlays my family’s eternal symbol of gentlemanly guile? Yes. Of course. A champion polo player on his galloping steed and swinging his mallet towards eternal victory. Multicolored signature logo embroided on a frayed, worn-in, classic white oxford cloth button down shirt.

I just described my single most favorite clothing item out of all of the apparel in my bountiful closet. These days, it hibernates in my shirt drawer for the rare cherished moment, but more than a decade ago that shirt used to be my one and only white button down. Period. As in for all occasions ranging from casual to formal. That would be unimaginable to me now! Since right at this moment I now have more than half a dozen white duplicates hanging in my closet, from a rumpled JPressFlap Pocket OCBD to a pressed Brooks Brothers Dress Shirt with French Cuffs and preset holes for a tie pin. Yet, that original white classic Ralph Lauren oxford remains as my most cherished. Maybe it’s because it is one of my oldest items still thriving in an always-maturing wardrobe. Maybe it’s because of its authentically frayed collar and worn softness. Maybe it’s because it was originally my father’s, and hence in true tradly spirit, passed down to his youngest son out of need for a quick fix for 4th grade class photos. Then: super baggy and stiff. Present: perfectly boxy and soft from two decades of wear.

If you closely, you can spot the natural fraying of the tag, collar, and cuff. Solid Oxford Sport Shirt circa early 1990′s.

That’s the thing about Ralph Lauren. While true that I would never put RL wholesomely with the creme of the crop Mt. Rushmore brands that make up the right-most end of a metaphorical balance beam, where traditional TNSIL weighs in at its heaviest; we shall not deny its own far reaching impact on the modern American East Coast Aesthetic. It just isn’t on Mt. Rushmore simply because Ralph came in a tad too late to be considered a real heritage brand. ie) Your grandpa wore Hamilton OCBDs when he was a freshman at Ohio State in 1967, when Ralph was only a mere tie collection in that year of its birth. Mr. Lauren would not catch Gramps’ eyes as a fledgling newcomer until probably the mid-1970s at its very earliest of its fledgling popularity, especially since the Pony really found its groove as it stampeded into the original prep era of the ’80s. The Pony gave us the initial reason to be self-conscious of logos, as a serious contender to that other big competitor in Lacoste’s Crocodile. Then Ralph innovated his multimedia platform through the years by emphasizing the WASP lifestyle, which effectively brought high class tastes to the availability of the mainstream masses. This new approach to lifestyle marketing is what Ralph Lauren is best known for, with the flagship Polo Blue Label becoming one of the most prominent brands that built its reputation on projecting dreamlike imagery. Making the once-unattainable preppy look, perpetrated by the WASP elitists who shopped at the likes of Brooks and Press, and now accessible to the rest of us commonfolk who did not live within a twenty mile radius of Hyannis Port. In fact, the classically interpreted “Polo Shirt” as the mainstream masses know it today may as well be in the same reference to a Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt, by way of brand generification over the past three decades that Ralph climbed the unclimbable Mt. Rushmore and graffitied its Pony Logo all over his Granddaddy’s monolithic face.

Again, it is this aforementioned timeline why I can never technically label Ralph as an American Heritage Brand. Which means RL will never be considered to be in the same grouping of tradliest outfitters in terms of outright birthright. Grandaddy Brooks obviously rules them all with an 1818 establishment and its multitude of clothing inventions that are taken for granted today (including the OCBD – the Original Polo Shirt as we already know it to be). Yuppy twin peak, that is also a choice favorite of GMPs, set up his shop in 1903 with Jacobi Press’ founding across Yale University. And so on. Hamilton Shirts in 1883. The Alden Shoe Company in 1884. Gant in 1949. You see where I am getting at; I guess we can call Ralph Lauren one of the oldest neoprep brands with its 1967 arrival, if we applied the very neoprep definition loosely in this light.

But going with that same logic, Mr. Lauren is easily the greatest of the neoprep brands, no? We can start off with the origin story already mentioned earlier, and shadow RL Polo’s rise to fame in the original prep era that helped it eventually become synonymous with the classic American WASPy lifestyle – whether in truth or not – that is how it is perceived by the mainstream majority. He certainly outlasted Tommy Hilfiger and other rivals, in that epic High Stakes Race for the champion breed of lifestyle branding over two decades ago. We all remember Leo’s portrayal of New Rich Jordan Belfort and his money-making scheme set in the early 1990s? I like to think the movie costume below was decided upon with educated precision, since the Pony was still somewhat exclusive in those pre-mensfashionblogosphere days. Justifiably equipped for a nonchalant scene of a yuppie on his big yacht. Unlike now, when that same Pony can be found sitting under a dust cover in the clearance bin at a Ross Discount Store.

Toast to a time when the Pony was once praised.

I pay credit to Mr. Lauren moreso for his ingenuity than for what questionable items of his I can buy at Macys. His lifestyle branding and vertical implementation is unparalleled in stature compared to all the other fashion houses, much less Granddaddy Brooks in particular. Polo Blue Label is Ralph’s ambassador, serving as a homing beacon that introduces new customers into a world of an idealistic preppy livelihood. Then once he has you hooked on his version of a WASP Heaven, he has you riding on Blue Label’s saddle to his latter end luxury diversification. Mr. Lauren’s brilliant portfolio is why we now have the pleasure of wearing (or in my case “waiting desperately for the day I can wear”) luxurious apparel from the RL Black and Purple Label variety in a fashion-forward sentiment I can actually agree with. These campaigns have marketed lifestyles that are less Blue’s Harvard Row Team and more Black’s New York City Sophisticated and Purple’s Excelsior Class, and lead to why I have a strict allegiance to Mr. Lauren even if I continuously rebut 90% of Blue Label’s collection in my recommendations. I see it for what it is: Ralph Lauren is a fashion-forward brand through and through, and the very best American mainstream brand in my discerning opinion at that. We cannot deny the success he has built upon feeding a fantastical illustration of our beloved Trad&Prep affliction (and other Americana visions like with Western and Native American themes). There is a reason he is chosen to represent the USA Olympic Team. So Blue Label may have gone too downhill for our advanced groupthink in the name of appeasing an authentic form of Trad&Prep, but credit should be payed when it is due.

Ralph Lauren’s Olympic uniforms are often misunderstood by the brainless masses. “Too preppy, too old looking, too ugly!” But we shall not place blame too easily, since not everyone knows the nuanced impact that Ralph has as the definitive American Designer. “Why the preppy old world look?” the indoctrinated exclaim. Because that is what we Americans do best. This uniform of blazer and chinos is our nation’s export to the global fashion scene when a semi-formal kit is needed. Italians have their dandy soft fit suits, the Germans have their skinny dark muted suits, and the Americans have gold buttoned double breasted blazers in a structured but formed fit. Beret, white chinos, and club collars in ode to sporting regalia of days of yore.

This all condenses to a blanketing conclusion that reflect my sum of feelings about Ralph. If I want an updated outfit from the newest runway collections, I look to Mr. Lauren as the credible source for American fashion-forward design. He is the guy that competes against other vogue designers like Gucci, Prada, and Valentino. Not Brooks Brothers. Not JPress. Not Hamilton. He is our nation’s champion facing the whole of European secularism. So in terms of where Ralph fits in the grand lexicon, if the Mt. Rushmore of heritage brands are on the farthest traditional right in our distinguishing spectrum, then Blue Label is placed somewhere at the focal point that is not to trad for mainstream appeal, and Black and Purple come in at the farthest creative left that make up the “looking ahead” runway fashion front.

As Royal P.K. mentions, we can look to Ralph for ushering in the newest sartorial aesthetics in contrast to our olde-world TNSIL persona. Mr. Lauren gives us the updated personalized fits and quality sourced from all majestic corners of the world in support of his massive reign over the luxury apparel segment. Although I won’t go as so far to necessarily agree that my own Blue Label articles are any more superior to my Brooks paraphernalia (though I’d easily stand by a USA-made Brooks OCBD.) And almost by sweet irony, we now find heritage brands being the one playing catchup. Whereas Ralph Lauren was the aspiring newcomer who mass produced his own copy of the providence lifestyle that Brooks and other tradder than thou tailors sold to the Olde Money New England Brahmins, we now find Ralph leading the contemporary front and Mt. Rushmore crumbling behind. Out with the old. In with the new. The Noveua Rich of today seem to be exponentially growing in number, especially from the international front, and they want the newest designs to satisfy their thirst for haute fashion. Which Ralph had positioned himself to garner long ago. I am willing to bet RL’s womens collection easily outsells Brooks, just as Purple Label probably easily chosen over Brooks Golden Fleece in any affluent market outside of stuffy Washington D.C. (arguably the St. Alamo of the #1 Repp). We find JPress and Grandaddy Brooks only recently introducing their own lines of fashionably forward and youth-oriented diversification to keep up with changing customer demands: York Street ,Thom Browne’s Black Fleece, and Flatiron & Red Fleece….(Though it is important to note that RL Rugby, which would have been York St. and Red Fleece’s direct competitor for the youthful and fashionably preppy market, was the first to establish in 2004 but had since liquidated in 2012 due to a directional strategy by Ralph Lauren to concentrate its resources away from a small niche to the more profitable international market for luxury goods. Only time will tell if Press and Brooks’ entry into the questionable niche market that Rugby left will prove to be profitable)…Other heritage brands have followed en suite, such as Gant collaborating with Michael Bastion at the helm of its newest relaunch into the luxury segment a few years back. All the while, Ralph having already made his name in cornering both the mainstream and the fashionably elitist crowds for quite some time now. Simply no other outfitter can match his monopoly on today’s version of the American East Coast Aesthetic.

Ralph likes to make a grand statement in his marketing campaigns that match the grand depictions he sells his clothes by. Welcome to the World of Ralph Lauren. Bold print captioning a snapshot that offers a glimpse of the exemplary American lifestyle. Here, a seaside polo match. Vintage Mercedes to match a sporty vibe of long tie with shorts. Too contrived for the real world? Yes. But you are not copying this handsome dude’s outfit per say, but instead you are dressing to his WASPy decorum. Ralph is conveying more than just a need to buy his clothing. He asks you to commit to this ultra romanticized vision in fortifying spirit.

You can spot entire folds of RL print ads in high brow publications like The New York Times and Vogue, whereas Brooks and the other heritage brands had rarely done so in the modern era until perhaps very recently.

Women fashionistas resonate with the slender contours that often seem to explode right off his print ads. Notice the common themes here: Attractive feminine models in juxtaposition of powerful prose. Again, Brooks loses out to Ralph in approaching high end womenswear.

Nacho Figueras as the face of Black Label.

Epilogue

Where does that leave me at the end of this thought process? I’ll let my wardrobe speak for itself: My current Polo Blue Label pieces are typically my second tier players that support the staples. Meaning if you had all of the basics I recommended in my Starter Guide, then you can now explore other alternatives such as from that of Blue Label.

Conclusion #1

Ralph Lauren, especially Polo Blue Label, is one of our primary solvents for all staples in your closet. This is in addendum to the special brands that I recommend for specified and original items as your go-to’s (i.e from The Guide and Ask Me sections).

For instance, if Bill’s Khakis are your go-to chinos, then Ralph’s Khakis can certainly be your backup for when your M3′s are worn out and sitting in the laundry hamper. However, if you could choose a single pair of Nanny Red Chinos, then you would opt for Murray’s Toggery Shop as the authentic proprietor of red pants. Only your second pair can be from RL. Do you see what I am getting at? Let Blue Label fill in the cracks of your wardrobe.

Classic Fit Preppy Chino

Conclusion #2

Ralph is a fashionably-forward brand at its core, meaning it is one of our regular mainstay sources for unique and “fun” seasonal items.

My “fun” shorts in summer casual patterns, like gingham and plaid, are most all Blue Label that I was able to stockpile over the years from department store clearance sales.

Straight Linen Gingham Shorts (**Hurry, reduced to $24 from $89 as of this posting!**)

Conclusion #3

Polo Blue Label may be a common denominator for the mainstream masses, but the upsides are its easy availability and subjectivity to great discounts. Just know which items to incorporate (ex. basic chinos) and which to avoid (ex. articles with oversized Pony logos, as well as generally the infamous Polo Shirt due to its extreme ubiquity among the brainless masses).

Blue Label is essentially a mall brand. Polo is regularly seen across the country in department stores and outlets, unlike many of the heritage brands that only have a few boutique locations in select focus markets (ex. JPress found only in New Haven, NYC, Boston, and DC). This is a good thing in that you can easily drive to your closest shopping center to acquire basic apparel with the added advantage of a good chance of a clearance sale. Many major department stores offer the best reductions when the timing is right, as for example with Macys and Belk often honoring stackable coupons. This makes Ralph Lauren one of the very few labels that I actually do appreciate as a mall brand (unlike Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and other such causes of my contempt). The majority of my Polo collection were purchased at great discount in continual ode to Rule #10 from The Guide.

Conclusion #4

One of the main blog themes is: Go with the brand that innovated first. I look to Mr. Lauren for the pack leader of runway looks that have an American influence. He is the epitome of sartorial artistry for high fashion meeting Trad&Prep influence.

His global empire speaks for itself. Yeah, I do ask that you stay away from your tenth Pony Polo shirt and opt for a Golden Fleece instead, but that’s because I want you to strive for an enlightening that separates you from the brainless masses. Still, we cannot overlook the Pony’s world wide effect either in Ralph being our one true Trad&Prep Ambassador for today. Because of him, we have an international prep in Abu Dhabi who look just as regal as his Massachusetts penpal at Philips Academy. Perhaps you are reading this very article within European or Asian borders in growing interests of the American preppy and traditional look (if that is the case, welcome to the blog!) I am betting that you had placed RL as one of your top brands to shop from, because really and truly, that brand is one of the few that you actually know of. Proving Ralph’s international popularity over the heritage brands.

Polo Blue Label is where Trad met Prep met Mass Marketing. Others have come and gone riding on that lifestyle pony (*cough* Tommy *cough*), yet Polo remains THE preppy outfitter to plebs and kings alike. Mind you, this is the exact reason why I want to transition you away from all-to-common Blue Label Polo shirts and humongous Pony logos that take up half of a shirt, because those exact plebs and kings usually makeup the mainstream masses that I always enjoy ridiculing. But nonetheless we can still look to Ralph Lauren as a proven one-stop supply. Just try to keep with authentic clean cut pieces by staying away from the contrived (i.e. Tyler Shorts look good on the campus of Furman University. False Athletic Patches on a predistressed Rugby Shirt – do not.) As alluded to earlier, I typically like 10% of Blue Label offerings in their simplicity and/or uniqueness. These are the items that have absent or unnoticeable logos, are not sandblasted or predistressed, and do not have fake rugby patches. The rest that do can be left on the discount rack.

Climbing up from Blue Label to the next rung on Ralph’s ladder of vertical integration: I like Black Label for an urban, upwardly mobile type who just oozes sexy manliness. He is the kind of guy who sips brandy as he reads WSJ and relaxes on his Eames Lounge in his New York Upper West Side penthouse on 55 West 81st Street. There is a reason why esteemed polo player Nacho Figueras is the face of Black Label, since his chiseled looks and graceful aura exemplifies Black so well. If Patrick Bateman were, well real first of all, and lived in our 2014′s “sophisticated personal style” timeline and not in 1986′s “full-metal-WASP” era, then he would be wearing Black. And for the record, I place Black miles above the Grandaddy Brooks standard line in regard to this modern approach, with maybe the Black Fleece akin in exclusive nature.

The 1818 Fitzgerald is my recommended go-to for your starter suit. But when you eventually climb the corporate ladder and have enough disposable income to branch out, then Black Label is one of my top places to look for an even higher bar than where the 1818 line is set. Black exudes confidence with the Label’s typically sharp lines in an aggressively tapered silhouette and slightly broad shoulders. You won’t see the usual GTH colors here like you normally would with Polo Blue. Instead, Black Label stays true to its name with a dark palate of sleek suits. You are not going for the WASP look, but instead the Cosmopolitan Man who commands his destiny. Perfect for when you broker a multimillion dollar acquisition deal as your firm’s rising star hotshot.

On my to-buy-whenever-I-reach-well-into-the-six-figures list is the Anthony Suit. Much like how Brooks Brothers has the Fitzgerald and JCrew has the Ludlow, the Anthony is Black Label’s slim fit stronghold.

Purple Label, on the other gold ring-clad feeding hand, is strictly for the top brass executive who loves the very best that Earth has to give, such as exotic leathers and supple fabrics (okay, the Seven Natural Wonders too). This refined older gentleman drives his Rolls to the Hamptons getaway estate on the weekends when he isn’t jetsetting to his pied-à-terre in Hong Kong. Maybe slightly above Golden Fleece, which is extremely luxurious as The Bretheren’s Cadillac label as it is; only because I put Purple in the most sublime order of menswear tailors. Purple Label sits comfortably next to the likes of Brioni, Cuccinelli, Kiton, Oxxford, and any one of the Savile Row Masters.

That Youtube clip in the title of this article sums up how I feel about these two Labels: Pure Elegance.

$4500 for a white dinner jacket I can wear maybe once every two years? I’ll buy five.

PostScript

Look to the World of Ralph Lauren for the in-betweeners. For the “so ridiculously reduced in price that you would be insane to NOT buy a third pair of kelly green pants”. For the Cosmopolitan. For the Sublime. While Brooks Brothers is the top billed actor who headlines the stage, Polo Blue Label is your supporting cast whom the star owes his brilliant performance to. Black Label is the handsome fella’ sitting front row wearing a peak lapeled tuxedo and holding the soft hand of a Victoria Secret Angel. Purple Label is the benefactor that owns the whole damn theater.

The Uniform. My cherished RL Sport OCBD paired with RL Classic Fit Flat Front Shorts (tapered and hemmed to 7″).