My last article featured my opinion on Brooks Brother’s Flatiron concept, which is entering the contest just as it appears the main competitor is throwing in the towel. Ralph Lauren’s Rugby, the manifestation of high-end collegiate inspired, fashion “forward” neo-preppism, will be closing so that Ralphy can focus on “more scalable global opportunities with the core Ralph Lauren brand”. So basically, Rugby was seen as a failure.
This was foreshadowed early on. Soon after its launch in 2004, Rugby opened a location on college town destination Franklin St. in Chapel Hill, NC, right across UNC’s university campus. I remember walking in its newly opened doors, impressed with the decor and selection (don’t mock me…it was a simpler, more ignorant time). And just a year or two later, the doors were closed. Maybe the prices were too high. Or maybe Rugby couldn’t appeal to the collegiate target.
While I was not a loyal fan and prefer to look above the overly WASPy fashions Rugby produced, I respected the medium and its contributions. Because even though I’d never be caught dead with a fashion designed rugby polo coronated with a regal-esque patch of a made up athletic club established in 1920-something, I appreciated the effort of our American powerhouse clothing outfitter trying to sell its famous preppy image to our young generation. Trad itself is a dying art, and Rugby was our ammo in the fight to keep traditional clothing alive, no matter it’s grimaced interpretation of it. Rugby’s intentions remained aligned with our own while trying to grab attention from the broad masses. And yes as inferred, Rugby had its many faults. But it also had very strong character points as well. Their University Chinos have garnered high praise for its slim fit and reasonable price. And I’ve liked their winter offerings that displayed wide selection of interesting patterns and motifs, as well as their Shetland sweaters, of which I own two (a crewneck and a shawl cardigan). And although much of their price points lied far above the average college kid’s loan budget, Rugby’s sales were decent enough and even more so with a student discount. Not to mention, the youthful appearance allowed for nicely fit proportions and bodies, great for ectomorphic freshmen.
I actually thought Rugby was doing well enough, just hitting its stride as a mainstream brand. But just under a decade after its launch, Rugby will cease after F/W 2013. Perhaps its an ill-mentioned sign of the changing times. Whereas Rugby would’ve made a killing amongst college students in the default preppy era of the 80s, now it has met its demise, ultimately losing in its attempt to swoon the masses with its antiquated Ivy League approach.
Niche competitor JCrew is doing well, but only because they shed their All-American focus (formerly competing with Lands End and LLBean) to a more worldly and urban interpretation of classic Americana (now competing with the high-end fashion houses, even boldly stepping up its appeal with runway shows). The transition started around five or six years ago, not coincidentally as JCrew served as a very influential brand in my own journey to Tradville, and has thus proved successful, cementing their base as a formidable label while being widely accessible to the average male in malls across the nation. It seems JCrew has such a firm grasp on the market that its easy to say that this is where the trend is going: away from New England Prep and towards New York City Vibe. I have no qualms with JCrew and overall like their direction. But it shows that Papa Bear Trad and Little Cub Prep are migrating for the hibernation, as the chilling winds of modern day clothing blows elsewhere. Lesson learned: 20th century influenced clothing is outdated and boring. Prep is dead. Hipster is alive and well.
With Rugby gone, the youthful preppy segment of the market lies with Flatiron for the taking. You’d think this would excite the Brooks Brothers execs, but I’m sure they see it as a doomed warning, that perhaps the market isn’t as accessible as they thought.
(Protip: come this time next year, raid the Rugby halls for some closeout deals.)