By Barbara Thau
Retailers were unequivocal about Ralph Lauren’s home legacy: The designer rewrote the rules of home store merchandising. Period.
Lauren pioneered the total home lifestyle concept, marketing his upscale-preppy, Americana aesthetic across multiple product categories—from textiles and tabletop to furniture and rugs.
He also introduced the shop-within-a-shop concept as a way to merchandise home goods.
Lauren brought a fashion sensibility to the home department in a way that had never been conceptualized before. He prompted shoppers to buy into a total look and dress their homes the way they would coordinate their outfits, retailers said.
“He gets the credit more than anybody else in the home business of developing this whole idea of a lifestyle—the kitchen, bedroom and living room,” said Michael Steinberg, the former chief executive officer of Macy’s West, who is a consultant today.
“One of the first things he did was a line of ties,” Steinberg recalled. “Bloomingdale’s was his first customer. … He took it from there and he enlarged it. He had a vision.”
Bloomingdale’s introduced the home collection at its 59th Street Manhattan flagship in 1983, when Marvin Traub was CEO.
It was a launch that would go down in the retail record books as a seminal moment in home store retailing.
By that time, Lauren had already made a name for himself in women’s and men’s apparel, as well as fragrances.
“He had a clout and heft to be able to do it [launch home],” Steinberg said. “You have to have a product that people want, have to have a certain national acceptance” to merit that kind of retail real estate and command 1,000-square-foot shops, he said.
“It was ground-breaking in the sense that it was an extensive collection, with an enormous emphasis on fashion and coordination,” Traub recalled. “It was very much like putting together a fashion collection.”
But while Ralph Lauren Home is considered ground-breaking now, the line didn’t set the world on fire when it debuted. Like a newly launched TV pilot, the jury was out on whether or not it would be picked up for the next season.
“It was not successful at first because it wasn’t priced high-low, it was one price,” said Joe Laneve, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of home for Bloomingdale’s, who was then a GMM at the old Robinson’s department store chain.
Traub agreed. Once the line was put on sale and was included in white sales, it took off, he said. It became Bloomingdale’s leading textiles brand.
The home collection also taught home retailers a valuable lesson.
“It showed everybody you can put together a coordinated, cohesive presentation [of home goods] and you could sell a lot more product that way,” Laneve said.
Before Lauren, retailers showcased home goods by product category.
In textiles, for example, “It was much more of a classification business,” Steinberg said. “You had the 180-thread-count sheets together, the 230s together.”
Lauren changed all that.
“He was the first person to really put stuff together and have a whole, integrated design concept for the whole bedroom, bathroom,” Steinberg said.
Ralph Lauren home goods got the royal treatment by being housed in freestanding shops with special fixtures designed to reflect the collection’s updated/traditional brand essence. When the furniture line first launched at Bloomingdale’s, for example, both upholstery and case goods were featured in room settings to evoke a distinct environment, Traub said.
This way, Lauren could manage the brand image.
“He had a certain control of how his product was being shown,” Steinberg said. “He was not going to necessarily trust department stores to show his product to the greatest advantage.”
Ralph Lauren is now spreading his wings to a more mass level with his American Living home collection for J.C. Penney, Steinberg noted.
But “the brand integrity has always been there,” he said. Lauren is “very aware of the fact that a brand can be watered down and compromised, and he’s very concerned about what goes out over his name and brand—he’s very protective of it.”