Ralph Lauren steps down as CEO of his company

Ralph Lauren (far right) will hand over the reins of his company to Mr Stefan Larsson (right) next month.
Ralph Lauren (right) will hand over the reins of his company to Mr Stefan Larsson (left) next month. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Ralph Lauren, the quintessential American designer who built a fashion empire based on sweeping fantasies of country-club prep and the Wild West, is stepping down from his post as chief executive of the company.

Taking the helm at Ralph Lauren is Mr Stefan Larsson, a former H&M executive and president of Old Navy, Gap's down-market brand, which he is credited with reviving. Old Navy has consistently been one of the few bright spots in Gap's brand portfolio since Mr Larsson, who is Swedish, took over in 2012, making him one of the most visible executives in retailing.

The change may be viewed as a move by Ralph Lauren to get its financial house in order.

Earnings at the upscale apparel company, known for its Polo brand, have been pressured by a strong dollar and intense competition in the luxury space.

Revenue dipped 5.3 per cent on a year-over-year basis and the company's share price has slumped by almost half this year.

In an interview, Lauren, 75, said he intended to remain active at the company he founded almost half a century ago in roles as executive chairman and chief creative officer. Mr Larsson will report to Lauren, although Lauren characterised their relationship as a "partnership". "When they start designing things I can't understand, I'll quit," Lauren said, sitting with Mr Larsson at his side at his office on Madison Avenue, adorned with the rustic paraphernalia - a tin toy robot, cowboy boots - that Ralph Lauren's stores have come to be known for.

"But I don't feel like I'm stepping back now," Lauren said.

Still, Mr Larsson's appointment is the start of a succession at one of America's best-known fashion houses, which, together with the likes of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, helped put American style on the map.

And it is the coming end of a golden era of American post-war designers: Karan stepped down from the helm of the house that bears her name this year; Klein stepped away from his namesake company in 2002.

Mr Larsson, 41, will take over as chief executive of the Ralph Lauren Corp next month and will also join the company's board.

"One of the biggest reasons for me to join is the opportunity to work side by side with someone like Ralph," he said. Asked on Tuesday whether Mr Larsson would be a good successor, Lauren replied: "I would say so."

Still, an appointment of a new chief executive from outside the company surprised industry experts.

"Ralph Lauren has been a poster child of stability and has historically grown talent from within," said

Mr William Susman, managing director at Threadstone Partners, an advisory firm that focuses on the retail sector. "Bringing in Stefan must be a reflection of the need for new thinking."

Ralph Lauren would benefit from change, experts say. Lauren's most recent show at New York Fashion Week was an ode to Americans in Biarritz, with his signature perfect leather tailoring, blue and white evening gowns and stars such as Jessica Chastain and Julianne Moore in the front row.

However, his brand has a typical luxury pyramid structure, the model for Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, with luxury at the pinnacle casting an aspirational halo over the more accessible Polo Ralph Lauren line. Factory stores below that form the bulk of the profits.

Given Mr Larsson's track record in "fast fashion", the question is whether the company will now take a different tack.

Recent moves at the company, such as separating out its luxury business, hiring luxury executive Valerie Hermann and opening a lavish private members' club in Milan, had suggested a stronger focus on luxury at the apparel company.

Mr Larsson has made his name in budget-conscious mass-retailing, first at H&M and then at Old Navy. Even at those mass brands, Mr Larsson's success, experts say, has been built on fostering a level of attention to design that sellers of low-end, family-oriented apparel had previously not put into their wares.

Whether or not changes lie ahead for the company, it is a big moment for a fashion house that Lauren began in the streets of New York, selling ties out of rented drawer space in a closet of an office in the Empire State Building.

Now, on top of its men's and women's clothing lines, Ralph Lauren has a foothold - through licensing - in everything from cosmetics and leather goods to footwear and eyeglass frames.

The company logged sales of US$7.6 billion (S$10.8 billion) in its last fiscal year.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2015, with the headline 'Ralph Lauren steps down as CEO of his company'. Print Edition | Subscribe