Ralph Lauren to close Fifth Avenue flagship store

Opened in 2014, Ralph Lauren's Fifth Avenue Polo store will close on April 15.
Opened in 2014, Ralph Lauren's Fifth Avenue Polo store will close on April 15.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Ms Helen Gardner, shopping on New York's Fifth Avenue with her boyfriend on Tuesday, left the Polo store without buying anything.

"It's quite old-fashioned," said the 28-year-old visitor from London. "It's not for the young crowd."

She has bought Ralph Lauren clothing before, she said, "but just from outlets".

Ralph Lauren, the retail avatar, has spent half a century selling his Gatsby-esque fantasy of the American Dream.

But now, at 77, he is confronting life after the dream fades: Sometimes flagship stores get a little dull, the kids use their smartphones to search for discounts on your US$245 (S$340) jeans, and iconic blue blazers move off the racks, but just from outlets.

Beset by a decline in sales, Ralph Lauren Corp announced on Tuesday it would close the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York as part of a US$370-million shake-up. The beleaguered company will refocus its e-commerce operation and cut an unspecified number of jobs.

It is the latest humbling moment for Lauren, who spent decades creating his personal mythology of American aristocracy.

Only two months ago, the company announced the departure of its chief executive, Mr Stefan Larsson, leaving the founder to navigate an increasingly perilous retail landscape.

Indeed, the company encapsulates the growing travails of US retailers at large, especially apparel companies, such as J.Crew Group and Gymboree Corp.

The rise of e-commerce has left many fighting for survival. Consumers have gotten used to discounts.

And an address on Manhattan's luxury showcase is not what it used to be.

Tourism is down, rents are too high and it does not help that security surrounding the Northern White House, down the block, has diverted foot traffic.

Fifth Avenue vacancy rates are hovering near an all-time high, according to real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield.

The store was opened in 2014 in a neo-classical limestone building on the same block as Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.

Its preppy clothing and accessories are laid out over three oak-floor levels. The first floor has a rugged masculine ambience with dark mahogany panelling .

"The general look is quite old-school," said Mr Robert Wood, 30, an accountant from London and Ms Gardner's companion.

"I prefer the store to be lighter and a bit more open."

Compare that with Coach, whose nearby store entrance has two mechanised conveyor belts with a rotation of its colourful handbags and jackets. The centre atrium holds a 3.6m-tall sculpture of a dinosaur made with the company's leather bags.

Ralph Lauren's chief financial officer Jane Nielsen, a former Coach executive, is taking the reins as acting CEO while the company searches for a new leader.

As part of the changes, Ralph Lauren said it will invest resources on e-commerce infrastructure, shift its digital operations to a platform run by Salesforce.com's Commerce Cloud and improve customers' online experience.

It is also streamlining its organisation and closing other stores.

The restructuring plan will bring cash expenses of US$185 million and a similar amount of non-cash charges, the company said.

The changes are expected to save US$140 million a year by their completion, which is slated for the end of the next financial year in March. Ralph Lauren declined to say how many jobs were affected.

The Polo store, which is closing on April 15, has been one of Ralph Lauren's highest-profile locations in its hometown of New York.

The company has seven other stores in the city, along with its Polo Bar restaurant.

It will also develop new store formats and explore concepts including Ralph's Coffee, which is part of the Fifth Avenue Polo store.

The company has pledged to react faster to fashion trends and cut the time it takes to get clothes on the market, while increasing its marketing efforts by hiring a new chief marketing officer in February.

This all might pay off in time for Ms Gardner's next visit to New York. But for now, she is leaving empty-handed.

"I just think it's a bit of a rip-off for what it is," she said. "I don't think the style changes. It's been the same for years and years."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Ralph Lauren to close Fifth Avenue flagship store'. Print Edition | Subscribe