Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Payback Mountain.

I read this week in Ad Age that Ralph Lauren (the corporation, not the guy) is discontinuing his jeans (the ones they sell, not the ones he’s wearing). Someone from Lauren confessed that the brand had simply been bled dry by overpromotion and overdistribution. Well, true dat, as the young people say. But I wonder if there was a bit more to it.

For decades, Ralph Lifshitz imagined, invented and nurtured a mythic America that never was, and then invited everyone to immigrate and buy clothes there. And you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border. Just a credit card and a willingness to surrender your individuality to become a mannequin in Ralph’s diorama. In my mind, the apogee of all this was the 1980s, an era when everybody was pretty much okay with joining socioeconomic glee clubs and wearing their prescribed uniforms. People willingly sported the little pony logo as a badge of sophistication or aspiration, if you can imagine, oblivious to the brand’s true positioning, which I will now reveal:

Polo Ralph Lauren was Garanimals for yuppies.

(Remember Garanimals? Children’s clothes for people who are terrified by Gap Kids. All you have to do is make sure each day that all of little Biff’s or Muffy’s clothes have the same animal label – a giraffe, say - and you’ll know they match. Much easier than figuring out that whole plaid versus stripes thing.)

This consensual self-delusion continued for Polo for about as long as it did for society at large. Then, in the 1990s, it ended like a parade going over a cliff. Authenticity became the new black, for brands and for folks. Everybody ran screaming from affectation, and the cooler you were the faster and further you ran. Pretty soon, you could get Ralph’s natty duds at The Bay. Could “overpromotion and overdistribution” be far behind? And will it end with Ralph’s jeans? Or is this just part of the long, slow, inevitable fading away of a brand that was never more than a mirage.

Well, I can personally guarantee you that no actual cowboys wear Polo jeans. Not one. And I know about these things. And I’ll wager that the same absence of the Polo badge could be observed at the prep schools, Hamptons beach houses, English country estates and Virginia horse farms to whom that silver haired smoothie owes a debt of inspiration.

It’s only a matter of time before everybody quits you, Ralph. You can’t dine out forever on an invented past.

Now, if somebody would just tell that to the Roots boys, I’d be a happy camper.


Anonymous said...

I hope one day you reveal your identity. Your blogs are wonderfully written and tremendously insightful. I can't understand the near-absence of comment. Perhaps everyone is too busy posting irrelevancies over at

brandcowboy said...

Thanks for the kind words. I kinda put the comment thing down to poor blog promotion, although I strangely get more emails. As for, well, let's just say that if there are any lonely organ grinders out there, I think I know where their monkeys are.

Anonymous said...

poor blog promotion you say? perhaps the mystery cowboy should be introducing us to some ever-cliche t-shirts... other, less fabulous persons have made themselves a name with the very same thing. that, and i've been looking for something fashinable and new to wear this season since guys can't pull off the wedge heel.

brandcowboy said...

A t-shirt, eh? I like it. A brand for talking about brands. It's, like, all meta and stuff. Okay, I'm sold. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here's some cowboy wisdom: Every guy should be able to pull of a wedge heel, as long as it's on somebody else's foot.

Anonymous said...

Keep your eyes peeled for the return of the Polo t-shirt. Young men are flocking back to pastel preppie shirts with over-the-heart logos for Summer 2006.

80s brands are on the rebound - even Tretorn is coming back with the iconic "arc" graphic shoe. Might be easier to pull off than the wedge AND carries all kinds of memories of summer camp romance.


brandcowboy said...

Tretorn. Good one!

Yes, in the ongoing plundering of pop culture history as a substitute for creativity, there's no doubt it's the 80s turn. (Makes you wonder what they'll do when they get to the 90s... surely we can't do the 60s a THIRD time!). And there's no doubt that I've seen that little green alligator at my local haberdashery quite a lot lately. I just don't believe that Ralph is going to make the cut, any more than Pierre Cardin did when we exhumed the 70s. To be really retro cool, surely your brand has to have at least started out real.

Love to hear more about the camp story, but this isn't that kind of blog.