The arrival of preppy apparel brand Polo Ralph Lauren on London’s Regent Street helps to define what lifestyle retail is all about.
As a word in retail, ‘lifestyle’ has been around since at least the early 1980s and is one of those terms that continues to defy definition and close scrutiny. Yet walk down Regent Street these days and most observers will probably be in agreement that this is a lifestyle retail destination.
From J Crew and Michael Kors to Brooks Brothers and Gant, this is about retailers that have a point of view, and shopping at any of them will involve buying into a specific lifestyle with a store design that reinforces this.
Yet until last month, there was one major absentee from the Regent Street lifestyle parade; and that was Polo Ralph Lauren. This is curious as Polo Ralph Lauren is perhaps the most obvious candidate for a brand and retailer that comes closest to defining lifestyle, purely through its dogged pursuit of consistency in terms both of its preppy merchandise and the fit-out of its stores.
The same but different
Shoppers visiting the new Regent Street store will have a sense of having seen much of what is on show before, even allowing for the fact that there are a number of elements that are different from other Polo Ralph Lauren emporia. The new store is a flagship that spans three floors, with a selling area of 17,561 sq ft, and from the outside it has the quiet (and expensive) restraint that is closely associated with the brand.
“The window displays are the kind of thing that might most readily be associated with some of the grander stores on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and are redolent of an American East Coast idea of what being British is about”
Retailers are, of course, kept on a tight rein in terms of what they can do with the exterior of a Regent Street unit, simply because of the thoroughfare’s heritage, with all of the buildings being at least Grade II listed.
For this reason, it would actually be easy to miss this store when walking along the street and looking at its west side, as the only real clue to what lies within are the ‘quiet’ blue awnings above the windows, which have the Polo Ralph Lauren logo inscribed in gold on them.
The window displays are the kind of thing that might most readily be associated with some of the grander stores on New York’s Fifth Avenue, feels like an American East Coast idea of what being British is about. Or, put another way, this is ‘preppiness’ writ large.
Inside, the ground floor is almost exactly what might be expected, with acres of highly polished wood, faux coats of arms and, in the mid-shop, chests of drawers that act as display tables and which look like the sort of thing that an elderly Oxbridge don might have in his study, except that there aren’t enough scratches.
The ground floor is devoted to menswear and is divided into two rooms. The room closest to the entrance is in fact little different in terms of the offer from its neighbour, with jackets, silk college ties, shirts and chino-style trousers and jeans forming the bulk of what’s on view. Extensive use is made of propping and, once more, it takes a very traditional shape with vintage-style packing trunks, studded dark brown leather chairs and open-fronted wardrobes around parts of the perimeter.
“This is about tradition and making the shopper feel they are about to join a somewhat exclusive club”
In the room furthest from the entrance there is a wood-fronted lift, looking like something from a grand hotel, that takes shoppers up to the first floor or down to the basement. Next to it there is a staircase and a glass-fronted wooden display cabinet that offers a clue to the personalisation services in the basement.
The words on the case, in ’antique gold’, describe the “Polo made personal”, and on display is a white polo shirt with a box of coloured sewing threads beneath it and some of the tools associated with hand sewing. This is about tradition and making the shopper feel they are about to join a somewhat exclusive club.
Descend the stairs and the first of the three basement rooms is where shoppers can make a Polo Ralph Lauren polo shirt their own. A dark-wood counter has three iPads on it and is backed by an open-fronted wardrobe with polo shirts in multiple colours and sizes. Above this, the top of the wardrobe has what looks like a wooden board across it, but this is in fact a screen onto which the legend “The Polo Custom Shop” is projected, a moving needle and thread forming part of the image.
“There is a mild sense of having seen this perhaps in one of the bigger Abercrombie & Fitch stores, but music and scantily clad sales assistants are signally absent”
The reality, of course, is that hand-sewing forms no part of this process. Shoppers use the iPads to create their own breast pocket coat of arms in a range of colours and sizes, among other options, and the computer file outcome is then applied to a polo shirt via a linked sewing machine.
To the left of this area there is a room with a large ’pack and wrap’ counter backed by a wall-length screen. There is a mild sense of having seen this before, perhaps in one of the bigger Abercrombie & Fitch stores, but music and scantily clad sales assistants are notably absent.
Overhead, the centerpiece of the three rooms is an upturned wooden canoe and, as on the ground floor, it is the propping across all three spaces that does much of the work. Wooden cases of silverware, freestanding wood-framed mirrors and pictures of “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” (aka hunting scenes as pictured by Oscar Wilde), assist mood creation.
Selling Britain to the British
There is an almost total change of mood, however, when the journey is made up to womenswear on the first floor. Here all is cream, with mood spotlights being used to highlight product and backlit cream wardrobes helping to foster the sense of a late-20th-century luxury apartment. An Aztec-style rug and books featuring Ralph Lauren fashion make this a more relaxed floor, and good use is made of the large windows that face out onto Regent Street to allow natural daylight into the floor.
Beyond this, a smaller room houses the kidswear offer, and this time plush toy animals in preppy clothing, vintage toys and a model aeroplane overhead offer the appropriate ambiance.
“The English way of life has always inspired me. Their style has an ease that blends the most modern innovation with an innate appreciation for tradition”
Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren Corporation
A Ralph’s Coffee + Bar is set to open as part of the store later this autumn, following the lead set by its Fifth Avenue store, making the Regent Street store more or less a half-pint-sized version of the New York flagship. That said, this is about selling a version of the British identity to the British, something that Austin Reed, across the street until earlier this year, ultimately did not manage to do.
Ralph Lauren, the man behind the brand and chief creative officer of the Ralph Lauren Corporation, comments: “The English way of life has always inspired me. Their style has an ease that blends the most modern innovation with an innate appreciation for tradition.”
The arrival of Polo Ralph Lauren on Regent Street cements this part of the West End’s reputation as the home of lifestyle, and if you really want to understand what the word means in practice, this is one of the best places in which to find out.
Polo Ralph Lauren, Regent Street
September 15, 2016
17, 561 sq ft
Number of floors
The basement customisation area