The label from the country of American Football brings Rugby, its new format, to Covent Garden in a European first.
Can it beat the Brits at their own game?
The Italians and the Americans love the English, or more accurately, they love an imagined version of Englishness, which boils down to being preppy. Polo Ralph Lauren has been around for ages, and walk the streets of any large Italian city and it won’t be long before you spot some sharply dressed gents sporting tweeds of the kind that would not disgrace a grouse moor.
And the Brits aren’t above doing something similar, as they export Englishness with the likes of Jack Wills opening on the East Coast of the US. For the most part, however, it’s US brands that are pulling off the trick of selling Britishness to the British and a couple of weeks ago, Ralph Lauren did it once more with the opening of a Ralph Lauren Rugby store in Covent Garden.
This is a first in Europe; the sub-brand has been up and running in the US since 2004 and plans are in place for a roll-out to major European cities when suitable locations are found.
The two-floor 4,490 sq ft store is in what is reputed to be the oldest building in Covent Garden. It dates from the late 1600s and has a grand exterior and the kind of interior that is perfect for anything issuing from the house of Ralph Lauren, where large acres of dark oak can be turned into open-fronted wardrobes and display tables.
In terms of fixtures and fittings, it bears a passing resemblance to Abercrombie & Fitch’s Savile Row flagship, but it’s a fair bet that Mr Lauren would deny this.
Key looks and merchandise mix
The clue’s in the name and much of the initial impression you are likely to form of this shop is based around heavy rugby shirts in a variety of colours and patterns (principally striped), where appliquéd numbers and crests adorn the front and back. The entry price for a rugby shirt is around the £79 mark, so in spite of a member of staff saying prices are very reasonable, this is at the top end of the mid-market, with Abercrombie & Fitch pricing in its sights.
The first part of the shop is concerned with Eton boating and Ivy League types, so tweed jackets, striped traders’ jackets, spotty scarves and white shirts are used to complete the look. You pass from here to the ‘Make Your Own’ area, essentially a small room in which shoppers can take a basic rugby shirt and then choose from a wide range of appliqués that can be sewn on while you wait.
So far, most of what is on offer is unisex in intent, but the remainder of the ground floor is devoted to womenswear, which in a rugby context translates as short floaty black or autumn floral dresses worn with aged leather bomber jackets. Gilets, chambray shirts and boyfriend jackets all feature as well.
Downstairs is entirely for men and is more or less what you might imagine, with more distressed leather jackets (top of the range at £699), brightly coloured crew and V-neck jumpers, and shirts that start at £69 and run up to £99 for a chambray number.
Jeans, in a variety of leg shapes, range from just over £100 to £200. For both genders, this is a tightly co-ordinated and styled collection and will do well with the Jack Wills, Hollister and Abercrombie crowd, although probably not with their financially stretched parents.
The trick to making something as basic as a rugby shirt enticing and desirable is visual merchandising and this is some of the best you are likely to encounter in the West End at the moment. Props range from vintage leather aviator jackets to beautifully dressed mannequins, all of which look as if they have stepped from the pages of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. Old hardbacks, a black Triumph motorcycle and a lot of framed pictures add to this, but it is to the credit of the VM team that the whole is considerably greater than the sum of the parts and everywhere you look there is something to capture the gaze.
There is a lot of competition in this market, but this is exceptional.
Speaking briefly to one of the members of staff, it turned out he was studying Economics at Southampton University and had previously worked at the Abercrombie & Fitch store. He was scrupulously polite and typified the highly styled and model-like people who appear to have been recruited to work here.
All were busy, but when asked anything they seemed to have the answers and were appealingly honest in their assessment of what would work and what wouldn’t, as well as commenting on the “value” of the stock.
Dark wood, dark wood, dark wood and a bit of white moulding around the ceiling. This goes a long way towards describing an interior that is redolent of old college libraries or some of the grander Thames-side rowing clubs. And if this sounds a little reductive, it isn’t, as everything has been carefully considered.
For the most part, the store is about open-fronted and backlit wardrobes around the perimeter, but boredom has been avoided by breaking the space into a series of rooms, rather than being satisfied with two large floors. It is also the little touches, such as the red neon sign announcing ‘Make Your Own’ that make this a store worth visiting – that and a very grand exterior, which Ralph Lauren has not played around with too much.
Would I buy?
Yes, although personally speaking the result might be a little mutton dressed as lamb. The prices are without doubt steep, but then this is Covent Garden so what do you expect? Overall the ambience is such that you can’t help but be taken in by the lifestyle and suddenly it might indeed seem reasonable to part with nearly £80 for a rugby shirt – I would never have thought this on entering the store.
Coals to Newcastle, oil to the Gulf or rugby shirts to central London. All would seem improbable, but Ralph Lauren Rugby succeeds and enters a crowded market with a flourish. It’s actually quite hard to see how this might be done better.
Address 43 King Street, London WC2E
Rugby Ralph Lauren launched 2004. It has stores in New York, Tokyo and major US cities
Store ambience An English Ivy League
Store design In-house
Future stores Major European cities, but no locations found yet