A few weeks ago I wandered over to the new Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. While I do love the oxfords and classic north east aesthetic proffered by Polo Ralph Lauren, I wasn’t there to shop. Rather, I was there to get a cup of coffee at Ralph’s, the standalone coffee shop on the second floor of the space. It is comfortably furnished with white benches, the sort of seats you wished you could find in Central Park, and pale marble table tops, the kind of tables you would never dream of finding in Central Park.
I purchased my iced coffee from the friendly barista dressed in the Ralph’s uniform of dark jeans and a club collar oxford with a forest green knit tie, and turned to find an open table where I could sit and soak in a little bit more of the ambiance. As I scanned the room, my eye lingered on a table with a reserved sign nestled alongside two half-empty cappuccinos. Around the table sat two beautiful women straight from the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog, a man in a Purple Label pinstripe suit, the kind that seems to never age, and at the heart of this table, in an RLX vest, matching black sweater and jeans, the man himself; Mr. Ralph Lauren.
The presence of Ralph Lauren in his own store’s coffee shop, at a table where at least four of his labels were being worn, got me thinking about what it means to be a lifestyle brand.
One of the key components of peddling a lifestyle is authenticity. You want customers to buy in to your vision, yet Ralph Lauren’s brand umbrella covers everything from Wasps to Cowboys. Can you be authentically schizophrenic?
In this instance, I think authenticity is derived from fidelity to the history and quality of the product. Clearly Ralph Lauren didn't grow up wrangling cattle, yet RRL creates some of the best chambray shirts and selvedge jeans you can find outside of Japan (an entirely separate topic best left for another day). The authenticity comes not from Ralph Lauren’s own story, but rather from an appreciation of what makes this lifestyle aspirational and a desire to do service to the originals. Mr. Lauren creates clothing for the lifestyles he grew up admiring, bringing his own vision to lives he could only see by looking on from the outside.
Leaving Ralph Lauren aside, this new form of authenticity is perhaps best seen today in the world of surf brands. Surf culture has been associated with the long blond locks and low-key vibe around California and Hawaii ever since the Beach Boys went on their Surfin’ Safari. Two of the best brands interpreting surf culture today, however, come from the Atlantic Ocean: Saturdays Surf from New York City, and Cuisse de Grenouille from Paris. They’ve taken the relaxation and tranquility that is at the core of the culture’s ethos and blended it with elements of their own locations. Saturday’s uses a lot of color blocking and a slightly darker palette more aligned with their Soho roots, while Cuisse de Grenouille plays with fabrics and cuts garments in a distinctly clean European manner. Think a slim cotton sweatshirt with terry cloth embossed logos.
By transplanting surf culture, and blending it with their own experiences, both Saturdays Surf and Cuisse de Grenouille have created new iterations of surf culture. Cultures that are equal parts homage to the original and authentically their own. It may not be the Beach Boys, “mahalos,” and salty blonde locks. It doesn’t have to be. Authenticity today isn’t wrapped up in the original. Instead, it is about crafting a narrative surrounding your brand. Both Saturday’s Surf and Cuisse de Grenouille have distilled the aspirational elements of the original surf culture and applied them to their own geography and aesthetic sensibility. The resulting blend is what being a lifestyle brand is about. Be faithful to the originals, but stamp them with your own experiences. When in doubt look back to Ralph Lauren, he probably won’t steer you wrong.