15432 Fri, 10/17/2008 - 2:05pm
In the beginning, there was Ralph. But there was also Dave, not to mention Marvin and Lester and Carl. And Whitney, too.
If Ralph Lauren was the name on the packages of his landmark home furnishings collection that debuted in 1983, then people like Dave Tracy especially, but also Marvin Traub, Lester Gribbetz, Carl Levine and even Whitney Stevens were the midwives who helped give birth to it.
Tracy, now an industry consultant, is generally acknowledged as the godfather of the Ralph Lauren Home program, which was launched by J. P. Stevens, the former textiles mill now part of WestPoint Home.
When Tracy joined the company as vice chairman, hired by mill head Stevens, he was charged with bringing in something radically different from the commodity products Stevens was known for.
“On my first day at Stevens, I called Ralph’s office at 9 a.m.,” he was recalling recently when he sat down with HFN. “He resisted at first, but we came up with the whole lifestyle concept and it was no longer just about sheets.
“Instead of every designer doing sheets and towels, we took the entire home, not just one room. We approached it as how do you want to live in your home. No one was doing it then.”
Tracy said Lauren was the one person to pull this off. “Ralph knew exactly what he wanted. From the very first product, he really showed his genius.”
But there was one other important player in this saga: “The other ingredient in this thing was Marvin Traub (head of Bloomingdale’s then).” With two strong personalities each successful in what they were doing, Tracy said, “It was like managing wild tigers without a whip when there was a meeting between Ralph and Marvin.”
“We were enormous believers in Ralph,” Traub, who now heads up his own consulting company, said. “Lester [Gribbetz], Carl [Levine, both former store executives] and I had discussions about the potential for Ralph Lauren Home.
“It was a unique step forward in the emphasis on high fashion, housed in its own shop,” Traub said. “It quickly became the leading textiles brand at Bloomingdale’s.”
Not that it was all smooth sailing. Tracy said the mill had enormous problems making some of the products and handling the huge number of SKUs involved. Both he and Traub remember that the line was not a big success until stores were allowed to promote it through regular White Sales, a no-no at first.
“The first couple of seasons we lost money,” Tracy said, “but toward the end of the second year, we knew we had it.”
They did have it. The line has gone on to be, without question, the all-time best selling brand in home for the upstairs trade. It set the business model for shop-in-shops, cross-category coordination and even wholesale structure for a generation of brands that have followed.
For Tracy, who also helped launch both Royal Velvet and Calvin Klein Home, Ralph Lauren was the highlight of his career. “Yeah, it’s my legacy, although I’ve always been equally as proud of bringing women into the business.”
Could such a launch be done again today? “It would have to be a powerful, must-have concept that changes the horizon.” — Warren Shoulberg