On Wednesday night, a full three weeks before the real start of the holiday shopping season, a group of pedestrians and cordoned-off VIPs will gather in the cold to watch what must be the most extravagant commercial ever made.
It is a seven-minute ad for Ralph Lauren, to be projected onto the facades of the brand’s flagship stores in London and New York, although “ad” hardly describes the thing. Seeing it, or a pared-down, 2-D version, doesn’t help much either. Ralph Lauren calls the project “a historic fusion of art, fashion, and technology” but really it’s more like window shopping. In The Matrix. On peyote.
If all goes according to plan, onlookers will be enveloped in a four-dimensional, multisensual experience of the Ralph Lauren Lifestyle. It’s not about convincing recession-spooked consumers to buy one thing—a $98 Skinny-Fit Big Pony Polo, say—but to buy everything: the whole, glamorous, Milford-educated, New World WASP aesthetic; the cashmere, the Nantucket winters, the ponies. Near the end of the event, which involves holograms, fragrance-blasts, and proprietary architectural mapping technology, two teams of polo players, each four stories tall, will swing their mallets over Madison Avenue.
The ad—the “fusion”—is the brainchild of David Lauren, Ralph’s son, boyfriend to Lauren Bush, and the company’s digital visionary. It’s the latest in a long line of new-media ventures that have allowed the brand to gallop far ahead of many of its fashion-world competitors, technologically speaking.
“At first my father told the story just through his designs,” says David Lauren. “Now we’re constantly looking for new ways to tell that story through innovation and technology.”
“Ralph Lauren has always had a story,” David says. “At first my father told the story just through his designs. Now we’re constantly looking for new ways to tell that story through innovation and technology.”
Watch the full Ralph Lauren 4D ad.
The Laurens father and son, “best friends” in David’s words, have a name for this approach to marketing their brand. They call it “merchentainment,” and it’s exactly as it sounds: finding every possible way to turn the acquisition of a $100 Polo shirt into an expression of one’s humanity. It’s not just buying stuff, it’s life!
While most other industries have embraced the Internet by now, large segments of the fashion business barely acknowledge the 20th century, let alone the 21st. For years, designers and editors have wrung their hands about “the rise of fashion bloggers.” Many major brands still don’t have e-commerce sites. An article this fall in The Wall Street Journal announced, “Fashion Week Embraces Computers!”
Ralph Lauren Media embraced computers a decade ago, via David, an aspiring media tycoon, who started Swing, a lifestyle magazine for Generation X, and then joined the family business. Under his stewardship, Ralph Lauren was the first luxury brand to have an e-commerce site, the first to have a sales platform for mobile devices, the first to use QR codes, those retail Rorschach blotches you scan with your phone. RalphLauren.com started as a joint venture with NBC in 2000 and has evolved into a whole media universe, with original content, articles, videos, live-stream tennis lessons from Boris Becker and Venus Williams, and, as of this summer, outside advertising (from Mercedes-Benz).
This digital bear-hug at first seems incongruous for a brand whose style is so unflinchingly “classic.” Shouldn’t Balenciaga or Alexander Wang or some downtown darling be the one projecting handbags onto buildings? Instead it’s Ralph Lifshitz’s 40-year-old clothing company that got the jump. “Print media just felt so constraining,” David says. And so they expanded, and expanded. One thing led to another, and many millions of dollars later—Lauren declines to specify costs—an in-house technology studio emerged.
What David Lauren was among the first to realize, and what designers like Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, who simulcast his last two fashion shows in 3-D, and Wang, who just launched an e-commerce site this year, have begun to accept, is that in 2010, people don’t buy shirts anymore, they buy shirt experiences. Shopping’s aspiration-to-consumption ratio is approaching infinity. The brand that gives the best experience wins.
“In a Ralph Lauren store today, you can create your own polo shirt, with your own monograms, or your own engraving, all while sitting in front of a beautiful fireplace while someone serves you tea,” David says. “And the shirt will be ready within 20 minutes.” As of a couple of weeks ago, you can do this on an iPad.
Wednesday night’s spectacle takes the philosophy of “merchentainment” to a level that should inspire fear in ad-supported content companies everywhere. In theory, the ad will now be the content (and the ad will have ads of its own).
Come 8 p.m. ET, giant models will strut down towering catwalks, buildings will collapse and rebuild themselves in midair. It is “the future” as envisioned by so many movies from the 1990s. And at the end, a giant holographic Ralph Lauren will lean out of the corner of his Upper East Side mansion and wave at the real Ralph Lauren, standing on the street below.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.