Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review of Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren by Michael Gross

I said that I was not going to read business biographies anymore, but I didn't say I wouldn't review ones I've already read before I toss them. Genuine Authentic is an unflattering, unauthorized biography of billionaire Ralph Lauren.

You could read this book as a good look into how clothing labels (and brand licensing) work, but here are the highlights that I thought were most interesting:

  • "You have to admire someone who took the 1959 L.L. Bean catalog and a pad of tracing paper and turned it into the best part of a billion dollars."
  • [Michel Zelnik, the president of Bidermann in America] quickly moved production of the most important of those basics [to] Hong Kong. Although Chinese manufacturing was still considered second-rate, Zelnik knew better... [he] showed Ralph samples of knit shirts made in China, and Ralph couldn't tell the difference between them and ones made in Maine. Lower production costs led to lower prices and higher volume. "Ralph would still be a losing proposition if Michel hadn't gone to Hong Kong with the Polo pony to get the gross margins"
  • The mood in the Polosphere was grim at the dawn of 1994. "Sales are falling off, the numbers aren't there, he's pouring millions into Double RL" [...] Ralph's name could still sell goods in significant numbers, indeed more than ever before, but they would have to be at the low-priced end of the fashion market. The profits cheaper goods generated could then be used to support the crucial illusion that Polo was still a luxury brand by, for instance, supporting dubious ventures like Double RL. That illusion, in turn, would sell more low-priced goods to customers who aspired to be better and wore the Polo logo as a totem of their desires.
  • The [outlet] division was named Factory Outlets of America, as a way of separating it from Lauren, who didn't even like his full-price stores. "He hates dealing with customers [...] he's geniunely shy, and, anyway, it shatters the dream because he sees it's not all models wearing his clothes." So the outlets were "[RL exec] Peter's little secret... I'm not aware Ralph knew how many we had. He had no idea what they looked like"
  • It wasn't only employees who felt Ralph's wrath. "He's not the most pleasant guy in the best of times [...] Twenty-five percent of the time, he hates you, he hates his coffee, he hates the world." Once when Michael Ovitz, then the head of Creative Artists Agency, failed to get a star to turn up at a party for Lauren, as promised, "Ralph called him and harangued [...] Just streams of abuse! He wants people to be scared of him and to think he's tough."
  • Walker ended his life with bad feelings toward his boss. "Ralph had no loyalty to him after he wasn't of use anymore [...] the last weekend, everyone knew he was dying, but Ralph wouldn't visit him. Ralph had to be talked into having [Walker's] memorial at the store."
Assuming that these selections really capture who Lauren is, what Polo/Ralph Lauren is, and how they got where they are (riding a wave of WASP nostalgia), then Lauren sounds like a flawed, narcissistic man like Steve Jobs and many other billionaires.

There aren't very many psychologically healthy billionaires. That's because it's hard to become one and still (a) spend time with your family, (b) avoid the risk of ruining them, (c) be loyal to friends/business partners, and (d) not reach a point of diminishing returns on wealth and want to have other pursuits.

I like Drexler a lot better, because he can speak very intelligently about his business, although I haven't read a critical biography of him. I can't imagine that Lauren could sit on a stage and chat about clothing retail the way Drexler does. And I don't think that Drexler hates his customers - you'll notice he is really interested to talk to potential customers in the audience. I suspect that if you spent a day with Drexler and a day with Lauren, you would think that Drexler is the much more successful merchant, when the opposite has turned out to be the case.

I give this a 3/5 for capturing Lauren's character well, but without the type of details that you need the subject's participation to get, and with a sample size of one, there is only so good the book could be.

No comments: