Some day in the future, Ralph Lauren stores may not have any merchandise in them. At least that’s what chief innovation officer David Lauren envisions. Instead, you’ll chat with an in-store expert about the outfit of your dreams—a teal polo or a red linen summer dress, perhaps—and the brand will make it for you on demand.
Lauren has always been interested in how technology could transform the fashion industry. As the son of the brand’s namesake founder, he joined the family business in 2000 and crafted a role for himself as its first head of innovation. He’s helped usher the classic American brand into the 21st century through projects like interactive screens in stores in 2007 and a shoppable virtual fashion show in 2009.
Now, Lauren’s goal is to let customers create the product of their dreams from scratch, a reality he believes is only a few years away. Ralph Lauren is currently piloting “Create Your Own” garments online. Over the holidays, customers were able to design their own outerwear, mixing and matching hundreds of colors option to create down vests and jackets. And last month, Ralph Lauren unveiled the custom polo, which lets customers design their own version of the brand’s most iconic product.
Behind the scenes, Lauren says the company is building out the technology and infrastructure to eventually make all garments on demand. It’s a major investment, but he believes it will give the brand a competitive edge in the years to come.
Fast Company: What attracts you to customization?
David Lauren: Our company first started customization 20 years ago. We were among the first online stores where you could monogram a product, change its color, or pick a patch. At the time, this was very new because the supply chain for customization didn’t exist. But now that the technology has advanced, you see many brands doing it when you stroll along Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue.
So we [wanted] to do something more dramatic. We want to allow our customer to design entire products from scratch. We started with our icon, the polo shirt. It’s our version of the Levi’s 501 or the Nike Air Jordan. We’ve started with a limited set of color combinations, to introduce the customer to the concept and not overwhelm them. You can change the color of the collar or the sleeve. You can emblazon words on it. But over the next year, we’re going to flex up to millions of combinations, down to picking the color and design of each button.
But this is really just the beginning. This custom polo represents the future of Ralph Lauren. Imagine going to a store where [there aren’t] products, but you say, “I would like an orange polo shirt please.” We will help you design that that shirt—or you could do it online—and we’ll make that one shirt for you in your size.
But the bigger idea here is not personalization or customization: it’s on-demand manufacturing. It means there is no waste. We’re not just creating a bunch of orange shirts and hoping they all sell. We’re just creating that one orange shirt for you.
Why do you think customers are interested in on demand?
For one thing, it’s really fun, theatrical, and exciting. The customer can cocreate the product with us, in their specific size. They can create a piece they really love and that they will actually wear repeatedly. This is an engaging experience for them that can nurture more brand loyalty.
But this is actually a much more sustainable approach to fashion and we know the customer is very concerned about sustainability. Take that stack of orange shirts in the store. In a good season, we sell between 50% and 70% of them, then the rest of the product is marked down. You might put it back on a truck to ship somewhere else. Eventually, products that just don’t sell will be discarded.
With [on demand], the customer knows there’s no waste. And for us, as a brand, we aren’t selling products cheaply just to get them off our shelves. We’re not diluting the brand with sales.
Right now, we’re used to on-demand streaming services like Netflix. But in five years, I believe that clothing will truly be on demand. We’ll be creating products based on exactly what a customer wants, and give it to them when they want it. You’ll never again walk into a store and say, “I love this shirt, but I wish it had a blue collar.”
How hard was it to develop a supply chain for this new on-demand approach?
It’s something we’re currently building out. The custom polo shirts are now being made on the West Coast, so they are delivered to the customer two weeks after they order. But we’re getting ready to build out supply chains for on-demand Oxford shirts, chinos, jeans, blazers, and more.
But going forward, our goal is to manufacture these products as close to the customer as possible. If you’re in London, we’ll make the shirt in London. We want to cut back on the environmental costs of shipping and distribution. There’s a lot more work we need to do to be truly sustainable, but that’s the direction we’re going.
Most consumers aren’t used to designing their own clothes, so it can be overwhelming to design an entire garment from scratch. How are you tackling that?
No doubt, it can be overwhelming. So we have to keep the interaction simple and give the customer templates and color combinations that are easy to work with. It has got to be fun.
But I do think there’s room for more combinations and creativity without making it complicated. It’s all about how we design the interface.
My ultimate goal is for people to come here with a vision in their head and be able to create whatever they want. If you want tie dye or stripes on your garment, we’ll do that for you. If there’s any color you can dream of, we want you to be able to make it in your color. Over the next year, we’re going to be aggressively moving in this direction.
How did you build all of this infrastructure in the midst of the pandemic?
I think the pandemic transformed our company in many ways. It stimulated movement. Everyone thought things would slow down during the crisis, but they actually sped up. We began accelerating our plans for customization, for instance, because there was all of this energy to keep the brand moving forward. We accelerated our five-year plan, to accomplish it in 18 months.
But at a deeper level, the pandemic made many of us think about what really matters in the world. Our employees wanted to do things that gave them meaning. Sustainability was a huge part of it, and it’s part of the reason our employees are so committed to customization.