Ralph Lauren executive David Lauren remembers this time, maybe 20 years ago, when a customer came into one of the brand’s stores hoping to buy their husband’s favorite polo: navy blue with the red pony logo. But an associate turned her away: sorry, they only had navy with a yellow pony logo that season. She left empty handed. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we just lost a customer,” David says, looking crestfallen.
So Lauren turned customization into the heart of his work, first engineering Polo’s website to allow it, and now taking that idea as far as he possibly can with a new Made-to-Order Polo program.
Made-to-Order Polo makes it possible for customers to design a polo almost completely from scratch. Ralph Lauren sets customers up with six bases, 24 colors, 10 different shades of logos (in either standard or super size), and the ability to embroider text on both cuffs. In Lauren’s telling, this is just the beginning—a way to acclimate customers to a new virtual design studio without overwhelming them. He promises there is much more on the horizon. “You might come back in July and you can put a giant polo player on the back,” he says. “You might come back in August and you can make the shirt tie dye. You might come back in September and it’s got 1,000 different colored stripes you can do”—he whips his fingers back and forth across his shirt drawing stripes in the air—“the combinations are going to become endless.” His own customized royal-blue polo—with the phrase “I 🖤 Polo” embroidered on both cuffs—is a sort of advertisement for the program.
At this point, customization isn’t just for the Savile Row shoppers of the world—it’s something shopper both high and low expect. Since 1999, Nike’s NikeID program has made it possible for sneakerheads to play with the colors and patterns on their favorite shoes. Gucci enables customers to design bags. You don’t even need to step into a shop to get a custom made-to-measure shirt from Sid Mashburn, and even brands like Cartier let their very best clients make their own unique pieces. The list goes on. This isn’t a new concept to Ralph Lauren, either—the brand offers a custom shop that includes sweaters, cardigans, hats, and even polos that can be printed with graphics of a customer’s choosing. The key difference here is the technology Ralph Lauren is using for the made-to-order polos. While previous customizable items have typically been the result of printing graphics on already existing items, now Ralph Lauren is knitting an item on demand. “There would be no shirt if you didn’t make it,” says David.
For Ralph Lauren, this program is really about reducing waste at every step of the design process. Compare that to the previous process, which involved involved producing a lot of different items and hoping they all resonated enough with customers to sell out. That rarely ever happened. “A good year, a good season, you sell half of” your allotment of, say, orange polo shirts, Lauren explains. “Maybe you sell 70% of it. And then what happens to the rest of that product? It probably gets discounted, and then maybe it goes to another store. Maybe it goes to an outlet. So there’s waste in that.” Right. The new program is also designed to generate and collect data about what customers are looking for. “We know what the consumer wants, because they’re actually telling us [with what] they’re making with us,” he explains.
Lauren compares this future-friendly way of making polos to Porsche’s efforts to combine the old with the new by dropping electric motors into classic editions. “If Porsche can turbocharge a classic Speedster and make it for the future,” he says. “We can turbocharge a polo shirt.” The better comparison for an all-American icon reimagined with designs on a less wasteful future, though, might be the new Ford F-150—the one with its electric engine. An electric pickup and a no-waste custom Polo: both as American as microwaved apple pie.