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Ralph Lauren eyes performance crowd

By JOHN STEINBREDER
Senior Writer

Ralph Lauren is getting younger, fitter and more technical.

Such are the changes featured in a new line from one of golf’s fashion vanguards. Ralph Lauren’s RLX Golf complements the traditional offerings of flagship Polo Golf with performance wear featuring advanced moisture wicking and ventilation systems, and lightweight outerwear that is waterproof and wind resistant.

After a soft launch in fall 2006, Ralph Lauren has been rolling out RLX in full force this year, with PGA Tour star Luke Donald serving as its ambassador. RLX reflects the company’s push to reach hip, athletic-minded players who have been fueling the performance apparel craze – and making techno-wares of Adidas Golf and Nike Golf such hot commodities.

But industry watchers say the move also marks an effort to bolster Polo Golf, which has lost business to upstart competitors such as Fairway & Greene and Peter Millar. Polo Golf has annual sales of more than $40 million, according to a source familiar with its operations. Several observers say the new direction makes good sense, but others question the strategy’s execution and the impact RLX may have on Polo Golf.

“Polo is such a great name, and Ralph Lauren is second to none as a marketer. But I can’t help but think that something like Polo Performance might not have been better,” says Craig Kirchner, a Maryland-based retail consultant who works with a dozen prominent golf shops in the Mid-Atlantic region. “Both Izod and Ashworth have found that consumers don’t always catch up with a company that creates alternate brands with different names.”

Nevertheless, retailers seem more than willing to experiment with RLX. But not all of the orders for the new line will be a net gain for Ralph Lauren.

“I plan to have a full line of RLX in my shop, but I am doing that by pushing some of our dollars currently allocated for Polo Golf to that brand,” says Gregor Jamieson, director of golf at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, Fla.

Other strategic concerns confront Ralph Lauren, as well. As robust as performance wear sales are now, not all in the industry are convinced that the boom will last.

Some question diverting resources to RLX while Ralph Lauren’s core brand, Polo Golf, is under intense pressure from rivals. It also is a gamble to think Ralph Lauren, best known as a fashion brand, has the cache to persuade cutting-edge consumers that it can create better technical fabrics than Nike and Adidas, which have long histories in performance wear.

Furthermore, critics say, Ralph Lauren can’t even count on Polo Golf loyalists to spend additional dollars and support the new brand. After all, “better fitted” apparel may not appeal to older golfers with expanding girths who may prefer loose, oversized cotton shirts.

Executives at Ralph Lauren, who don’t participate in media interviews as a matter of corporate policy, dismiss such negative scenarios. Their official comment: RLX, with its deft styling, high performance and new technology, will draw even more attention to the entire category and lift all boats.

Though golf apparel featuring the RLX appellation is new, the brand itself has been around for nearly a decade. RLX was established in 1999 by fashion designer Ralph Lauren with a mission to create technical offerings for sports such as sailing, skiing and cycling. It competes with the likes of outdoor icons Patagonia and North Face.

A few years ago, Lauren began adding items for golf, employing ideas from his designers who were creating other RLX products. The advent of fierce competition in the premium apparel market coupled with rapid growth of the performance segment compelled him to accelerate the initiative.

RLX Golf started with a limited offering of men’s golf apparel last fall, marketed under the tag line: “Luxury. Technology. Performance.”

Buoyed by a positive initial reaction, the company expanded RLX and now offers extensive men’s and women’s lines distributed in the United States, Europe and Asia. (Polo Golf, however, won’t disclose how many of its estimated 2,500 on- and off-course U.S. accounts carry the RLX line.) Last winter, officials extended their relationship with Donald – the stylish Englishman for whom Polo had been an exclusive apparel sponsor since 2002 – to be the brand spokesman for RLX through 2012.

Kirchner says some of his clients’ shops will carry the spring 2008 RLX lines. Though RLX may have doubters, he says, retailers can’t afford not to carry a fair share
and sample of performance wear.

“It is most definitely cutting into the cotton business, and among older guys, too,” Kirchner says. “Therefore, it makes sense to sign on with something like RLX.”

• • •

John Steinbreder is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail jsteinbreder@golfweek.com.

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