I know its naïve to think that anything is safe from advertising and branding these days. In fact, just two weeks ago Hyperallergic’s contributor Alex Cavaluzzo listed the top ten objects with unnecessary designer labels that included everything from the kind of expected (a Missoni bicycle) to the absolutely absurd (Cynthia Rowley diapers). While I shrugged off these items as kitschy designer ephemera, something about Ralph Lauren’s ad campaign for his new “dressed-down” label, Denim & Supply, rubbed me the wrong way.
Maybe it was this passage from the Denim & Supply Journal, which is really just a catalogue disguised as something more, that brought on the first waves of nausea:
Denim & Supply was born out of the warehouse and artist communities of Brooklyn, New York — young painters, poets, musicians and visionaries working together to generate a creative spirit in the middle of the city. Denim & Supply captures the unique, effortless style of clothes that live and breathe individuality. It’s something rare or weathered that you find along the way and feel connected to, instantly. Moody, eclectic & carefree, it’s the next generation of down-to-earth dressing.
While I realize that Ralph Lauren is simply trying to redefine his image as casual, cool and laid back, I could not get past how poorly the designer fakes it. The pages that follow feel almost like a Saturday Night Live skit of the Brooklyn fantasy that replaces real people and artists with models doing “artsy” things like playing piano, sketching in notebooks and doing card tricks, all while looking moody. The clothes themselves breathe nothing of individual style, but instead are trite and tired-trends (tattered jeans, plaid shirts and Native American prints) that Ralph Lauren attempts to inject new life into by latching onto the buzz surrounding Brooklyn.
While I see nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from a thriving artistic center, it’s the way that Ralph Lauren acts as if they are the ones who have discovered this demographic that bothers me.
The cover of the Journal sums up the company’s attitude perfectly. Four of the models saunter in front of a Brooklyn warehouse, which at first I took for the new Denim & Supply store. On closer inspection, though, the building looks suspiciously similar to the historic Tobacco Warehouse, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge, or at the very least one nearby onto which Ralph Lauren has Photoshopped “Denim & Supply” onto the façade. Considering Ralph Lauren’s obsession with turning streets of New York into his own kingdom (71st to 72nd street on Madison Avenue is lined with RL stores, including the Mansion and the newly built Chateau), his literal branding of a Brooklyn building is a move that marks the “warehouse communities” as his new territory.
The Ralph Lauren marketing team clearly did their research to try to blend into their new terrain, but the result is a bit like an out of touch parent aping the styles of their younger, and much hipper kids. In the “We Heart Brooklyn, NY” section of the Journal, Brooklyn hot spots like Roberta’s pizzeria and Journal Gallery make the list. Both are already well-known and possibly over-exposed to anyone familiar with Brooklyn. But the real zinger on this page has to be the top quote:
You’ve probably heard that Brooklyn is a pretty groovy place — not just because it was one of Ralph Lauren’s inspirations for Denim & Supply.
Yes, we’ve heard Ralph, and, no, it’s not because of you.
In an attempt to shove more “individuality” into the campaign, the online version of the Journal also includes a series of warehouse screen tests that introduces the models, or “creative friends,” as the RL website refers to them. The optimist in me thought that maybe, just maybe, these ridiculously good-looking people were working artists from Brooklyn that Ralph Lauren had decided to feature in the Journal. At least then the company would be attempting, however superficially, to support the community they are also exploiting, as ad campaigns often do. But clearly I need to be more cynical.
After watching a few of the screen tests, it seems that the closest affiliation these models have with art comes from “looking at architecture,” as Julia from Sweden says in her video, or philosophizing about individuals in society while pouting, like Thiago. It’s possible that these individuals are artists who have something to say, but Ralph Lauren is less than interested.
The branding of Brooklyn is, of course, not a novel thing. In 2007 the Gap came out with the “Williamsburg” skinny cut jean, while the clothing company Deth Killers, which boasts the tag line, “Practically Guaranteed, Bushwick, Bklyn. New York,” is notorious for cashing in on the style of rival motorcycling clubs from Brooklyn back in the day. Yet at least Deth Killers was born out of a part of Brooklyn culture, even if its now commercial culture. Ralph Lauren, on the other hand, belongs on the runway and Madison Avenue, and has no business tapping into a community that is almost antithetical to its high-fashion image.
After all that, probably the most condescending aspect (yet least surprising) of Denim & Supply is the price tag. I’d like to know who exactly is the customer for Denim & Supply? Surely Ralph Lauren doesn’t expect the actual artists who so inspired this line to be able to afford its price point, especially with one of the cheaper items being a jersey graphic tank for a mere $49.50. Denim & Supply is a line that is sure to thrive in department stores where customers can purchase the Brooklyn artist experience without ever having to cross the bridge or, let’s be honest, the shopping mall parking lot. While the line turns my stomach a bit, it also gives me cause to worry about areas of Brooklyn becoming strip malls themselves if more designers choose to follow in Ralph Lauren’s footsteps.