Have luxury powerhouses Prada and Ralph Lauren reached institutional lifestyle brand status?

Both listed companies, yet still run by the founding families, Ralph Lauren and Prada are nowadays two of the world’s biggest powerhouses in luxury, which have moved beyond an apparel label and ascended to the status of an institutional liftesyle brand. Each house has been religiously preserving its national identity which is part of their DNA, for Prada Italy and for Ralph Lauren, the U.S. The Laurens, much like the Bertellis maintain full control over their companies, from creative direction, design, production, distribution and marketing.

But probably the most important similarity that both companies share is the strength of the brand each created. In an interview, David Lauren, who is responsible for the Ralph Lauren brand identity said ”What makes something Ralph Lauren is both defined and indefinable. It is the biggest mystery, with the clearest message” adding ”We always say that it is never about a single shirt, or a pair of pants, or a suit, or a gown. It is about an attitude and a spirit.”. He also proudly remarks that although only 40 years old, the Ralph Lauren brand seems to have been around forever and the biggest achievement of his company is the use of the name as an adjective – people today saying ”That’s so Ralph Lauren”.

Although set up in 1913 by the Prada brothers as a shop for leather goods and imported English steamer trunks and handbags, Prada saw its true success in 1978 when Miuccia Prada took over from her mother. In 1978 she met Patrizio Bertelli, her future husband, who became the business brain behind her company. In the early 80s, Prada products were already sold in department stores and in 1983 the first Prada store opened in Milan’s Galeria Vittorio Emmanuele II. Soon after marrying Patrizio Bertelli in 1987, Prada launched her first clothing line.

While Ralph Lauren embodies a unique classic elegance, PRADA is defined by its forever contemporary creative spirit, uniquely blended with Italian traditional craftsmanship, especially in leather goods. Each season, Miuccia never ceases to amaze consumers by bringing up the most surprising and creative designs, all but different, which is also a defining factor of the brand.

Take for instance, Prada’s unusual approach to online campaigns, which appear, at times, ambiguous and lacking purpose. The latest such example is the Paralel Universes campaign by Prada online, with a micro website and on Facebook which portrays a series of abstract drawings, each reflecting a particular Prada new product.

Probably the best illustration of how PRADA ascends to an institutional lifestyle luxury brand is Miuccia Prada’s love for contemporary art. As early as this week, Prada organized a spectacular art installation at Prada’s New York Epicentre at 575, Broadway, honouring the upcoming opening of Schiaparelli and Prada : Impossible Conversations exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 10th. The exhibit which will run until August 12th has been organized in collaboration with The Costume Institute.

Prada’s fusion with contemporary art is ever present at all catwalk shows, in some cases going beyond imagination. Take for instance Prada’s Spring Summer 2012 catwalk show which took place at its headquarters. For the occasion, Miuccia Prada together with AMO transformed the venue into an asphalt road, complete with foam cars and subway grids lit from below. Or the Prada Spring Summer Menswear catwalk, for which Miuccia Prada and AMO created a seating configuration comprising a ‘field’ of 600 cornflower blue foam blocks spread out on top of bright green artificial grass

Photos in the gallery speak for themselves…

Similarly to Ralph Lauren, Prada is almost impossible to define, both brands being a reflection of a unique lifestyle spirit, which the founders have instilled – Ralph Lauren with its timeless classic elegance and Prada with its ever vibrant modernity and abstract feel. The unique spirit of each brand is impeccably reflected both in their stores (Ralph Lauren’s sophisticated and lavish mansions and Prada’s ultra sleek and modern stores) as well as online – Ralph Lauren’s luxurious home feel versus Prada’s abstract design.

Despite the different styles, both brands share the utmost in innovation – both brands putting emphasis on technology, especially in terms of visual – large photos and ambedded short movies.

As for brand awareness techniques, both brands have placed exceptional importance on association with sports. Nowadays, both Prada and Ralph Lauren are outfitters of their national Olympic sports teams, while each brand has a different focus on particular sports – Ralph Lauren has been a major supporter of tennis, being a traditional sponsor of Wimbledon and US Open, two of the world’s most prestigious tennis events. Prada has been actively involved in sailing, with its team participating at major competitions such as America’s Cup.

What better way to reflect on Ralph Lauren’s unique American luxury lifestyle elegance than to draw inspiration on the Jazz Age. The latest Ralph Lauren magazine features an impeccable editorial entitled ”The Flapper flair” http://global.ralphlauren.com/en-us/Magazine/Editorial/Sp12/Pages/gatsbystyle.aspx. It draws paralel between Ralph Lauren’s exquisit Spring Summer 2012 elegant gowns and Mia Farrow playing Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, 1974. As for events, last year’s lavish, yet sophisticated An Evening with Rallph Lauren charity Gala Dinner, co-hosted by nonone other than America’s television icon Oprah Winfrey, is yet another example of how the Raph Lauren brand is so much more than clothing.

In terms of business, both companies have been shifting, in the past years, towards distribution through directly operated stores, to better control the identity of the brand. Both companies have been putting an emphasis on Asia, however, Ralph Lauren lags behind Prada which makes over 42% of its turnover in Asia. There are also important differences between the two brands in other markets such as Russia, where Prada operates directly 8 stores while Ralph Lauren operates in franchising only 3 stores. As for India, both brands seem to have adopted a similar cautious policy, none of the companies being present, as yet. When it comes to online sales, Prada still has a lot to catch up with Ralph Lauren, one of the pioneers of e-commerce.

Oliver Petcu