LONDON, United Kingdom — On Thursday in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, three billboards signalled the arrival of a surprising new fashion collaboration. On a navy-blue background, Polo Ralph Lauren’s signature pony appeared above bold italic lettering spelling “Palace.”
“That tells you everything you need to know right there,” said Lev Tanju, founder of Palace, the London streetwear brand founded in 2009 and best known for its skater-inflected counterculture irreverence, 1990s British working class-inspired aesthetic and loyal fans, many of them teenagers (and their dads), who queue for its product drops.
In line with Palace’s approach to retail — regularly releasing limited batches of surprise product much like streetwear juggernaut Supreme, which originally distributed the label — many of the details of its Polo Ralph Lauren collaboration remain under wraps. But Tanju and co-owner Gareth Skewis spoke exclusively to BoF about the tie-up.
The resulting collection — which consists of menswear items like tops, pants, outerwear and accessories, including a classic Polo Oxford button-down shirt featuring the logos of both brands — is set to drop “imminently” and was inspired by Polo pieces that Tanju and Skewis have worn throughout their lives. “It’s the only brand that you can wear to a board meeting, a funeral and go to the football in — and all in the same day,” said Skewis. Price points will be consistent with Palace’s usual offering, where a t-shirt can go for $60 and a jacket can go for $230.
For Palace, which operates only two retail stores (in London and New York) and has purposely limited its wholesale partnerships, the collaboration with Ralph Lauren will surely offer added exposure to a wider audience, much like its partnerships with Reebok, Umbro and Adidas. When German tennis player Angelique Kerber beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in July, she did so while wearing an Adidas-Palace dress, netting the streetwear label global exposure.
But Tanju and Skewis said their approach to the collaboration was driven by a genuine love for the Ralph Lauren brand and gut instinct more than a calculated business strategy. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels and do boring stuff; we want to keep it fun and exciting,” explained Tanju. “It’s not about some insane end goal that we need to get to,” added Skewis.
Unlike Supreme, which releases new co-branded products almost every week, Palace has taken a more tightly curated approach. “Collaborations — it’s what people do now, it’s like seasons,” continued Skewis. “For me and Lev, this is a massive moment for us and a real pinnacle.”
Last year, private equity giant Carlyle paid around $500 million for a 50 percent stake in Supreme in a deal that valued the business at over $1 billion. But Palace, which is much smaller scale but fast-growing, has yet to take external investment and is controlled by Tanju and Skewis through an entity called GSLT Holdings of which they are the sole directors. According to filings made with Companies House in the UK, Palace Skateboards Limited, the main trading company, did about £25.9 million in turnover in the year from 12 January 2017 to 31 January 2018, up about 79 percent from £14.4 million the previous year.
For Ralph Lauren, the collaboration with Palace is the latest signal that the brand is ready to embrace the booming streetwear market, following in the footsteps of European luxury rivals like Louis Vuitton, which unveiled a blockbuster collaboration with Supreme in 2017 and, earlier this year, hired Virgil Abloh, founder of luxury streetwear label Off-White, to oversee its men’s collections.
The link between Ralph Lauren and streetwear may seem tenuous at first. After all, the American giant is best known for a preppie-western aesthetic. But the look has long influenced street culture and, at the brand’s peak, became a status symbol for millions of urban consumers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a Brooklyn gang of Ralph Lauren fans calling themselves the Lo Lifes stole and proudly displayed large volumes of Polo Ralph Lauren garments, injecting the brand into street culture. “I was definitely inspired by Lo Lifes,” rapper Raekwon told Howl in reference to a 1994 Wu Tang Clan video in which he wore a Ralph Lauren windbreaker.
But as street culture has gone mainstream, turning labels like Supreme into major businesses, Ralph Lauren hasn’t reaped the benefits. Now in its 50th year, the company is struggling to connect with young consumers and generated nearly a billion dollars less revenue in its most recent fiscal year than it did two years before. In June, Ralph Lauren unveiled a new strategy to boost sales by $1 billion over five years. This includes $100 million in additional marketing.
As part of the plan, Ralph Lauren is aiming to create new relevance with millennials by tapping internet-driven nostalgia for its streetwear legacy through re-releases. Earlier this year, Ralph Lauren revived some of its classic 1990s collections, including the Stadium, Snow Beach and Hi Tech lines that were popular with hip-hop and street culture figures.
Ralph Lauren declined to comment for this story.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 22 October, 2018. An earlier version of this article misstated that Lev Tanju said “It’s the only brand that you can wear to a board meeting, a funeral and go to the football in — and all in the same day." This is incorrect. The quote is by Gareth Skewis.