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A Sip of Ralph Lauren

By Guan Tan

The Hong Kong outpost of Ralph’s Coffee offers a selection of organically grown coffee alongside chocolates from Brooklyn-based chocolatier, Fine & Raw.
 
The Hong Kong outpost of Ralph’s Coffee offers a selection of organically grown coffee alongside chocolates from Brooklyn-based chocolatier, Fine & Raw.

When the Ralph Lauren company reopened its flagship store located in Hong Kong’s luxury shopping belt, Tsim Sha Tsui, it also took the opportunity to introduce its lifestyle offering, that of an in-store coffee counter, Ralph’s Coffee. The brand already has similar coffee counters in its stores in Chicago, New York, London and Paris. 

Why a coffee counter within the store? To get my answers, I ordered an Americano, a latte, an iced latte, and an iced tea – all within an hour. The chief barista had a grin stretching from one ear to the other, glad at the enthusiastic reception. “You like the coffee?” he asked when I placed my last order of coffee. “Yes,” I replied, my hands shaking from the caffeine overdose and hoping he wouldn’t notice.

The hidden in-store coffee counter features geometric green ceramic tiled interiors.
The hidden in-store coffee counter features geometric green ceramic tiled interiors.

How different are the caffeine offerings here? To be honest, they tasted like any decent, freshly brewed cuppa from independent coffee chains. Yet, I was beaming with a sense of newfound (fashion) pride. As I sipped, I felt I was subconsciously imbibing the brand’s values, attitudes, behaviour, social status, entertainment and dress — in other words, its lifestyle.

The term “lifestyle” may just be a word to many, but its history is surprisingly young. Coined by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler in 1939, the term was used to describe an individual’s personality and his or her way of life, which inevitably influences an individual’s sense of identity, beliefs, life goals, and forms the way he or she thinks, feels, and functions. Yet, lifestyles are malleable and subject to change. They can be easily aligned to meet corporates’ and organisations’ values and... lifestyles. 

There’s more to the business of retailing luxury lifestyles than meets the eye. It surreptitiously massages the consumers’ self-identity and beliefs. It may even tread on ethics but this is a far-reaching strategy that sells. For example, in a research on luxury lifestyles conducted by consultancy firm McKinsey, 70 per cent of executives at luxury companies identified their brands with this luxury-lifestyle concept. Some of these fashion companies include Giorgio Armani, Carolina Herrera and Burberry.

Elegant wood and leather finishings at The Polo Bar in New York.
Elegant wood and leather finishings at The Polo Bar in New York.

And Ralph Lauren is a brand that has largely been credited as the pioneer of lifestyle retailing. “We have been an innovator in aspirational lifestyle branding,” notes Howard Smith, group president international at Ralph Lauren Corporation. “We have had a considerable influence on the way people dress and the way that fashion is advertised and celebrated throughout the world.” 

The singular vision that the brand is selling is what Smith calls “a distinctive American perspective” — a collegiate, all-American preppy look that is reminiscent of the Seven Sisters colleges and Ivy League schools. The message was disseminated through lifestyle retailing — the company first ventured into the food and beverage sector in 1999, with the opening of the RL Restaurant in Chicago. Thereafter, the Paris outpost of Ralph’s restaurant launched in 2010, followed by a Ralph’s Coffee counter in New York in 2014, The Polo Bar in New York in 2015, and the most recent one, the Ralph’s Coffee counter in Hong Kong.

The interior of Ralph’s restaurant in Paris.
The interior of Ralph’s restaurant in Paris.

The move to set up a coffee counter and not a food establishment in Hong Kong was a calculated one. Hong Kong’s local food culture maintains its stranglehold on the city. The coffee culture landscape, however, has room for growth. As of last year, the Hong Kong Professional Coffee Association reported there were 250 active independent coffee stores. According to the 2018 Euromonitor International’s report on the coffee industry in Hong Kong, “coffee is becoming much more popular as a daily consumption item”. The exponential growth in the third-wave coffee culture stems from locals’ increased travelling patterns, and their desire to have a similar coffee culture in Hong Kong. 

The natural train of thought following the idea of the company’s expansion into food and beverage would be the risk of brand dilution. “A luxury-lifestyle brand will quickly lose its lustre if it strays from its particular heritage and identity,” reads a McKinsey report on luxury lifestyles. Yet, to Smith, the brand is taking steps to protect itself from dilution. These include the preservation of the brand identity through “improved quality of sales, distribution and product”, the marketing and shopping experience, and the brand’s digital and international presence. Smith harks back to what Ralph Lauren himself had said, that “it’s about living the best life you can and enjoying the fullness of the life around you — from what you wear, to the way you live, to the way you love.” 

What is this best life that Lauren himself is so enthused about? The actuality of lifestyle retailing is this — it is a fabricated life. And when I drink up this last cup of Ralph Lauren’s coffee, I am thinking to myself that the all-American life certainly has its perks.