Ralph Lauren kicks its 'preppy look' Rugby label into touch

Closure of Aubin & Wills is another sign that shoppers have tired of  high-end collegewear

It’s the all-American style which allows shoppers across the world to dress like wealthy Ivy League students. But could our love affair with “preppy” clothes be waning?

US fashion giant Ralph Lauren today announced that it was closing its Rugby label, which specialises in high-end college wear, by the end of 2013.

The news came just weeks after the Jack Wills group – the British label known for its attention to upper echelon leisurewear – announced that it would be closing its upkmarket sister line Aubin & Wills  after Christmas.

Rugby Ralph Lauren launched in 2004 to cater to a growing market for the traditional and ultra-conservative sports-casual wardrobe of the American WASP, or – to give it its proper name – “the preppy look”.

The closure of the line, which boasts 14 stores worldwide including one in London’s Covent Garden, is indicative not only of a climate where retailers are getting back to basics, but also of shoppers’ changing tastes.

Both Ralph Lauren and Jack Wills have at their heart at very distinct vision of retro-hip nostalgia, be it based in the tweedy Britishness that the American firm has adopted so enthusiastically, or the Ivy League-style sportswear that, conversely, the British company has managed to distil and render desirable.

“What we are seeing is fashion brands reviewing their operations to ensure they are focussing on their core business,” says Caroline Nodder, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Drapers. “Where they have launched brand extensions during the good times it may well be they now drop these in favour on concentrating on the strongest part of their business.” 

“Both brands already do a really good line in preppy menswear,” says Adam Welch, editor of the style magazine Wonderland, “but trying to expand the idea of what that is has not worked. The preppy look is not going to go away, but there’s not such a demand for collegiate-style clothes that each brand needs to cater for different markets.”

The trend originally came about during the 1950s, an evolution of the Varsity look characterised by pre-war Oxbridge dandies. Preppy was the upper class version of Americana - chinos, cricketing jumpers and sports jackets the alternative to jeans and leathers. Over the years, it has been adopted by consecutive generations of burgeoning style icons, from Bobby Kennedy via Matthew Broderick to, more recently, ironic hipsters sporting chinos and deck shoes in a rather more knowing way

Such was the popularity of the Ivy League look that in 2009 Harvard itself announced plans for a fashion line named ‘Harvard Yard’, profits from which would be ploughed into scholarships and bursaries schemes.

The arrival of Abercrombie & Fitch on London’s Savile Row in 2007 was evidence of the preppy boom. But now the brand finds itself in similar difficulties to Ralph Lauren and the Wills group. Last year, Abercrombie reportedly offered money to Jersey Shore reality TV star Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino to stop wearing its clothes, in order to try and preserve some of the brand’s status, as enthusiasm began to wane for a style that appears to be dying the death of overexposure.

That Ralph Lauren should seek to focus on its core lines is further proof too that high-end retailers see more potential in the upper end of the market, rather than on the high street.  “The overarching theme of menswear next spring is sporty utility,” adds Welch. “But it’s coming across as sharp and futuristic. Preppiness seems a bit fusty in comparison. With the more sporty brands like Aubin & Wills and Rugby, it also represents a slightly outdated way of dressing; the high street consumer is more switched on about fashion now. “

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