Interview with Philip Yi of Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren's contemporary take on the American pioneer. The mix of poetic beauty and rugged toughness in his clothing have earned him an international following.

Despite today’s crowded world of fashion, few designers are able to invoke the quintessential American woman as well as Ralph Lauren. The brand, which began in 1967 with one man and a successful line of ties, has quickly established itself as one of the most influential designers in American history. In recent years, Ralph Lauren has proved to be a considerable force not only in the fashion world but in most other areas as well, designing everything from casual and formal clothing for men and women, to accessories, fragrances, and items for the home. While Ralph Lauren has obtained its iconic status due to the massive support from customers, a brand as large as this one would not function without a strong business division. BARE Magazine had a chance to talk to Philip Yi, the assistant CFO at Ralph Lauren.

How did you start working at Ralph Lauren? Did you start out working in an entirely different industry, or were you always interested in working in fashion?
Prior to my job at Ralph Lauren, I worked in industries unrelated to apparel and retail (e.g. military and management consulting). The reason I sought a job with Ralph Lauren is because apparel has been a personal interest and passion of mine since I was a young teenager, and I felt that Ralph Lauren offered an opportunity to experience what it’s like to blend personal and professional interests.

Describe your typical day.
A typical day at the office started at 8 AM and usually ended at 6 PM. Living in Soho, my commute consisted of taking the subway sandwiched between short walks and usually took 20 to 30 minutes door to door. Since my internship was project-based, a large part of my day consisted of meeting with individuals related to my projects –testing hypotheses, conducting analyses and sharing insights. On a typical day, I would have 2-3 of these meetings. Another part of my day, and this is something unique to my internship, was spent having one-on-one sessions with top executives in the organization. I got to meet at least a dozen key leaders throughout the organization and get their thoughts and mentorship on the industry, the company and work in general.

An Oliver Twist inspired look for the day, and a slinky, almost lingerie like dress for the evening.

What is the most difficult aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
The most difficult aspect of my job was a byproduct of the fact that internships are, by design, temporary, and as a result it became challenging at times to see immediate impact from the results of my work. Ralph Lauren is a large organization, and in certain cases it does not move quickly like a smaller start-up would.
The most rewarding aspect of my job was being close to the product and the brand that I have come to appreciate over a lifetime. From walking through a beautiful showroom full of men’s Purple Label suits to attacking an interesting business problem for the greater brand itself, I never got bored of the content.

How often does the financial/business side of the brand relate to, or interfere with, the fashion and design aspect?
My perspective is that in order to be a successful company, especially one that is publicly owned and traded, the financial aspect is of utmost importance. With that being said, the balance between art and commerce is especially critical in businesses with an aesthetic component. My observation was that both sides of the business found ways to complement, not compete, with each other. Perfecting that “dance” between art and commerce, and not letting one completely dominate, is potentially the secret behind why Ralph Lauren has been in business for so long.

How would you describe the Ralph Lauren customer?
Ralph Lauren has numerous customers. This fact speaks to the “branded house” model that the company offers. At the top of the house are Ralph Lauren’s luxury offerings such as Purple Label and Ralph Lauren Collection. This customer is very discerning when it comes to style and quality and is less sensitive to price. On the lower end of the house are brands like American Living and Chaps. These brands appeal to the customer who appreciates the Ralph Lauren aesthetic but is more sensitive to value and price.

In this study of white vs. black, the slightly off-kilter wide brimmed hat adds an air of insouciance, while the sleek turban carries echoes of exotic treasures. This level of attention to detail is also reflected in the business side of managing a global brand. All images courtesy of InStyle.

How do you think the fashion industry, and Ralph Lauren in particular, has been affected by the recession?
I think the recession had a particularly large effect on the fashion industry. Interestingly, Ralph Lauren was able to weather the recession quite nicely.

Do you have any advice for students looking to get into the financial side of fashion? What does being a good CFO entail?
My advice is to consider taking a two-pronged approach to developing your capability. First, ensure you have the expertise that makes you an asset from a commercial perspective. Gaining knowledge on finance, analytics and some of the core business functions will help differentiate you from others who are looking for employment at a company like Ralph Lauren. However, you should combine your business expertise with a deep knowledge of the apparel industry, the brand and the product. A good candidate can talk about the latest RRL denimwear line. A great candidate can intelligently discuss or show curiosity about topics like: where the denim was sourced and implications of commodity prices on gross margins, the distribution and supply chain, pricing premiums sustained through marketing and promotion efforts, the role denim as a category plays in the RRL portfolio, business unit strategy and how RRL’s competitors are attacking the premium denim market, etc.

I’m not really in a position to say what makes a great CFO, but off the top of my head I would ensure that s/he had an operational mindset that extended beyond the numbers coupled with a distinctive capability in the financial function (e.g., M&A, debt/ equity capital raising, accounting regulations) and a deep level of experience managing investor markets.

Ana Abundo
BARE Reporter

1 comment:

  1. Good interview and a nice feather in the Bare cap. But I have to say, the responses feel staged and oh-so corporate. I wonder if RL corporate managers had to approve the answers to your questions.