The Sad End of Rugby Ralph Lauren…

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Rugby’s Bleecker Street Haberdashery Shop…

The beginning of February marks a truly sad sartorial occasion: The end of Rugby.

The clothing concept, launched by Ralph Lauren in 2004, was the company’s ivy-meets-edgy play for the 15 to 25 year old crowd: A lower priced line for collegiate kids not yet hooked on Polo. Sometime in 2008, my NYC friend Martin Granger said to me “You have to see this new store called ‘Rugby’ – it will blow your mind.” And it did. The first time I walked into the University Place flagship I was overwhelmed by the sheer style of the place. All of my youthful memories of working at the Polo Store in Calgary & Toronto, watching Brideshead Revisited and Chariots of Fire, collecting books about the Duke of Windsor and combing antique stores for anything made of alligator were invoked in a heady mix of natty tweed jackets, silk club ties, striped cricket blazers and crested velvet slippers. The atmosphere of the shop was incredible, as is the case with all the Ralph Lauren stores. The art of creating an evocative mood was long ago mastered by RL, and the Rugby stores (eventually numbering 11 in the States, with outposts in London and Tokyo) were no exception. As I’ve been on the road, performing, for the last four years, I’ve had the chance to visit more than a few Rugby stores. They never failed to give me a real kick: Georgetown (a personal favourite, with the one and only Rugby Cafe adjoining), Short Hills, New York City (both the flagship at University Place and the jewelbox Bleecker Street Haberdashery), East Hampton (great weekend with Helen – she bought her striped bikini there), San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and the last Rugby store I visited a month ago – the already, sadly, half-empty – Boston. My great regret is that I never made it to the short-lived Covent Garden shop in London: from all accounts it was spectacular.

Inside the New York flagship at University Place…

What I feel distinguished Rugby, separating it from it’s older brothers Polo, Black Label, Purple Label and Double RL, was the infusion of amazingly irreverent, sharp and witty touches to the signature Ralph Lauren affluent style. Consider the ubiquitous skull-and-crossbones motif emblazoned on anything and everything (a reference – no, not to pirates – but to Yale University’s secret society, the “Skull and Bones” – founded in 1832 – who’s alumni includes George W. Bush and John Kerry), soft, unstructured “sack” jackets and faded jeans (torn within an inch of their lives and then patched with silk tie material and men’s suiting fabrics). In fact, it was in this unexpected juxtaposition – of symbols of the privileged class and elements of devil-may-care insouciance – that Rugby had its greatest effect: an unpretentious, relaxed elegance. Think a velvet dinner jacket, silk bow-tie and a pleated tuxedo shirt… made of denim. That was the Rugby touch; Great Gatsby style with any sense of the ostentatious disarmed by offbeat casualness. It’s that sensibility that I loved, and which I believe was unique to the creation.

Cricket Blazers – vintage and RRL – at the entrance to Rugby’s Bleecker Street store…

The overall effect of a Rugby store was so persuasive that one felt it was perfectly natural to take even their most rarified wares out into the real world, which I did. …My tweed Rugby sportcoats and matching vests have been a staple of my wardrobe for the last three years – worn nonstop. Repp ties and university scarves have been lovingly collected, shawl-collared sweaters donned daily and tartan jeans thrown occasionally into the mix. One particular favourite, done in one version or another every season by the design team at RRL, was the Cricket Blazer: I have three of these boldly striped gems, and while I admit they are not worn as frequently as my other Rugby jackets, they are to me a classic symbol of everything Rugby was, and I enjoy owning them for their own sake (click “Bio” to see the banner image of me wearing one).

A look at one of Lee Norwood & John Fiske’s pre-season concepts…

Speaking of the design team: In my wanderings on the web, I’ve become aware of  the names Lee Norwood and John Fiske, who, apparently, are the gentlemen responsible for the inspired, extraordinary look of Rugby. Much has been made, of late online, of the end of the line. Without fanfare, we are to understand that Rugby will simply vanish into the ether on February 2, 2013. I can only assume that the unceremonious closing of all stores and the website is simply the larger company’s way of dealing with the closure quietly, so as not to attract attention. If Rugby had a shortcoming, I would hazard a guess that it was too good: that it actually drew long-time Polo fans away from the central brand. Undoubtedly it appealed as much to cool mid-lifers as it did to teenagers. But in any case, the line has a cult-following, without question. …Well deserved, in my opinion. Lee Norwood and John Fiske: I take my Rugby tweed cap off to you. You created something that hit the nail dead on the head: a perfectly executed vision that resonated with, and inspired, untold scores of people. For the time that Rugby existed, it was genius. A golden age has ended. Gentlemen, I hope your brilliant work continues.

Rugby’s last store: Covent Garden, London…

What remains, now, for the die-hard Rugby fan? There will always be the ones that got away to keep watch for on Ebay: prize pieces like the wool Patchwork Tweed Cardigan, the white Fleece Rowing Blazer with repp-tie piping, the benchmade Scottish Tartan Slippers… the list goes on. Tomorrow, Rugby officially becomes “vintage”. The stuff of sartorial legend: to be spoken of in reverent tongues and hushed tones by old men to their grandchildren. A brief, shining moment in the firmament of…

Well, alright, perhaps I wax lyrical. …But it was incredibly fun while it lasted.

R.I.P.  R.R.L.  -  “Game to the Last”.