Walking the streets so habitually in search of fashion trends, I don’t have much time for idling at corporations. Consequently, I’m naïve along those lines. My backwardness was brought abruptly home to me when I attended the Ralph Lauren Corporation shareholders meeting, which got underway promptly (more or less) at 9:30 a.m. on August 7 at the top of the St. Regis Hotel.
I wasn’t there under false pretenses. I am a legitimate shareholder and have been for some time. (Maybe I’m not quite that naïve.) And I won’t pretend I’m not pleased with the results: share prices have risen nicely while I’ve held on to my relatively meager number. Though they’ve been as high as $181 and are now at $170 or so, that’s also not chopped liver, as they say—“chopped liver” not necessarily a phrase said much by the company’s chairman and chief operating officer, who pays more habitual homage to different traditions.
But my naïveté, at whatever level it rests, was challenged at this meeting. It began before I was welcomed into the meeting room itself. When I turned the southeast corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue toward the St. Regis entrance, I was greeted (“greeted” may not be the best word) by protesters carrying signs with “Bangladesh” and “Accord” on them.
After climbing the hotel’s carpeted stairs to the lobby, I was greeted (here “greeted” is the more appropriate word) by Ralph Lauren Corporation minions. I wasn’t heartily greeted, however, by any number of determined security people, some of them on communications devices.
Indeed, the security was heavy and remained so after I had my name checked and validated as a shareholder. I was handed a small red ticket; and told to proceed to the meeting floor. There I was again surrounded by busy and buzzing Ralph Lauren Corporation staffers and security personnel while my name was checked a second time, found to be legit and the small red ticket was exchanged for a larger blue ticket. Only then was I cleared to enter a buffet, not buffer, area.
Having helped myself to orange juice and a pastry, I mingled with a crowd much better dressed than I was. (This was a Ralph Lauren gathering, not some Sheep Meadow picnic.) In my unlined blue Ralph Lauren jacket, blue-and-white-striped Ralph Lauren socks (trousers and shoes not Ralph Lauren), I looked casual at best, underdressed at worst.
While gazing out a window at Central Park four blocks north, a woman in what I’ll call Ralph Lauren Safari approached me, introduced herself as Mary Someone and said she worked for “Ralph.” I gave her my name and asked what she knew about the commotion below. She said it had something to do with Bangladesh, but she wasn’t certain what. I suggested that if she works for “Ralph,” she might want to find out.
Just then we were notified that the meeting room was open. I filed in with the rest of the crowd and found a seat at the outer end of the second row to watch Lauren (Chairman and CEO), Jackwyn L. Nemerov (President, Chief Operating Officer and Director), Christopher H. Peterson (Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer) and a third person enter from an anteroom to sit on the risers. The meeting began.
Forgive me if I don’t get the order of events correct, but I’ll say without qualm that Lauren, speaking in front of a screen announcing ”Ralph Lauren Corporation,” opened with pleasant remarks. Then, we shareholders were asked to vote on three measures for which motions were made and seconded. The fellow to my left in our row—reading from an underlined script—declaimed the second motion aloud, only once stumbling over a word.
I think it was then that the lights dimmed and we watched a Ralph Lauren Corporation promotion video. Shot in gorgeous surroundings, the clothes were stunning. (When aren’t they?) A particular segment was given over to “Polo for Women,” a new line to be sold in new, discrete stores. I liked that all models wearing these swell duds sported berets, which, of course, no one in Paris wears nowadays. So Ralph Lauren could single-handedly revive the style.
Lauren opened the meeting to the floor and to a woman he said would speak for five minutes. (A sheet of paper handed out on entry to the room stipulated that all questions would be kept to three minutes and must strictly pertain to the matter at hand. No politics.) The woman spoke on behalf of the Bangladesh Accord, which—though now signed by 170 brands—has not been signed by the Ralph Lauren Corporation. She was followed by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. He allowed that the City is happy to own stock in the company but also would like to see the Accord signed. (Though he evidently wasn’t in attendance, Albany comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has issued the same request.)
Lauren responded by declaring his corporation has always had civil rights uppermost in consideration, but neither he nor others addressing the issue were explicit about the refusal to sign. The evasive responses made me uncomfortable. Was the demurral related to the assessed contributions that becoming a signatory required for the Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment industry? If so and since Ralph Lauren Corporation works with very few Bangladesh factories, how much financing would be asked? Would the RLC be responsible for even as much as was being spent that day on security?
So there I am, a shareholder starting to feel sweaty in my Ralph Laurens. I’m looking at those around me and beginning to feel like the lonely little petunia in the onion patch. I realized that in one way I had walked into a live Ralph Lauren commercial. Everyone who worked for “Ralph” wore handsome and expensive clothes. They were all advertisements for one Ralph Lauren look or another. (Okay, not RRL or Denim & Supply and probably not lower priced Chaps, either.)
In another way, I hadn’t walked into a live Ralph Lauren commercial—not the ones you see on, for example, any PBS Masterpiece edition. They depict the Ralph Lauren fantasy world in which the rich and sophisticated circulate. sometimes in Maseratis and Ferraris of the sort Lauren owns. It’s a universe untouched by anything remotely related to, or even cognizant of, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster.
No, I was in the Ralph Lauren corporate world, where, of course, the bottom line prevailed. I realized that despite the easy Ralph Lauren togs I had on, I was uneasy. But what did I expect at a shareholders meeting? I should have expected exactly what I got.
I’m sorry to say it took this meeting for me to learn that while I’ve perhaps too naïvely aspired to live in the Kodachrome (I use the adjective deliberately) world Ralph Lauren conjures, I’d have to accept I’m more realistically a citizen of his chilly corporate world where the Bangladesh Accord is a divisive issue I also need to address.