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Ralph Lauren steps down as CEO of his fashion empire (+video)

After 48 years with his namesake brand, the designer will now become chief creative officer. Old Navy executive Stefan Larsson will succeed him. 

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    Fashion designer Ralph Lauren appears on the runway after showing his Spring 2016 collection during Fashion Week on, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in New York.
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    The Polo Ralph Lauren Spring 2016 collection is presented during Fashion Week in New York, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015.
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Nearly half a century ago, Ralph Lauren conceived his empire out of one single drawer in an Empire State Building showroom. The massive brand that emerged – Polo Ralph Lauren – would eventually become part of the cornerstone of contemporary American fashion.

Mr. Lauren, 75, announced Tuesday that he will be stepping down as CEO and named Old Navy global president Stefan Larsson as his successor. Lauren will remain a critical figure for the apparel company, known for its juxtaposed style of country club prep and the Wild West, as an executive chairman and chief creative officer.

“I don’t feel like I’m stepping back now,” Lauren told The New York Times. “When they start designing things I can’t understand, I’ll quit.”

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His departure signifies the struggle of the Lauren brand to adapt to a rapidly changing retail climate in which only luxury and discount retailers thrive. This year, the moderately upscale company’s share price dropped by almost half and its revenue decreased by 5.3 percent.

Considering these facts, the ushering of Mr. Larsson to the brand makes a lot of sense — the 41-year-old Swedish businessman is credited with saving Old Navy, owned by Gap Inc., from dismal falling sales. As a former H&M executive, he was in part responsible for expanding the affordable fashion company on a global level.

“I interviewed lots of people who were in luxury. But Stefan has a great quality that made me say: ‘You can be my new C.E.O.,’ ” Lauren said. “He’s unique as a man, a man who’s capable of building businesses and growing companies, but at the same time he’s sensitive to people’s feelings.”

In the last fiscal year, Ralph Lauren churned out $7.6 billion in sales. The company uses a pyramid corporate structure in which the luxury runway line is held as an aspirational ideal above all the other verticals, but it’s the factory stores that account for most of the profit.

Experts say the Ralph Lauren brand could use a makeover under Larsson’s fast-fashion philosophy. Unlike other discount retailers, he shied away from the optimal production efficiency approach and instead focused on the fastest way to make runway trends accessible on the shelves.

As long as Lauren himself has some semblance of control over the corporation, the brand’s Americana spirit will prevail. His most recent New York Fashion Week show notably featured structured silhouettes in white, nautical themes, and blue-and-white striped gowns, showcasing one of his five “essential tropes”: sailing, equestrians, cowboys, flappers, and safaris. As always, the show attracted celebrities in the front row, including Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain.

“No other fashion firm has been as adept at defining the American Dream in swatches of luxurious fabric, discreet hemlines and painterly hues,” Pulitzer-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote of the legendary designer in 2014.

Lauren famously dressed Diane Keaton as the timelessly stylish Annie Hall and designed the US Olympic team’s uniforms for the 2008 games in Beijing.

Luxury sartorialism and business structures aside, Lauren’s aesthetic themes always ultimately reflect American visions of aspiration. Or sometimes, his own aspirations as the son of Jewish immigrants in the Bronx.

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