Ralph Lauren hands off CEO role to Old Navy executive
Ralph Lauren hands off CEO role to Gap's Larsson; remains creative chief of company he founded

Associated Press By Anne d'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer
Ralph Lauren alters his role

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Ralph Lauren is handing off his title as CEO of the fashion and home decor empire that he founded nearly 50 years ago.

The New York-based company announced Tuesday that Stefan Larsson, the global president of Gap's thriving low-price Old Navy chain, will take on the role. The change will be effective in November, and Larsson will report to Lauren who will continue to drive the company's vision and strategy as executive chairman and chief creative officer.

As global president of Old Navy for three years, Larsson remade the business into a bright spot in Gap's portfolio. Prior to his tenure at Old Navy, Larsson was part of an executive team at Swedish cheap chic fashion chain H&M for 15 years that increased annual revenue to $17 billion from $3 billion. During that time, H&M's operations grew to 44 countries from 12.

In an interview with Lauren in his luxurious wood-paneled office in Midtown Manhattan, the iconic 75-year-old designer emphasized that he's not slowing down but sees Larsson, 41, as a partner as the company spearheads future sales growth.

"I am here, and I am not leaving," said Lauren. "Stefan is coming to the company because I really believe he's going to be an interesting addition."

Asked whether he chose Larsson because of his success in fast fashion, Lauren acknowledged he was a good businessman but more importantly they shared a common vision. Lauren said that he was looking for a proper CEO and the two connected over dinner and then had subsequent meetings.

"He understands what dreams are," Lauren said. "In this business, it's about dreams because you are dreaming ahead and you're about progress and change and newness."

Lauren knows all about dreams. Lauren, who started the company 48 years ago selling ties, has built a vast empire that includes women's, men's and children's clothing, home decor, accessories and now restaurants. But after years of surging growth, Ralph Lauren has seen its revenue slow down. In the latest fiscal year ended in March, Ralph Lauren Corp. generated sales of $7.5 billion, but that represented just a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year. Net income slipped nearly 10 percent in the latest fiscal year. The company has been grappling with weakness in its Europe business and the overall saturation of the luxury business.

Ralph Lauren recently restructured its global brand management that it says will reap savings.

But overall shares have fallen 44 percent so far this year.

To pump up sales, Ralph Lauren has added three new brands over the past two years: Polo for Women, Polo Sport and Denim and Supply. The company has also been beefing up its online presence.

During the interview, Lauren and Larsson said they are looking for more growth opportunities in China and Europe as well as pushing for more growth in the e-commerce business. They also noted there's a lot of room to grow with the three new brands.

"What attracted me to take on this role was Ralph himself and his vision," Larsson told The Associated Press in the interview. "So my job is to work side by side with Ralph, refine it and grow the company into the future."

Ralph Lauren also announced that Jackwyn Nemerov, president and chief operating officer, will retire in November, at which time she will become an adviser to the company.

Lauren said that consumers are even more interested in high-quality clothing as people have a lot of clothes.

"Luxury is an exciting area," Lauren said. "Consumers want specialness. They want quality. There's a lot of mediocracy out there. And that's not selling. What's selling is specialness, quality and uniqueness. One of a kind.... and that's what I stand for."

As of late June, Ralph Lauren operated 467 company-owned stores, including Club Monaco and Polo Factory stores. The company also operated 558 concession shops worldwide. In addition, international licensing partners operation more than 200 other l0cations.

Meanwhile, Gap Inc., based in San Francisco, said Larsson will step down Oct. 2 and Jill Stanton would lead Old Navy in the interim while it searches for a permanent replacement. Stanton is currently executive vice president of global product at Old Navy. Gap noted in a release that Stanton is a "proven industry veteran" with more than 25 years retail experience, including almost 14 years as vice president and general manager of global apparel at Nike.

Ralph Lauren's shares slipped 83 cents to close at $104.05, but rose nearly 4 percent, or $4.07 to $108.12 in after-hours trading when the news was announced. Gap's shares slipped 3 percent, or 92 cents, to $29.30 in after-hours trading, after closing up 9 cents to $30.22.

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