ADVANTAGE, Mr. Lauren.
U. S. Designer’s Preppy Blazers Crack the Tradition
of Green Polyester for Officials at Wimbledon.
By: Christina Passariello
and Rachel Dodes
* * * * The WALL STREET JOURNAL * * * *
Thursday, May 25, 2006 (B-1)
M ANY HAVE TRIED AND FAILED TO CRACK THE STRICT DRESS CODE AT WIMBLEDON. Now, someone has finally
done it: Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.
For more than a century, organizers of the venerable tennis championships have required players to wear clothing that is nearly all white, devoid of all but the very slightest color or ornament. For the past 30 years, the rule for on-court officials , including umpires and ball boys and ball girls, has been to wear green, to blend in with the finely trimmed grass courts of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
The rules are rigorously enforced: Even in England’s summer humidity, the umpires kept on their green jackets or green sweaters. And players, including Russia’s Anna Kournikova, have been ordered to change because they weren’t wearing white. But this year, when the tournament starts June 26, 2006, there will be more standing out and less blending in, as the All England Club allows Ralph Lauren’s famous Polo logo a visible presence on court. Players still must toe the tennis-whites line, but the 570 umpires, ball girls and ball boys will sport Polo Ralph Lauren shorts, skirts, pants and blazers in navy blue, with both Wimbledon’s logo, two crossed tennis rackets, on the shirt sleeve and Polo’s pony on a breast pocket or shirt front.
It’s a small revolution for an event steeped in 129 years of tradition. Until this year, the All England Club hadn’t trusted an outsider with the design of its officials’ uniforms. “In the 20 years I’ve been officiating, the uniforms have always been green,” says Mike Morrissey, an assistant referee at Wimbledon who is in charge of organizing the umpires. “Just a different color is a big change after being at Wimbledon for so long.”
The sponsorship is an ace for Polo. Under its five-year contract—which Polo says cost “less than $10 million” —the U.S. fashion house provides the uniforms and in exchange gets visibility with spectators, a world-wide television audience and access to a greater slice of the European market for a distinctly American brand. Polo has a major presence at the U.S. Open, under a four-year agreement that began last year. But the rights to dress Wimbledon officials could be even more significant, giving Polo bragging rights to an association with the exclusive Wimbledon name.
Wimbledon “ is the pinnacle of sports. We have reinvented it for a modern era,” crows David Laureii, senioi- vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Polo Ralph Lauren and also the designer’s son. An ad campaign running in fashion magazines this summer proclaims Polo the “official outfitter of Wimbledon.”
Wimbledon is one of the most watched sports events of the year, and, with its traditional strawberries- and-cream breakfasts, it also attracts some of the richest spect-ators. More people earning above £100,000 (about $185,000) a year attend the
tournament than any other British sporting event, including the posh Royal Ascot horse races, according to Ledbury Research, a U.K. consulting firm specializing in luxury goods. Polo will sell a 100-piece line of official Wimbledon attire in stores across Europe and online, as well as in certain Polo stores in the U.S. and in its new Japan flagship . In addition, the design will sell a limited quantity of the mesh Polo worn by ball boys and ball girls at the tournament, at Wimbledon’s “museum shop.”
The agreement with Polo comes after a move toward corporate sponsorships at Wimbledon. This year, for example, Nestlé SA’s Haagen-Dazs bought the rights to be the official ice cream distributor at Wimbledon. Wimbledon’s commercial sponsors now number 15, including International Business Machines Corp., American Express Co. and Coca-Cola Co. —almost as many as the 20 sponsorships at the U.S. Open. Wimbledon’s sponsorship proceeds go to English tennis schools that, like the All England Club, belong to Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association.
Wimbledon’s fashion awakening has been years in the making. Tournament organizers say they realized some time ago that the green-polyester blazers and beige pants for on-court officials were seriously behind the times. The outfits were manufactured by Britain’s Wood Harris Ltd., a maker of uniforms for security guards and catering companies. In recent years, Wimbledon has spoken with Burberry Group PLC and the fashion label Aquascutum . But neither one fit the bill, according to Rob McCowen, Wimbledon’s marketing director. Burberry, for example, with its signature multicolor “check” print, isn’t exactly a sports brand, nor does it have the classic, demure image Wimbledon was after.
It wasn’t money that clinched the deal, though, Mr. McCowen says, but rather image. And there was another thing he says he liked about Polo: “They don’t have big brand logos all over their shirts.” Polo’s Wimbledon presence will be small compared with its presence at the U. S. Open. Last year at Flushing Meadow in New York, the Polo pony was inescapable, plastered on billboards, merchandise, judges’ boxes and Polo’s designated luxury seating area. The Polo store rang up brisk sales. This year, when the Open starts in August, spectators at the tournament will be able to order Polo merchandise using Internet kiosks.
At Wimbledon, Polo can invite retail executives and fashion editors to watch top matches, such as the men’s final, as part of a hospitality package, but they can’t decorate their seating area. (“That’s for the queen,” Mr. Lauren says.) Except for the three-inch pony logo on the officials’ clothes, its name and logo won’t appear on court.
The Wimbledon connection is likely to help Polo’s business in Europe, which currently lags behind that of home-grown Burberry and Max Mara Fashion Group. Polo has been trying to increase European sales since 2000, when it bought back its European licenses. It opened a four-story boutique in Milan in 2004 and has recently expanded its retail space in Harrods and Sefridges, the upscale London department stores.
www.Polo.com will start carrying the clothes on June 15th , 11 days before the event begins. Polo expects the association with the tournament to help boost its clothing sales in Europe over the $1 billion mark over the next two years, up from around $700 million, for the fiscal year ended April 2, 2005.
Polo says it approached Wimbledon officials last year with an offer to supply the umpires’ blazers in classic navy-blue, pairing them with cream-colored trousers. The design house says its inspiration was Wimbledon attire from the 1930s and 1940s, when players wore white pants and jackets on court. Polo’s original idea was to dress linesmen in white shirts. But Wimbledon officials vetoed it, fearing white shirts on a sunny day would distract players. Instead, lines-men, who stand behind the players and watch for long balls and foot-faults, will wear a blue-and- white pinstripe dress shirt with white collar.
Polo’s presence may exacerbate tensions between Wimbledon and the sports attire brands that players bring to the tournament. Companies such as Nike Inc., Adidas-Salomon AG and Puma AG have never been happy about the all-whites rule for players in both the club and the championships, because it means less visibility for their logos. Some brands have tried to work around the rules. Last year, for example, Nike custom-made a white dress with orange piping for semi-finalist Maria Sharapova.
But Adidas, of Germany, is suing the AU England Lawn Tennis Club and the International Tennis Federation for not permitting its three-stripe design on court. Wimbledon says the stripes are bigger than its logo size limit of four square inches. Adidas didn’t return calls seeking comment.
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