The executive who was a key architect of Old Navy’s recent hot streak is leaving the company to take the helm of another apparel industry heavyweight. Stefan Larsson, Old Navy’s global brand president since 2012, has been named chief executive of Ralph Lauren, that company said Tuesday. The company’s iconic designer-founder, Ralph Lauren, remains on board as executive chairman and chief creative officer, meaning he’ll still play an influential role in shaping the aesthetic and vision of the brand, which pulled down $7.5 billion in sales last year.
In Larsson, Ralph Lauren has nabbed a retail industry veteran whose time at Old Navy was preceded by a 15-year stint at innovative Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M.
“Stefan Larsson is exceptionally talented, and he will bring our company a fresh and exciting global perspective,” Lauren said in a statement.
In his new role, Larsson will be charged with helping Ralph Lauren grapple with a challenging sales environment. The company depends heavily on tourist spending and said in its latest earnings call that the strong dollar has kept international shoppers from spending big at its stores in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, it believes sales suffered recently as it has chosen to keep a lid on promotional pricing, which has perhaps prompted shoppers to spend their money at rival retailers offering alluring discounts. Ralph Lauren’s stock is down about 43 percent so far this year.
Lauren’s move out of the chief executive’s role is the latest in a string of moves by Ralph Lauren that signal the sportswear and home goods company is trying to reposition itself for a fast-evolving retail landscape and for a future that will eventually not include the 75-year-old Lauren. Last year, the brand hired Valerie Hermann, a former Yves Saint Laurent chief executive, for a newly-created role leading its presence in the lucrative luxury category. The company has also been on a tear with creating new labels in last two years, launching lines such as Denim and Supply and Polo for Women to expand its reach to a wider audience.
Lauren’s move out of the chief executive role may call to mind Donna Karan’s decision earlier this year to step down from her leadership position at the brand she built. But, in fact, the moves are not as similar as they might seem: Lauren will still be a major presence at his company, while Karan completely stepped away from her business. (The designer Donna Karan collection has been suspended, while the more value-priced DKNY is at the core of the company’s strategy.)
The leadership shake-up sets up a tough challenge for Gap, which said earlier this year that it plans to use many of the techniques that Larsson implemented at Old Navy to revitalize its pricier brands. At an investor meeting in June, Gap chief executive Art Peck described Old Navy as “proof point” that the company is capable of creating better, more stylish clothes. Now, it will have to prove it can do that without him.
As it announced Larsson’s departure, Gap said that Old Navy will temporarily be led by Jill Stanton, the brand’s executive vice president of global product. Stanton has been with Old Navy for four years and was a close collaborator with Larsson on Old Navy’s trend-predictive model. She previously served as vice president of global apparel at Nike. The company said it has already begun its search for a new leader for Old Navy.
Larsson’s exit from Gap’s stable of brands comes as the company is trying to reclaim the mantle it held in the 1990’s as the epitome of casual-cool American style. Gap is in the process of closing about a quarter of its full-priced stores in North America as part of an effort to trim costs and streamline its fleet for the e-commerce era. It also ousted its creative director, Rebekka Bay, when her designs did not appear to be winning back customers. Banana Republic, too, has seen sales dry up as shoppers have been unimpressed with the fit, styling and quality of its office-friendly apparel. Old Navy, though, has been going strong, thanks in part to the sensibilities that Larsson honed in the fast-fashion world that allowed Old Navy to respond nimbly and quickly to trends.
In an interview, Peck said of Larsson’s departure that he was “not concerned about it all” and stressed that many of Larsson’s achievements at the brand were made as part of a team.
In terms of bringing Old Navy’s know-how to the rest of the company, Peck said, “A lot of the work is done, quite honestly.“
Gap is in only the early stages of searching for a new leader for Old Navy, but Peck said he’ll be looking for someone who understands their product and who is forward-looking when it comes to the innovations that are reshaping the retail industry.
In the Ralph Lauren statement announcing Larsson’s appointment, it appeared Larsson was lured to the job by the chance to work with one of the esteemed elder statesmen of American design.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work directly and collaboratively with a fashion giant like Ralph Lauren,” Larsson said.
Staff writer Robin Givhan contributed to this report.