Another Perspective

The Preppy and the Fury

Are Ralph Lauren's Olympic uniforms the image we want reflecting the American way?

By 7.24.12

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During the fury about outsourcing the manufacture of Olympic uniforms to China, there has been less commentary on what the Ralph Lauren fashion stands for.

Instead, those who denigrate procurement of Olympic kit from China have chosen to make patriotism, the economics of outsourcing, and fear of China their battleground during a caustic election year. House Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have eloquently expressed their dismay. However, there has been remarkably limited focus on the statement made by the uniforms as a symbol of Americana and American values.

In this debate, strident voices have played the China card, raising the specter of a bête noir that threatens to devour the entire Fortune 500 -- if those companies do not completely outsource themselves first, disappearing into the hypothetical ether. Who knows -- their angst may come from from the dichotomy of East and West, autocracy versus democracy, and economic planning versus free markets. Further, they may compare opaqueness with transparency, the former being repugnant to a Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank dominated standard for financial disclosure and behavior. And lurking beneath these dualisms could be China's blue water and high tech naval aspirations from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, and in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean at large. In short, Olympic uniforms manufactured by the factories of the world's second largest economy are deemed a threat to the American ego, as well as a reminder of strategic competition, high unemployment, and potential cosmic strife.

Fine -- but we must remember that much has changed since the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. At that time, there was no Official Preppy Handbook to guide men and women in their tastes, idioms, and sartorial splendor. In ancient Greece, athletes competed in the nude, a trend that may have started when a runner's loin cloth fell off, as reported by the National Geographic News some years ago. And in ancient times, athletes did not wear red, white, and blue hats somewhat resembling berets but more befitting a sous-chef on the Fourth of July.

As a symbol of the American way, the Olympic uniforms are all form and the wrong substance. They speak to a life of excess of the Hamptons of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his character Jay Gatsby, a dandy of wealth and glamour from an imaginary place named West Egg, Long Island. They say to the observer, "Hey notice me, I've got the goods" in English. They also seem to say "Je ne sais quoi" in French, a well-known Romance language of the celebrated eurozone.

There is no question that Ralph Lauren has brilliantly created a sartorial and life style global enterprise -- a cult of retro elegance for some. However, one must wonder if the United States Olympic Committee selected Ralph Lauren for strategic reasons, or just because he manufactures fine quality preppy styles that are widely accepted in the U.S. and abroad and because he has made Olympic uniforms since 2008.

If Olympic uniforms are to speak to strategy and the American brand, the Olympic Committee should first decide what that is, and what values are to be projected in a complicated world -- no longer one that is American and non-American, preppy and non-preppy, natural fiber and polyester. It is no secret that the American brand has been tarnished among some of our allies such as Britain, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic due to a series of cultural missteps, perceived abandonment, and the desire to "reset" affairs with Russia. Inconsistent policies toward Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iran project an image of confusion about the Middle East in the White House and State Department. Further, seemingly intractable wars in the Muslim world have damaged our national stock there, and we are seen as contributing to a potentially failed state on our border -- Mexico.

The Olympic uniforms were an opportunity to present a new face of America -- one of leadership in multiculturalism and democracy. Complementing American insignia, an abstract collage resembling flags on black high tech fiber would be one way to make that statement.

There is little evidence that the U.S. government is succeeding in its projection of American values in a positive manner. With some direction from the Olympic Committee about strategy and the American brand, Ralph Lauren could doubtless rise to the occasion in the 2014 Olympic Games, to be held in Russia.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.