He raises a very interesting point and I quickly drafted three paragraphs in response. So, instead of overloading the comment screen, I decided that a more organized response was appropriate.
Being a Vineyarder, I’ve always been a little frustrated with Vineyard Vines. Shep and Ian are great guys, I’ve run into them in Edgartown plenty of times and they’re always cordial, etc.
However, VV has exposed and exploited the “Trad” and “Vineyarder” traditions and lifestyle that I’ve held dear. Why do they get to exploit an island that, statistically, the average Vineyard Vines wearer will never visit? Some kid in Ohio buys VV sandals with the towns of the Martha’s Vineyard on them, and that’s supposed to be clever or a good business plan?
I like their stuff and have some myself, however when I see them putting out “cargo-shorts” and goofy sweatshirts, I have to draw a line. They’ve taken it too far, and it’s upsetting.
Therefore, while I understand people’s frustration, I myself just cannot accept a company that blatantly exploits the place I’ve summered all my life.
The reader poses an excellent question and I fully understand what he means. Actually, his quandary gets to the heart of what I find so fascinating about brands and marketing.
This sentiment is quite reasonable for someone who feels his way of life, culture or custom is being exploited for another’s material gain. Still, the short answer to his question is that if some kid in Ohio is buying Vineyard Vines flip flops than yes, they do have a good business plan because the point of a business is to sell a product. If they sell a lot of those flip flops, along with polo shirts, duffle bags and baseball hats, than I would say it is a very successful business plan. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
I think however that the reader’s issue is not so much with Vineyard Vines’ business plan as it is with what he sees as the commoditization of the Martha’s Vineyard lifestyle. He cherishes what it means to be a “Vineyarder” (i.e., someone who, if they do not actually live there, actually spends frequent time on the Vineyard) and does not like how its distinctiveness has been watered down. Something unique that he loves and values is now accessible to anyone who wants to buy a piece of it.
At first, perhaps there was a feeling of pride in the company’s initial success. He might have said, “Vineyard Vines, sure I’ve heard of it, summered there my whole life.” Now that it’s a pretty big brand which seems to be everywhere, not so much. Even worse, from his point of view the brand has lost some of its exclusivity since it even shows up at discounters. As JP noted in an earlier comment, the cache has left the station.
But to me that seems to be a rather self absorbed way of looking at things. Vineyard Vines is a business created by two guys who wanted to celebrate the Vineyard/preppy/New England lifestyle. They succeeded and the brand is now widely available to a variety of customers. Just because you are “over” the initial coolness of a particular brand does not mean it is now valueless. And just because it’s no longer the new thing and instead an established brand (the kind of successful problem never achieved by many retail labels) does not mean that it should stop attempting to remain relevant to the market.
Is it an affront to authentic Vinyarders that they have achieved their goal? This is a question that many fact-based lifestyle brands will face at some point. I had my own issue with Polo/Ralph Lauren several years ago. I got over it of course since I went on to work at two Polo stores, managing one of them.
Though by no means the landed gentry, I spent most of my childhood summers at family homes either on the Connecticut shore or in the mountains of Vermont. Many of my relatives (not I, for the curious) attended Ivy League schools and my immediate family has a long affiliation with Yale. We had enough interesting ancestors to provide us with monogrammed silver and several impressive looking portraits – one with a frame large enough to be briefly considered as a possible mantelpiece.
The upshot here is that when I first encountered Ralph Lauren’s world, I thought it was awesome; a perfected version of a certain aspect of my life. I related to the New England preppy ethos behind the brand and identified with his message. However, as the company grew and expanded into every retail and marketing crevice imaginable, I got a bit irritated.
I felt that he had exploited the regional culture I loved and turned it into a caricature of vain, overly accessorized snobs. These were no longer the people or the rich, cultural heritage I knew. I felt that Ralph Lauren had co-opted a special part of my identity and turned it into just another brand, another ad campaign to sell shirts.
What I felt he disregarded was the very thing I most appreciated; the reality behind the blue blazer-madras-gin-and-tonic-khakis-and-penny-loafers image. That the fancy silver was actually used every day, or that I’ve always had a blue blazer because I was taught to dress up when appropriate. I liked knowing that what we now see as the iconic rumpled preppy “look” came about for a reason – there is an actual history to it. That is what makes the Official Preppy Handbook such a beloved and sought-after book. For those familiar with the subject matter there is a big nugget of truth in there, along with the obvious tongue-in-cheek humor.
Now some kid in Ohio could sport Polo khakis, a Polo polo shirt, Polo ribbon belt and Polo boat shoes and call himself a “Prep.” Anyone, anywhere could. The whole preppy lifestyle seemed a little reduced and shallow.
However, as I got over my own self righteousness I began to see that the Polo brand was in fact celebrating and expanding upon its preppy base. Lauren was not devaluing it; he was embracing it and moving it beyond its traditional regional and cultural boundaries. While not meaning to sound sappy, Ralph Lauren has probably done more to preserve the idea if not the practice of New England/Ivy League/American preppy life than any other brand or modern cultural influence. He redefined, reinvented really, what classic American lifestyle means.
Of course, Ralph Lauren and Vineyard Vines are two very different companies and I am not making a direct comparison. I do not think that Shep and Ian’s brand has had an equally global impact on the perception or “ownership” of Vineyard life.
But I do believe they had the same intentions in founding their company as as Mr. Lauren did with his: to celebrate a lifestyle they love. The true affection for both these two brands, each built from nothing and with considerable risk, is genuine.
I happen to like the Vineyard Vines brand and what it represents. Though I am not a Vinyarder, I sometimes wish I were and if buying a ball cap with the pink whale logo gives me a small emotional connection to what my reader knows so well, then so be it.
If nothing else, it makes me want to be one of those statistical few to actually visit, stay at a nice B&B in Edgartown, shop and have a cup of coffee while perusing The Martha’s Vineyard Times real estate section.