From wealthy aristocrats to New York gangs and legendary rappers, one label has remained an utterly timeless icon of menswear style. We examine the iconic legacy of Ralph Lauren’s legendary Polo label.
What do hip-hop crews, New York gangs and blue-blooded Ivy Leaguers all have in common? One of the world’s most popular clothing lines and a true icon of fashion, Polo Ralph Lauren has made its presence felt everywhere from luxury yachts to Kanye West rants, uniting stylish dressers and inspiring legions of brands in the process.
Ralph’s pony might be more concerned with cashmere sweaters and oxford shirting than limited edition sneakers and high-profile collabs, but its spirit of aspiration and utterly sublime branding makes it a streetwear brand in spirit if not in name. I’d put it up there with the Box Logo and the Swoosh as one of – if not the – most iconic and influential brands in the Highsnobiety universe.
The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Belarus, Ralph Lauren (née Lifshitz) dreamed of imitating the lifestyle and clothing of the wealthy aristocrats living the high life in New England and the Hamptons. Starting with a small run of ties while working for Brooks Brothers in New York, Lauren would go on to found a vast empire on the back of his iconic embroidered pony – unknowingly inspiring a whole generation of designers, rappers and stylish youths in the process.
Image: The College Dropout
Polo’s significance in hip-hop cannot be understated; the brand’s story of aspiration and lavish lifestyle perfectly mirrors rap’s rags-to-riches narrative, attracting countless MCs since the ’90s. Raekwon’s legendary Snow Beach jacket, Kanye’s forays into pastel-hued prep and countless rhymes have cemented the brand as a true icon of hip-hop style – one that symbolizes the genre’s underdog spirit and dogged determination to bring the American Dream to life.
Just like hip-hop pillages other genres via sampling, the stylish youths who adopted Polo gave it street cred by making the brand their own. When New York’s infamous Polo-loving Lo Life crew were robbing Ralph’s gear straight from peoples’ backs in street culture’s glorious ’90s heyday, they weren’t trying to fit in with the lawyers and bankers that the brand traditionally appealed to. “It never was about Ralph Lauren” Thirstin Howl III, founder of the Lo Lifes told Complex. “It was about how we wore it and put it on…you’ll see somebody on the street with the exact outfit but it would not look the same.”
Image: Freshly Serious
One of streetwear’s biggest Polo disciples is Supreme’s James Jebbia. It’s hard to imagine the legendary New York brand would have such fondness for prep were it not for Ralph; Polo’s DNA (and that of its fondly-remembered Polo Sport sub-line) has run throughout Supreme’s collections since day one. You can probably thank the brand with the pony for Supreme’s love of clean-cut oxfords, color-blocked outerwear, rugby tops and collegiate branding. “What they do is the best,” Jebbia once told i-D.
The rest of the streetwear community hasn’t been shy in its love for the label, either – whether it’s sneakers dressed in the iconic Snow Beach colors or tongue-in-cheek homages to the legendary “Polo Bear” sweaters.
Image: Taz Arnold
Everyone from rap legends and streetwear brands to stylish skaters and London’s Wavey Garms kids have all embraced Polo because it’s a blank canvas. It’s an aspirational brand that’s open to interpretation, whether you’re wearing it two sizes too big and with Timbs or with deck shoes and knitwear. Perhaps this reason is why the brand with the pony has never gone out of style – just like Doc Martens and Chuck Taylors, the label means many things to many people. That and the fact that its timeless style makes it practically impervious to trends.
What I love so much about Polo is that, like many brands before it, its identity has been shaped by people entirely outside of the brand. Like Timberland, who found street cred completely by accident, Polo’s streetwear pedigree was entirely unintentional. Ralph’s creation remains the ultimate symbol of aspiration – whether it’s to the son of a poor Jewish immigrant family, a young Kanye West or New York hoodlums.
Streetwear is grass roots, about creating something from nothing and bringing dreams to life outside of the mainstream fashion circus. Nothing epitomizes this more than the brand with the embroidered pony.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.