In 1968, a young designer started his business out of a tiny showroom in the Empire State Building. Over the next 50 years, his brand would come to define not just the male American wardrobe, but the fundamental ways we understand men’s fashion.
To celebrate, we take a look at the indelible impact of Ralph Lauren, talking to designers, collectors and industry insiders about how his influence has spread to communities and cultures in virtually every corner of the globe.
We’ve delved into the archives, traced Ralph Lauren’s history, and spoken to the designers the brand has influenced to understand its legacy in fashion and streetwear.
Exploring the Archive
A lookback at some of the most iconic pieces in the Ralph Lauren archive.
Your Favorite Designer’s Favorite Designer
We talk to some of the leading figures in fashion and streetwear to ask how Ralph Lauren wrote the rules of menswear and changed the way we think about style whether you’re uptown, downtown, or anything in-between.
When it comes to creating a definitive understanding of menswear, what you often find is a vast network of roots and branches that spread far and wide. Between denim jeans’ origins as uniform for miners, factory workers and farmers during the nineteenth century, the rise of the t-shirt thanks to early film stars, the dapper Ivy style that defines cultural depictions of prestigious universities, and countless other reference points, what we now understand instinctively as menswear is incredibly fragmented in its origins.
The reason the image comes to mind so quickly today is largely down to the work of one man who brought all those influences together and created the essential wardrobe: Ralph Lauren.
Although classic pieces like oxfords, chinos, flannels, and polo shirts had long been staples for the men during the twentieth century, it was Ralph Lauren who first endeavored to create classic clothing, purposefully designed for men to wear and look stylish.
Virtually every brand that launches today aims to create clothing for a specific type of customer. With his erudite blend of Ivy and prep styles, everyday apparel, country club uniform and timeless workwear-rooted silhouettes, Ralph Lauren’s muse was simple; everyday sophistication.
In the 50 years that have now passed since he first set up shop in a makeshift showroom in the Empire State Building, Ralph Lauren and his label’s distinctive Pony logo have become household names in every corner of the globe, with cultural resonance everywhere; from hip-hop to punk; from skateboarding to basketball; from Ivy League corridors to European soccer stadiums.
We all have our own understanding of what Polo Ralph Lauren represents, but to say that Polo Ralph Lauren is one of the most popular brands among consumers isn’t enough, because the template laid out by Ralph Lauren as a designer and cultural curator is one that has been replicated and imitated by virtually every other menswear designer who followed—whether they realized it or not. Put simply, he’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. So we spoke to some of the leading figures in menswear right now to ask them about the enduring appeal of something as simple as a Ralph Lauren oxford shirt, and how that came to represent something much bigger than an embroidered Pony logo.
Founder of Noah
“Ralph Lauren captured the American identity in a way that, no one had before—expanded on it, even. There was the reality of prep style, and then there was Ralph’s version, which was suped-up. More interesting, and more fun.
I grew up in Long Island, a community where all those influences Ralph Lauren was drawing from actually existed. It was already in us, so we just appreciated the fact that he did it well and gave us options that weren’t really there prior. Before Ralph Lauren, prep, Americana, whatever you want to call it, was pretty narrow; blazers, white oxford shirts, khakis, jeans, Shetland sweaters. He took that as a platform and went way beyond, but the core lifestyle he was representing was already around us.
When we talk about Polo Sport and Snow Beach, that was never intended to be for ‘urban’ kids, but this is the beauty of people. Skateboarding and hip-hop communities really created themselves, taking and borrowing from other places and making it their own. With Polo, a lot of it had to do with flexing. ‘This is the stuff that symbolizes success, so here I am, check it out.’
But what people have to understand about New York in the late ‘80s is that 99% of the skate industry was out in California, and a lot of it was basically shared with surf. For kids in New York skating at the Brooklyn Banks or whatever, pink-and-yellow shorts don’t necessarily make sense. You know, we have weather here! The environment was rough, the places you were skating were kind of sketchy, and the clothing reflected that. Additionally, you were still in New York, a center of culture and fashion, so whatever was happening was still going to influence these kids.
I find it really fascinating, what occurred with brands like Polo, and how it eventually became the overarching skateboarding look. Even today, it’s really left a mark on the entire industry. Before Polo, skateboarding was more surf and punk inspired—for lack of a better word, ‘raggedy’. But the New York kids looked fresh. You might go skate in some fucked up sneakers during the day, but if you were going to a house party that evening, you weren’t gonna look fucked up. And that was the New York thing.”
Founder of Too Hot
“In the UK, Polo has always been typified by oxford shirts, Harrington jackets, anything like that with the Pony logo on it—the Polo Sport phenomenon was much more rooted in the New York scene. For me, that relationship started in school, maybe 14 or 15 years old, at that age where you’re just starting to really form your own opinions and tastes.
The thing is, for young kids looking to dress well, there weren’t many options, and Ralph Lauren was almost an entry point. It was a relatively-affordable designer brand, the first step. It was almost like a rite of passage. You had to have a Ralph Lauren Harrington jacket as a way of proving you’re not a kid anymore.
It was also part of what was going on with club culture in the UK at the time; if you wanted to get in, you had to wear a shirt, and the Ralph shirt was the go-to option. You’d walk past a queue of people lining up and it was almost like a rainbow of pastel oxford shirts and Pony logos. Even when we talk about Ralph’s legacy in skateboarding, I remember reading in magazines about skaters in New York wearing Polo and Nautica. Obviously, they meant Polo Sport, but I read that and interpreted it as classic Polo. It was like cross-pollination but in a much more British style because we never saw as much of the Polo Sport stuff.
That’s the thing with Polo—it can be worn across the board. It might have been targeted toward a particular group, and it’s certainly popular among well-heeled, well-to-do people, but it’s also worn by absolute scallywags. And they’re all buying it for the same reason—‘That’s simple and easy to wear, and with that little Pony on my chest, I can show people I’m doing well for myself.’”
Director at DOCUMENT studios
“Ralph Lauren is a true lifestyle brand. Not just in the sense that they make homewares and lifestyle goods, but in the sense that you want to live the ‘Ralph Lauren’ lifestyle. They’re an aspirational brand, but they’ve also created this image of what Ralph Lauren is—you can close your eyes and everyone sort of thinks of the same thing.
It’s more than any one piece of clothing. You take in the whole Ivy and Prep thing, all those connotations to a life you don’t lead, but want to. When you think of Hollywood, you think of glitz and glamor, silk tuxedos, but this was more than that. It was the hardworking laborer as well. The plaid shirts, the lumber jackets. It wasn’t workwear, but he was clearly looking at the people who built the American Dream. His wardrobe was very much inspired by that.
If you think about what’s happened during these last 50 years, that’s kind of when fashion became the expressive art-form that it is. Roughly before that, it was clothes; stuff you wore because you needed to wear something. When pop culture happened, clothing became affordable and people wanted to express themselves. Ralph Lauren didn’t necessarily start that, but he was part of that movement, giving people stuff they could buy to express who they are. That’s branding.
It’s a luxury brand. It’s aspirational. But those polo shirts are an affordable and easy way to bind yourself to the brand, similar to a perfume or a handbag. I think also, growing up in Europe, it’s quintessentially American. Whether you’re from the UK or Sweden, we’ve always been obsessed with American culture—food, music, film, and clothing. Next to the Marlboro Man, what represents that more than Ralph Lauren?”
As the comments above demonstrate, that the Ralph Lauren aesthetic depicts a particular way of life never stopped others from being able to enjoy it. Not only that, where other labels might have tried to wrangle their name out of the hands of customers they didn’t relate to, it feels like Ralph Lauren was always much more democratic. After all, if you’re going to be the menswear label of the everyman, it doesn’t make much sense if you can’t be worn by every man.
Ultimately, what shines through most about the legacy of Ralph Lauren as both a brand and a designer is the way he managed to synthesize so many distinctive looks into a cohesive style. In many ways, what the label has done since its launch 50 years ago is collate dozens of reference points from everyday life and represent them in an elevated form.
But more than anything else, the great skill of Ralph Lauren the designer is one that has been innate to every fashion great—an ability to look at disparate markers and concepts and create a singular thread that runs through them all. Cowboys, military men, rappers, country club members, Ivy League students, skateboarders, alpine explorers; all are united through their place in our collective consciousness, whether real and romanticized. The mythos of the American dream put to cloth.
Under the Influence
The new generation of designers following in the footsteps of the originator.
Public School NY
Founded in 2008, Public School NY is rooted in its native environment. Graduates of the New York public school system and influenced by the stimuli the city feeds them every day, the label’s softly-spoken channeling of New York cool into a single, coherent voice stands on the shoulders of Ralph Lauren, who 40 years previous translated East Coast style into a sartorial language.
We asked designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow about the influence Ralph Lauren has had on their design process and what makes the brand’s work so timeless.
As the iconic brand of Ivy and Prep style, it’s no surprise that Ralph Lauren has resonance in University rowing culture. Jack Carlson founded his label Rowing Blazers after time spent studying a Doctorate in Philosophy at Oxford University, as well as competing with the American national rowing team in the Olympics.
Launched in 2017, his brand is an authentic, modern expression of one of the cultures that informed Ralph Lauren’s iconic style, and that back-and-forth of influence and inspiration continues to this day.
To truly understand the significance of Ralph Lauren, you have to remember one thing. It’s more than a brand. It’s a lifestyle.
Communities Across Cultures
Exploring the brand’s universal appeal, from the Ivy League to the streets of Brooklyn.
Considering the label’s deep roots in that same culture, it’s no surprise that Ralph Lauren would become so heavily associated with the culture of America’s prestigious Ivy League institutions.
From the brand’s smart-casual blazers, oxford shirts and chinos, to its varsity sports references such as rugby, rowing, lacrosse and, of course, polo, the Ralph Lauren brand is a fluid amalgamation of everything we think of when we imagine the hallowed halls of America’s elite academic institutions. In fact, it’s such a compelling image that it’s inspired Ivy-led subcultures in Japan, and similar prep and varsity dress codes as far afield as the UK.
Put simply, Ralph Lauren channeled references from film, music, sport, media and culture into a single, coherent language, creating a sartorial style that would come to define the very notion of elite academia.
These images all appear in Teruyoshi Hayashida’s book Take Ivy, click here for more.
Bury Me With The Lo On
Perhaps one of the original great legends in streetwear lore, Lo-Life culture emerged from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn in 1988 as teenagers coming up in New York’s urban sprawl engaged in ‘healthy competition’, looking to out-flex and out-dress each other by wearing the sharpest sneakers and clothes.
Far-flung from the typical leather bombers and down jackets that defined NY style at the time, the Lo-Life’s penchant for bright, colorful and ostentatious Polo gear set them apart from their peers, turning that same competition into shared passion and collective spirit.
Thirty years later, that spirit has led to OG Lo-Lifes working with some of the biggest names in media, as well as giving back to their community through charity initiatives. It’s a story that encapsulates the deeper meaning behind the crew; coming together, regardless of roots, and working to raise each other up.
Thirstin Howl III and photographer Tom Gould documented Lo-Life culture in their book Bury Me With The Lo On. The book introduced the culture to a broader audience and created fascination with the Ralph Lauren-obsessed individuals it depicts. Check out more from the book here.
The Dropcast Roundtable
A discussion of Ralph Lauren’s impact on street fashion & culture.
As the original ambassador of American style and culture, virtually everyone you speak to will have their own story about how they first came into contact with Ralph Lauren. In this special episode of The Dropcast, Jian DeLeon, Noah Thomas, and Corey Stokes sit down with notorious Polo collector Ezra Wine to discuss the cultural significance of Ralph Lauren, the brand’s recent embrace of its legacy in streetwear, and Ezra’s “Lo and Behold” exhibition with Public School NY, possibly the largest and most definitive exhibition of vintage Polo to ever be shown to the public.
– Ezra Wine
Exploring the personal passion that Ralph Lauren has inspired in its obsessive collectors and most committed ambassadors.
For some people, Ralph Lauren isn’t just a label – it’s a way of life.
Queens, New York City
You might have encountered Queens rapper Meyhem Lauren through his music, or perhaps through his on-screen appearances with fellow culinaire-cum-rap extraordinaire Action Bronson. But he’s also an avid collector of classic Ralph Lauren.
While his wardrobe is certainly loaded with essential pieces (such as that coveted 1992 Stadium Jacket), his archive mainly consists of pieces he would personally wear—making no secret of his penchant for all things extravagant and silk.
We met up with Meyhem to check out some of his favorites from his personal collection, as well as to talk about what Ralph Lauren means to him as a brand that’s managed to capture people’s hearts and minds for 50 years.
Paterson, New Jersey
Aside from having a hand in creating some of the biggest hits of the ‘00s, from Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls,” to Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” producer Justin Smith, better known as Just Blaze, is a pretty prolific collector of Polo, going all the way back to the ‘90s.
His impressive personal archive, which spans several wardrobes, features pieces from across the spectrum of Ralph Lauren’s many sublines and collections, as well as sample pieces that never even hit the production line.
For Just Blaze, Ralph Lauren’s creation of aspirational clothing that made you feel like the real thing created a look that never went out of style, even as other trends came and went. Now, their reinvention of classic garments from the original collections goes to the heart of what hip-hop, bringing the brand’s timeless appeal to a new audience.
Love & Loyalty: The Lo‑Lifes
A portrait series of the people who made Ralph Lauren an icon of the streets.
Thirstin Howl III
Brooklyn, New York City
Founder of Lo-Life, rapper, author, producer, director, actor, and hip-hop and fashion historian.
What does the Lo-Life Crew stand for? At first, it stood for Polo Life, but that second syllable, Lo referred to being at the bottom, you know, down, dirty, grimy, low life. But in the new millennium, we had a transition. We turned it into love and loyalty. Myself, my frame of mind changed, my everyday activities changed, but I was surrounded by the same friends from 30 years ago.
I wanted to introduce this new frame of mind I was entering. I had suffered a lot of consequences of my actions, but they were probably the best things to happen to me. Incarceration introduced me to (Cleveland Browns running back) Jim Brown’s “Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change” program, and that really helped me to grow. I ended up getting a job at MTV, freelance, and that introduced me to film production. Now I’ve got people fighting over me. I can build a set anywhere. I can frame anything. I take advantage of everything I see, wherever I go.
How do you think you got your role in the Lo-Life community? In the beginning, when we went hard in the streets, your status was based on how real you were. Where I lived in Marcus Garvey Village, I was one of the people who represented as a leader. I was always a protector to my friends and to my family. It’s just the way I am. As for what Lo-Life became, a lot of it came from me as an entertainer. My first single that dropped, the Brooklyn Hard Rock, nobody really knew who I was, yet, but the Polo mesmerized them. It’s not even that I was trying to push or promote Polo. There’s no image to this. No gimmick. I just came as myself. Lo-Lifes are real big in that. Be yourself. Be who you are. Stand up and be that person.
Why do you think Ralph Lauren fit with who you are? Ralph Lauren was the first designer I ever saw that was seasoned. He came every season, gave you multiple logos, multiple styles. I never witnessed that before in a brand. Constantly switching. That’s when it became a drug, because among Lo-Lifes, we were real competitive with each other.
I’ve never been in one of those country clubs, but that’s an actual thing that’s going on, depending on your walk of life or where you come from. They live it in their own way. But the streets is where we made it a religion. That’s the difference.
Brooklyn, New York City
Lo-Life, author, entrepreneur, and creative director.
What first drew you to Polo? The colors. It was different. The style at the time was more or less shearling coats, leather bombers, sheepskin. When Lo-Life started wearing Polo, it was all eyes on us, like “Who are these kids with all these bright colors, standing out with the knapsacks?” You know what I mean? So by us having all these colors and bringing that style to Brooklyn, New York, we sorted created our own thing.
Do you think there was an aspirational appeal to it also? Definitely. My mom and my father, they weren’t corporate people. They didn’t have big city or government jobs, so that whole Ralph Lauren lifestyle, I wasn’t really aware of it. I’d probably seen some on television, but even then I was too young to really understand the deepness in it. So yeah, coming in contact with the clothing opened my eyes to a lot of that, for sure.
What do you do beyond Lo-Life? Outside of this, I’m an author, entrepreneur and creative director. I do a lot of work with the youth in the community. Having an opportunity to work with the kids, to share my experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly—and guide them toward a better direction, that’s what it’s all about. Turning my mess into a message. If we can help them live a better life without the negativity, it’s a great thing, you know. It’s a big world out there and it’s our responsibility to see as much of it as possible, and impact others in a positive way.
Paris, France/Charleroi, Belgium
Lo-Life and DJ.
What is the Lo-Life scene like in Paris/Charleroi?The Lo-Life scene in Paris is quite cool, but I mostly know the scene in Belgium where I’m staying lately. The Parisian scene is much bigger, and you have the OG members in touch with each other, creating chapters. In Belgium, it’s more about few real aficionados, and as a new Lo-Life, I’m more in contact with newer members.
How did you get involved with it? I’ve been a streetwear enthusiast since I was 14, and until I was 27 I was mixing various streetwear brands, mostly French. I first started wearing Polo exclusively in 2015, over a few months I became fascinated by all the vintage collections. I was seduced by the culture surrounding the brand, learning about the origins and everything. It was exciting.
What do you think the appeal is? It’s universal. You can go anywhere in the world and meet someone wearing a Ralph Lauren polo. I was working in the Ivory Coast for a few weeks and I met Polo addicts everywhere and we immediately connected. When I was in Hungary, near Balaton, I came across a family with 2 kids, both parents in Ralph Lauren, head-to-toe. There’s something in the brand’s DNA that just attracts people.
Lo-Life, DJ and Hip Hop Veteran.
What’s the scene like in Paris? How did you get involved? Lo-Life in Paris isn’t big, but it’s influential. Most of the people involved in the culture are active in the wider scene; DJs, producers, rappers, designers, graffiti artists. A new wave of french rappers like Alpha Wann, Caballero and JeanJass are repping the brand in their videos. It drives new blood into the community.
Ralph Lauren wasn’t big in Paris until they dropped the Polo Sport line in ‘93. They had so many colorways, logos and styles, and it was expensive, not so easy to find, so it was exclusive. Me and some others guys like DJ Fresh, D-Lo, and VR the Legend started wearing full Lo every day, without even knowing about the Lo-Life community. We were just going to New York, seeing cool guys wearing Polo and trying to get some.
It was only in the late ‘90s with the article in The Source about the Lo-Life crew and Thirstin Howl III’s “Brooklyn Hard Rock” and “The Polorican” that we started to understand the bigger picture.
Why do you think Ralph Lauren has such universal appeal? He built his brand not only through fashion, but as a lifestyle. Whatever you do in life, you’ll be able to rock some Ralph Lauren at some point. Polo is classic. It might not be the latest hype trend, but it never goes out of style. It’s timeless.
50 years and many more to come. We take an exclusive look at Ralph Lauren’s latest collection.
The ‘92 Stadium Collection
Commemorating the return of their iconic ‘92 Stadium Collection, we created an exclusive lookbook showcasing the range’s most iconic pieces.
Picking a single collection to reissue from Ralph Lauren’s 50-year history would be a daunting task for even the most ardent enthusiast, but most would agree their iconic 1992 Polo Sport Stadium collection is a solid choice.
Since its release over 25 years ago, the Stadium Collection has been heralded by both Ralph Lauren lovers and OG streetwear heads as a high point of design, style and pure aesthetics from the label. The use of large logo and graphic placements, bold color blocking patterns and top-to-toe coordinated outfits fit perfectly with the sneaker and streetwear phenomenons emerging on the east and west coasts of America, and many of the collection’s fundamentals have endured, influencing the work of countless other designers well into the 21st century.
The broader revival of ‘90s style in recent years has also highlighted how strong the collection actually is, with many elements feeling as fresh today as they were when they first released. The ‘P-Wing’ logo, featuring the winged foot of the Ancient Greek god Hermes superimposed over a varsity P, speaks clearly to fashion and streetwear’s current penchant for clear, concise and hard-hitting graphics, while panelled constructions and a wealth of pockets, adjusters and technical details fit perfectly into a maximalist ethos being pushed by numerous labels right now.
Any committed follower of fashion and streetwear will no doubt be familiar with the Ralph Lauren’s oft-touted influence on how street fashion came to be, but for those of us who weren’t there the first time around, the full extent of that legacy is difficult to grasp. Looking at the ‘92 Stadium Collection today, presented in the style it originally helped to define, those dots are much easier to connect.
Fashion lines that blend high fashion, sportswear, outdoors apparel and streetwear might be a dime a dozen these days, but when you consider this is a collection that released before sneaker culture had even made it out of the States, and before the world’s most iconic streetwear brands had even opened their doors (be they in New York, LA or Tokyo), the importance of the ‘92 Stadium collection becomes all the more clear. When the Lo-Lifes say Ralph Lauren is a lifestyle, they’re not just talking about themselves. The legacy runs through the fabric of the culture itself.
For 50 years, Ralph Lauren has been shaping the way we perceive and create menswear, helping to establish the foundations of fashion and streetwear that we’ve come to know and love. It’s a brand that’s revered by young and old, designers and consumers, die-hards and casuals.
– Ralph Lauren
Yet, Ralph Lauren’s impact extends beyond garments. What started out as a fashion brand has gone on to influence musicians, inspire cultures, and mould identities that could never have existed without the brand’s truly innovative approach to style. We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again, Ralph Lauren is not a brand, it’s a lifestyle. And, over the years, it’s built a symbiotic relationship with its followers whose experiences have become as much a part of the brand’s story as it has theirs.
It’s impossible to tell what the fashion industry will look like in five years, let alone another 50. But one thing is for certain: Ralph Lauren will forever be a guiding light.
Project Managers: Rachael Bigelow, Johanna Gerhardt
Editor: Aaron Howes
Contributing Editor: Gregk Foley
Product Manager: Harry Manion
Producers: Chad Ghiron, Indigo Janka, Klaudia Podsiadlo, Justin Trevin
Creative: Shane Gormley, Rob Hydes
Icon Design: Maria Ferraresi
UI/UX Designers: Nano Nansen & Stefanie Tremp
Developer: Romano Casselini
Producers: Chad Ghiron, Indigo Janka, Klaudia Podsiadlo
Editor: Johnny Castle
Camera: Nick Castle, Johnny Castle
Photography: Johnny Castle
Creative: Shane Gormley, Rob Hydes
Camera Assistant: Aaron Rhodan
Locations: GoldBar NYC (Meyhem)
Vintage Ralph Lauren clothing for the Public School interview provided by Ezra Wine
Timeline Archive Credits:
Photographer: Bryan Luna
Producer: Justin Trevino
Dropcast Roundtable Credits:
Hosts: Jian DeLeon, Noah Thomas & Corey Stokes
Guest: Ezra Wine
Producer: Sonia Manalili & Andrew Keegan
Communities Across Cultures Credits:
Take Ivy Imagery appears courtesy of powerHouse Books
Bury Me With the Lo On Imagery appears courtesy of Tom Gould & Thirstin Howl III