A few years ago we made the case for why Ralph Lauren is arguably the greatest streetwear brand of all time. A lofty take, sure, but like many of the brands shoehorned into the “streetwear” umbrella these days—it's definitely not how the label would describe itself. But the focus on product that tells a story, represents a distinct visual universe, and has the ability to mean different things to different people—that's something Ralph Lauren pioneered, and a methodology many street fashion brands have tweaked to make their own.
But Ralph Lauren—both the brand and the man—have always stood apart from this overall conversation. It lives in a universe of its own, chugging along the aspirational galaxy envisioned by the designer in 1967, comprising several self-contained planets that sort of orbit around each other.
There's the high-tech sports gear of RLX, the rustic Red Dead Redemption cowboy in RRL, the suave cosmopolitan attitude of Purple Label, and then of course, the rich world of Polo Ralph Lauren, which sort of ties all these seemingly disparate aesthetics together with a bit of American trad and military surplus thrown in.
“Polo allows me to costume myself in the lifestyle I imagine I am living,” says Dallas Penn, a longtime Ralph Lauren collector and cultural commentator. “Prepster. Yachtsman. Country gentleman. Alpine hiker rescue team. James Bond 007. They are what I imagine is the authentic apparel for those lifestyles.”
The magic of Ralph Lauren is how the brand mixes all its products together. Channeling the DNA of its founder—who freely mixes tuxedo jackets with washed denim and Salomon trail sneakers—the brand is at its best when it treats its garments like LEGO bricks. Sure, you could put a set together according to the instructions, but the kids who see a jet fighter in a pile of gray blocks meant to make a castle tend to be more fun.
It's a statement echoed in Bury Me With the Lo On, a book by photographer Tom Gould and Thirstin Howl III, a founder of New York City's Lo-Life crew of discerning shoplifters and Ralph Lauren enthusiasts. In the book's foreword, Bonz Malone describes the Lo-Lifes as “a group of guys who stole garments because society told them they couldn't afford the American Dream.”
In the process, they built on Ralph Lauren's codes, flipping the script on his vision for aspirational American style and giving the garments new meaning—sometimes literally. While sneakerheads were re-christening Jordans with names like the “Bordeauxs” and “Grapes,” Lo-Lifes developed their own lingua franca.
Ralph Lauren's circular crests were dubbed the “Cookie” patch, all-over silk shirts became known as the “Barber Shops,” and the Ski '92 collection's puffers became known as the “Suicide” ski jacket—an item so covetable in the streets that walking outside in one may as well be a death wish. Even though Ralph Lauren's collections were acclaimed in the fashion world, it was the label's subcultural significance that deified the designer, imbuing his garments with a religious sanctity that Lo heads still revere today.
“My whole Lo-Life family influenced the streets of Brooklyn, the streets of Manhattan, and the Bronx—which is the core people of the street who wore it the way we wear it,” says Thirstin. “That's where I would give the credit to. Us making it a culture.”
This year, Polo Ralph Lauren leaned into its subcultural status heavily for the re-release of several of its most sought-after collections. It tapped its '90s archives to reissue the “Stadium” collection, “Snow Beach” collection, “CP-93” collection, and ”Downhill Ski” offerings. The “Stadium” and “Snow Beach” offerings were especially limited, and saw the brand's new products being featured in a new light. While the label tapped photographer Tom Gould for the official campaign images, which follow in the aspirational Americana milieu Polo is known for, that certainly didn't stop boutiques like Bodega from putting a more youthful, street-oriented spin on the products, or Commonwealth from tapping 'Lo head Eddie Huang to model the “CP-93” collection.
“The brand and the clothing have crossed cultures and become a great uniform for people like myself who belong to multiple communities and interests,” says Ezra Wine, a collector who's been wearing Ralph Lauren since 1995, and recently partnered with Public School on a vintage Polo Ralph Lauren exhibit titled Lo and Behold. The project featured several rooms styled after '90s bedrooms, part-time capsule and part-nostalgic reverence for a time that many regard as the heyday of Ralph Lauren's street fashion dominance.
In tapping the likes of Tom Gould to shoot the photos, freely sending guys like Thirstin Howl III key pieces from the collection, and acknowledging the impact street culture has had on the brand in RL magazine, Ralph Lauren is finally putting its second life in streetwear into its established canon.
But nostalgia is a tricky thing to do right, and its reissues of iconic pieces like the Snow Beach pullover and Stadium collection anoraks sit with new interpretations of those lines' respective legacies. It's a little familiarity without being too on-the-nose in its archive-mining, introducing pieces like an all-black take on the Snow Beach collection, or down puffers inspired by the Stadium collection that walked in Ralph Lauren's 50th anniversary show.
“Ralph Lauren deserves to mine his archives, but I was a little sad that there wasn’t a larger acknowledgment to the real streetwear stylists that validated the brand,” laments Penn. “Streetwear and retro releases are all the rage without ever acknowledging who made the items desirable in the first place.”
Polo loyalists and longtime collectors had mixed feelings about the reissues, but Thirstin Howl III and Dallas Penn are happy to be getting box-fresh versions of some of their favorite items, and for much less than inflated aftermarket prices. Granted, many of the most covetable items sold out instantly, and Thirstin thinks the retros will become as valuable as their predecessors.
“The only people mad though are the motherfuckers who paid $4,000 or $5,000 for certain pieces,” posits Thirstin. “These retro items— they're going to be worth $4,000 or $5,000 in the next couple of years. It's just enhancing the market.”
Catering to old heads is one thing, but Ralph Lauren is learning how to court the interest of a younger audience. The re-releases of the classic collections worked to this end. A New Yorker article quotes Patrice Louvet, CEO of Ralph Lauren, who points out that 78% of people who purchased the anniversary Stadium collection at a Ralph Lauren store in North America were new consumers to the brand.
That's precisely the audience the label hopes to grow with its upcoming collaboration with London skate brand Palace, a partnership that came totally out of left field, and is the first external collab of its kind that Ralph Lauren has done. Of course, if diehard 'Lo heads like Ezra Wine would have their say, they would have preferred to see the house of the horse continue to stay in its own lane.
“I never thought I'd see Polo collaborate with any other brand,” says Wine. “I don't think they should collaborate with any other brands. They are the the originators.”
A majority of the old-school 'Lo heads either share Wine's sentiment, or haven't really checked for the new collaboration. Thirstin Howl III certainly is more interested in his era of Ralph Lauren than the Palace collab. And he admits his kids are more excited for brands like Supreme than he is. But Dallas Penn understands why the brand is doing it, and is willing to give it a chance.
“Polo needs new blood to get excited about their clothes again,” adds Penn. He hasn't seen a lot of the Palace collaboration, but is an early fan of the sweater featuring the Polo Bear doing a kickflip. “If it’s just gonna be these grumpy old men in moth-bitten sweaters, the culture will be dead before we know it.”
Of course, if guys like Thirstin and Eddie Huang had their way, Ralph Lauren would be collaborating with aficionados like them who helped put the brand on street culture's radar. After all, Thirstin's own Lo-Life clothing label made homages to items like the Stadium collection anorak before the official reissue, bringing the item back into streetwear's collective consciousness.
“Ralph Lauren and his company should give back in some form,” suggests Thirstin. “Come give back to our communities. Do something in respect to the people that helped popularize the brand and make it a religious garment.”
Now read about the history of the Polo Bear.