The Highsnobiety Crowns are an annual awards series celebrating the very best in streetwear and street culture over the past 12 months. See the full list of this year’s winners here.
Contrary to Kanye West’s rap on Rhymefest’s “Brand New,” Ralph Lauren wasn’t anywhere near boring before West started wearing his gear. In fact, when the two came face to face in an iconic moment captured at Ralph Lauren’s FW15 show, the result was something akin to a 21st-century take on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel. West is seen beaming as Lauren touches his cheek, the way a father would proudly size up his full-grown son.
In a New York Times profile later that year, West said that’s exactly the way Lauren felt, telling Jon Caramanica, “Do you know what he said when he did that? ‘This is my son.’”
But West is not Ralph Lauren’s only progeny. Indeed, this year showed just how much the designer and his label have singlehandedly shaped the intersection of street culture and fashion — and why Lauren himself remains one of the most inspirational people in the world today.
His hard-won route to success is the American Dream writ large, a fake-it-till-you-make-it narrative that still informs the strategy of up-and-coming rappers and under-the-radar brands alike. At his core, Lauren is a kid from the Bronx whose dreams didn’t correlate with his bank account, so he willed his success into existence.
As documented many times, Lauren launched his eponymous line in 1967 with wide ties that stores first refused to sell. The haberdasher refused to compromise on his vision from the jump, only working with merchants that would carry his offerings the way he envisaged them.
The nascent brand became a success and its offerings grew accordingly, expanding into a full collection of classic American menswear, and in 1971, debuting its first womenswear collection, largely inspired by Lauren’s wife Ricky.
Among the many things Lauren influenced, the first was his approach to retail. He didn’t merely put his clothing on a rack, he offered a fully realized lifestyle context for them. This made people want to see themselves not just in the clothes, but in the Ralph Lauren universe.
Each garment was a temporary ticket to the high life, whether it was the Ivy League-inspired trad of Polo Ralph Lauren, the après-ski-driven aesthetic of RLX, the rustic vintage appeal of RRL, or the suave European jet set vibes of Ralph Lauren Purple Label. A simple embroidered horse on a sweatshirt, Oxford, or curved-brim baseball cap came to symbolize myriad wearable escapes and identities.
The Ralph Lauren label came to define what we now call “lifestyle brands.” Everything Ralph Lauren touches becomes part of its kingdom, from the snowboard-thrasher garments that became the iconic Snow Beach line to the Olympic-inspired Stadium collection that was as much a hit in the streets as it was on the runway.
Adding that signature Ralph Lauren touch to everything from pocket tees to teddy bears elevates the mundane into something special. It’s the reason a brand such as Supreme can get away with selling logo-laden bricks, Braun calculators, and crowbars.
In fact, in many ways Supreme has flipped the Ralph Lauren business model and perfected it for street culture. It too has spent a long time cultivating strong brand equity and a consistent aesthetic that isn’t too attached to one particular lifestyle or subculture. This makes Supreme equally comfortable collaborating on anything from Hanes undergarments to Louis Vuitton apparel and luggage.
Perhaps that’s why, when Ralph Lauren finally did an external collaboration with a brand in this space, it went with London skate brand Palace and not Supreme.
As Gregk Foley stated in our article on the topic, “The closeness in style and sensibility would possibly make a Supreme x Ralph Lauren collaboration too easy or too obvious. With so many Supreme designs rooted in the language of Ralph Lauren, what would a collaboration offer that’s different?”
The Palace x Ralph Lauren collaboration was exciting because it was a “zag” when other companies would have done a “zig.” One could imagine Lauren himself asking what he’d get from partnering with another NYC label, one that deals in the same power of brand equity and quality clothing as his own company, versus a scrappy young London brand with a clear, self-effacing voice and a decidedly British sense of humor.
And so, five decades later, maybe Lauren is finally acknowledging his place in the streetwear mythos. The Ralph Lauren legacy runs parallel to the rise of streetwear, yet very much in its own lane. But by amplifying the synergy between both movements, the veteran designer reminds us that no dream is too crazy.