Ralph Lauren‘s Polo Bear has been synonymous with the brand for decades. The work of artist and graphic designer Richard “Dick” Tahsin, Grailed recently spoke with the Cleveland, Ohio native to get his take on the signature design.
“I liked the lifestyle that he was representing. The whole American dream kind of thing was something that very much appealed to me,” Tahsin said of Ralph Lauren. “As a little kid in Ohio I thought, ‘Hey, if he can do it, so can I.’”
Tahsin worked in Ralph Lauren’s art department for menswear from 1990 to 1996, creating artwork for some of the label’s most iconic pieces, including the Ski 92 jacket and Roulette button up, in addition to the standout Polo Bear. During his conversation with Grailed, the artist/designer detailed how he went from Ralph Lauren enthusiast to being an instrumental player in Polo subculture.
Below, we’ve highlighted the standout excerpts from the interview, which you can read in-full over at Grailed.
On getting into Ralph Lauren:
“I majored in art in high school and won countless art awards over the four years I attended high school. I got a scholarship to go to FIT and originally my scholarship was to major in fashion design. But I really liked more of the illustration and the artwork. Midway through my first year at FIT, I wanted to switch my major to fashion illustration. However, I still wanted to keep all of my fashion design art courses. So, they did something that was unprecedented at the time: They allowed me to switch my major midway though and keep all of my continuing fashion design art courses. So I was majoring in fashion illustration and then minoring in fashion design, which they really don’t offer.”
“I began freelancing for [Ralph Lauren] right after I graduated. I was actually freelancing in the women’s division. I was there for the summer and in the early fall of ’85, then took another position with another menswear company, Alfred Sung. After I left that company I was hired by Ralph in 1990 in the art department for menswear.”
On being a fan of Ralph Lauren before entering the company:
“Growing up in Cleveland, I used to always wear Ralph Lauren. My parents told me, If you want to buy designer clothing and other things, you have to get a job. I was a bag boy at the local grocery store here. That allowed me to have the income to continue to go out and buy timeless Ralph Lauren pieces that, to this day, I still have.”
“I vowed in high school that I would someday work for this company in some capacity. Sure enough, years later, that’s exactly what I did. So I’m fortunate enough to say that a dream of mine became a reality.”
On if he knew his graphics would become iconic:
“None of us thought it would happen. The company has always been built on the whole timeless look. And yes, Ralph always wanted everything to be sort of ageless. For example, when I was doing that Roulette Wheel shirt, I just thought it was something fun and kitschy—something someone in Las Vegas would wear to go gambling. Yet here, 20-something years later, that’s an iconic piece.”
“A lot of the inspiration came from the ’30s and ’40s regarding prints and things. When we were working on them we had no idea that people would still be clamoring for these things. I think the urban community really took to it and built it up in the popular mainstream culture. I don’t think that was ever an overt attempt by the company thinking, “Oh, the hip hop culture is going to jump on this and turn it into something…” I mean no. We had no idea.”
“Take the Ski 92 Jacket: That was something we literally just thought of putting on the back of the coat. There was no conscious thought further down the pike other than to make something that would sell that day in the store.”
On getting assigned to make the iconic Polo Bear:
“Yes. I don’t know who made the original Polo Bear art that looked like a raccoon but that was sort of the consensus. It just looked like a raccoon. There’s actually some real early apparel pieces that have the first version of the bear on it that did not go over too well.”
“I was called in by Ralph’s brother, Jerry Lauren, and Bobbi Renales, who was the design director for the menswear line at the time.”
“They said We need this bear to look good, and knew I had background knowledge in vintage toys and dolls. So they just thought I would have a good affinity for getting a character out of the bear as opposed to just looking like a stiff kind of animal.”
“I took a crack at it and came up with what has, since then, been sort of the iconic representation of the Polo Bear throughout the 1990s. I created and drew all the original Bear art from 1991 up to 1996, when I left the company. They’ve always used the same Polo Bear head which is what I created. I would draw all the bodies on the Bear with the correct outfits and such when the designers would come to me.”
On his memories of Ralph:
“I will say that Ralph was always a very gentle and kind man as an employer and boss. I dealt with him closely when I was working on the Ralph Lauren Barbie doll. After my work on the bear, and having it be really successful, Mattel was pursuing Ralph to have him design a Barbie for Bloomingdales. Every year Bloomingdales released an exclusive designer-themed doll. Ralph kept saying he didn’t want his name linked up with Barbie. Finally in 1995, Mattel came to Ralph again and because of my interest in toys and the success of the Polo Bear, Jerry approached me again.”
“That whole process of coming up with the look and the packaging was great. That was when I really got to work really with Ralph. He would really lend his insight and his feedback regarding the designs I came up with and presented to him. He’d say, Instead of Houndstooth pants, let’s do a solid gray flannel pant. We initially designed a Ralph Lauren Barbie and a Ken as well, which was sort of unheard of because it was always a designer Barbie being sold. Since he’s known for menswear and womenswear, he wanted to be one of the first to also do a male doll. That’s how the Barbie’s navy blazer with a crest on it came into play. I worked with Mattel as a sort of product manager and going back and forth; I was showing designs to Ralph and getting input and asking Mattel if they can do this. We really wanted the Blackwatch purse accessory that came with the doll and had to figure out how to scale down the print. It was a very intricate process. But we were all really happy with the final outcome.”
Again, visit Grailed for the entire conversation.
In related news, this documentary explains hip-hop’s Ralph Lauren obsession.