The Brand and The Music: Ralph Lauren & Hip-Hop
By Isaiah Shelton
Tommy Hilfiger made one of the brightest decisions in designer history when he summoned R&B princess at the time, Aaliyah, as a model for the brand in the mid 90’s. The label would soon become the staple for trends infusing American-classic elements into the Hip-Hop radius during the period.
But when talking American-classic, one has to mention Ralph Lauren – the man and the brand that is arguably unmatched in anticipating a burgeoning appetite in the marketplace for classic American style. While many have borrowed from the pot in fashioning their own version of Americana – Hilfiger included - no one has had the longevity of Ralph Lauren.
I think this is true within the realm of Hip-Hop as well. Rarely did I see 7 For All Mankind or True Religion denim so prominently in the inner city before Fergie name-dropped the brands in “My Humps” back in ’05, and one can hardly deny Hip-Hop’s influence on people purchasing luxury items from the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton; but in the face of all these coming and going trends, Ralph Lauren has always remained relevant in the Rap game.
From back when they thought pink Polo’s would hurt the Roc” (à la Kanye West) to the current mentions of Ralph Lauren’s higher-end Purple Label by artists such as Wale, the éclat of the man on the horse in Hip-Hop culture is unmatched.
But what draws members of an often opposing league to the aesthetic of traditional Americanism? Brandon Martin, 22 from Los Angeles, says it’s partly satirical. “Those clothes weren’t made for ethnic people,” Martin claims. “So putting them on is basically a middle finger to the higher class. It’s a sign that ‘we’re here too’ and that we are part of this country rather they like it or not.”
Hip-Hop artists have often alluded to the point Martin makes by showboating their expensive tastes in things such as foreign cars, highly-profile, often non-black women, and fine fabrics, all the while representing a culture of listeners deprived of such opulence. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne holds this as it’s leitmotif.
However, there’s always the question of what is thought by those on the other side, those who wish to preserve certain ways of dress as a paragon of some intangible honor or to memorialize a glorious period now gone. Geary Olmstead, 51, is one of these people. He’s a white male from Pennsylvania who grew up in a place and time where classic-Americanism meant nothing aside from everyday dress. I noticed him wearing a fitted Ralph Lauren polo shirt and asked him about his view on the brand and how much he feels younger people parallel his views.
“It’s just the way people dressed back then,” Olmstead said. “The younger generations don’t seem to care too much. They take tradition and make it baggy and oversized. Call me old, but ‘Hip-Hopers’ need a tailor.”
Surely Olmstead speaks for many people of his background and generation, perhaps even some clothing designers. Tommy Hilfiger was thrown under a bus when rumors spread virally that he had said that he didn’t think ethnic people look good in his clothes during an appearance on Oprah. The rumors as well as the entire interview were later proven false when both he and Oprah cleared things up on national television. However, despite the falsity of this case, the disparity of ethnic workers at All American beach shops such as Hollister or even the various assortments of sizes carried and made by certain stores and brands are testaments to the reality that certain clothes and fashion lines were crafted with a certain vision in mind.
Having a vision is fine, but designers perpetuate close-mindedness when it becomes a problem that those outside of their vision tailor their clothes to fit different paradigms and familiarities. The designers limit themselves in understanding the diversity of the human experience. One reason I think the Ralph Lauren brand has shown prolific success in Hip-Hop culture is because Ralph Lauren himself was able to tap into such diversity. He realized a certain American aesthetic from a far, and molded it into something familiar, much like people in Hip-Hop culture are now doing.
“I designed this line behind the lifestyle I wished I could live,” he once said. “I didn’t have all of this when I was growing up; these are the things that I love.” I’d argue Lauren’s premise for creating the brand resonates with those who didn’t grow up in large Victorian style homes and wear the pieces. Let this be proof that clothes can embody so many more experiences than just getting dressed in the morning.
Ralph Lauren, like very little things in this country, provides a lens for viewing the American experience holistically and fairly. Finally, we have a brand where one size truly fits all.
Check out XXL Magazine’s 2010 Feature on the history of Ralph Lauren Polo and Hip Hop: http://www.xxlmag.com/features/2010/11/polo-and-hip-hop-an-oral-history-pt-1/