Okay so the nineties should be a distant memory right now, and in many ways they are. I spent a lot of time and energy, and money, purchasing my clothing from the same designer. I am not sure how it happened, but I would say that I must have had a preoccupation with Polo Ralph Lauren from 1990 until around 2001. It was an unhealthy fixation, culminating with the height of the labels popularity in 1993 that continued when the company attempted their hand at other ideas, such as their Purple and Black labels, which were last minute attempts to capitalize on the popularity established earlier, that seemed a day late and a dollar short.
When I first started wearing Polo Ralph Lauren it was as though you were “dressing up” and entering another world one knew nothing about. The clothing seemed expensive at the time, and wearing it amounted to making some type of socio-political statement. Someone, by purchasing something that was completely contradictory to the fashion sense of a young African-American we were asserting ourselves in a different way. In those days it was about looking like something other than what you were, and at that time Polo Ralph Lauren was the most inaccessible thing to us so it was easy to loose yourself in those ideas.
You make up your own rules as you go along and you come to your own conclusions. Fashion was very fun at that time; sure there were rappers, stars and entertainers wearing Polo Ralph Lauren at that time and many of those same individuals were aggressively pushing Purple Label once it came out, but that wasn’t really the point. I didn’t want to look to anyone else, I had my own ideas about how to assert myself through the clothing. The thing about the label is that for some it is a portal for high fashion in general, and for others, it is the end of the road. I know guys that are still wearing Polo Ralph Lauren, head to toe, twenty years after the fact.
In all of this you are probably wondering what my thoughts on other labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica are. Well, Tommy Hilfiger aggressively marketed their ideas towards the hip-hop community, so as interesting as it was, it never felt the same as wearing Polo Ralph Lauren. Tommy Hilfiger was not the real McCoy, it was not the genuine article. It lacked the authenticity of Polo Ralph Lauren. Nautica was a poor man’s Polo Ralph Lauren, you could wear it if you wanted to, but they didn’t go as “hard” as Polo Ralph Lauren did; the ideas were too clean and lacked imagination.
Tommy Hilfiger lost its way because it was never truly its own label to begin with. It started off attempting to turn the idea of Polo Ralph Lauren on its head, and ended up trying to bring ideas normally associated with other American sportswear labels like Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, but failed to execute those ideas as successfully as it had the former. It added something that didn’t exist in the beginning, but ended up attempting to provide something that no one really needed by the end of the decade. Polo Ralph Lauren was a balancing act; when they tried to put out Double Ralph Lauren, the ideas were good, but the clothing was so trashy you would be foolish to spend good money to buy it. When the company tried their hand at high-end European fare they couldn’t pull it off as well as the other companies that had been in existence long before Ralph Lauren himself was even conceived.
Today the idea of African-Americans wearing clothing that isn’t typically associated with the African-American culture is not a novelty at all. Young Blacks wear Levi’s 501 jeans incorrectly, in their own way, and a lot of the “couture” hip-hop labels are not owned by African-Americans. The difference is in how urban fashion has evolved from something in which you used whatever was available to create an urban look into a world wear companies aggressively design clothing with a young African-American consumer (of whomever else wants this look) in mind. Hip-hop in general is a multi-billion dollar industry supported, endorsed, and promoted, heavily by everyone else but African-Americans; it is about money, not culture.
I try to stay with those trends somewhat; I have a few plaid shirts and one flannel, and even tried wearing jeans that were too small, but I look ridiculous and I remind myself that I am 37. It is like “what the hell are you doing to yourself”, if I were Jay-Z, and made my livelihood through hip-hop that would be one thing, but it is time to move on. As fun as it was then I have mixed feelings about Polo Ralph Lauren these days. Every now and again I see someone wearing something cool, that would be nice to have, and I like what they have done with it. Then I see it in the store, and I look around and see what else is out there, and I never buy the Polo Ralph Lauren. It just feels like you are in denial and it is 1993 all over again, like you should be in the twenty-first century for a change.
Polo Ralph Lauren is about pairing classic looks together and having some fun with fashion history. In the beginning it felt like you were doing something “authentic”, but you then realize that this stuff is all over the place and if you want those looks, you can get them anywhere. Nobody really cares at the end of the day. One day I woke up and realized that I wasn’t fashionable; I was a caricature of what happens when someone is fashion obsessed and lacks the imagination to move on. Over time my wardrobe, which was full of nothing but Ralph Lauren, slowly but surely included looks by other designers. In time that meant other looks that Ralph Lauren had nothing to do with, those the designer would say were trendy and frown upon.
When I go into the ghetto mall in my city and take a look around it is hard to believe that I was ever into Ralph Lauren. You may see some Polo, but then you also see Lacoste and LRG, but the real accomplishment are the high-end, trendy stores were you see looks for hundreds of dollars from designers I have never heard of before. Real looks, and original ideas, that seem to come out of nowhere that are far better than anything than I was trying to pass off back in the day. It is nice to go into a store and buy what you want without the fixation of which designer put it together. It is refreshing, liberating even to do something else for a change.
I can’t say that everyone will have the pleasure of experiencing such an unhealthy fixation as I had with Ralph Lauren in my youth. Perhaps you have your own stories, if so share them with us. I could stand to wear more expensive threads than I do now; my look has digressed into a mash up of conflicting ideas without any direction and order. I have lost interest in portraying the regal, royal stereotypes and have lost my way. You may find me in a thrift store somewhere, and I may actually walk into Old Navy and take a look around. Sometimes the prices at T.J. Maxx, as good as they are, can be too much money for me to part with. Life was easier when it was just Ralph Lauren; I knew what I was going to wear, how much I was going to pay, and exactly where to shop at. Sometimes it is nice to let someone else do the grueling “work” of deciding how you are going to look …