Race + Fashion: The Almighty Allure Of Polo

By Guest Contributor Dallas Penn, cross-posted from Dallas Penn

I can remember the first day I ever wanted to wear a piece of Ralph Lauren clothing. I was with a group of friends on the subway heading to Manhattan one morning on the way to high school. I spotted a teenager in the car next to ours wearing a color-blocked windbreaker. The vibrant colors of the jacket resembled the packaging from the Lifesavers candy roll. Everything else in my eyesight turned to grayscale as I went into hunter mode to acquire the jacket.

When the R train pulled into Lexington Avenue, I went after the dude like a wild animal. I ran down the morning rush-hour platform with reckless abandon, people screaming in my wake as they were almost pushed onto the train tracks. I chased dude up the escalator, nearly knocking people over the edge as I pursued him relentlessly. The kid in the windbreaker jacket disappeared from me at the landing, but my obsession with Polo by Ralph Lauren has stayed with me since.

This was in 1986 and here I stand 25 years later with over 1000 pieces of Polo by Ralph Lauren clothing and gear in my archives. What made me give over half of my life (and frankly, over half my net wealth) to the loyalty of this brand? It is more than Ralph Lauren’s slick marketing efforts which describe his Polo brand as the ultimate in luxury lifestyle apparel. It is that kid’s efforts and mine–and all Black kids’ efforts–to retain the Polo pieces they wore on their backs. This was the New York City I grew up in.

There are plenty of pleasant things to remember about growing up in the 1980s inside of the world’s greatest city. The New York Knicks drafted Patrick Ewing, and he even had a dope signature sneaker by Adidas. The Metropolitans baseball team won a world title. The Cosby Show described Black excellence–in Brooklyn no less. Copping tags on the subway was too risky, but you could bomb every streetlight base or sidewalk surface until your heart was content. Crack cocaine dominated the police blotters and the newsreels, but that could be avoided.

In the mid-1980s New York City had two (2) hip-hop performance clubs where I spent my weekends partying with friends. Union Square was a dance hall located at the north end of the venerable park of the same name, and the Latin Quarter, which was no longer the hot spot for big bands and tango dancing, but for Red Alert, rap music, and kids doing the Wop.

On those nights you wore your best clothing to the ball. Polo rugbys, knits shirts, and windbreakers were the height of fashion, as were Guess denim and leather suits and Fila tracksuits crafted in velour. But Polo by Ralph Lauren clothing was the most vibrant and eye-catching of them all. The materials used for the royal blues, racer reds, and nautical yellows seemed to carry their own electricity and, in turn, were an invitation for others to attempt to take them from you through horrible violence.

I was never ‘stripped’ of my clothing as some of party goers experienced routinely in the clubs or, more likely, on the streets outside of the clubs. Times Square was no joke back then, and most kids my age rolled deep to protect one another and to also take advantage of someone who might not have the numbers but have the items we wanted to possess. I now realize how so much of my idea of manhood was intertwined with the things I wore–like the Gucci jacket I bought from the flagship store on 5th Avenue with two (2) entire checks from my little messenger gig.

The attention I received at the clubs or in the streets when I wore that Gucci jacket made it worth the money–and trust me, I was mob deep when I had it on my back–but it was part of the way I defined myself as a cut above my working-class lot. This was the Polo by Ralph Lauren slick marketing I referred to earlier. Polo was portrayed as the clothing worn by people who did recreational activities like skiing, sailing, horseback riding, or polo. I didn’t know sh-t about any of that, but I wanted to look like I did. We all wanted to look like our lives were greater than they were.

Having a piece of Polo by Ralph Lauren clothing on your back was how Black teenagers communicated to one another that we had greater aspirations for our lives than the present crack/cocaine-filled conditions. Wearing Polo by Ralph Lauren was a mark that you had faith and belief in yourself there would be a better day in front you–so you went about acquiring pieces by any means necessary.

As soon as Black kids had determined that Polo was the significant brand for their lifestyle they developed methods of acquiring pieces wholesale. And by wholesale I mean for no money at all. Boosting gear was profitable but it wasn’t the endgame. The real goal was retention. We formed alliances with one another to protect ourselves from people who coveted the look and thought they could take it from us the way we took it from others. If you kept your gear, you kept your belief in yourself, and you maintained your aspirations for getting your ass out of the ghetto. Or so we thought.