In March, Ralph Lauren announced its new collaboration—one on the collegiate level. This is the first time in the brand’s history they’ve worked with universities, and the ones in question? Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, HBCUs in Atlanta.
The very retro collection is said to be inspired by college life from yesteryear. The thing is, the fashion is reminiscent of a very specific yesteryear—the ’50s and ’60s, a time where the Civil Rights Movement was at its height.
The collection and Ralph Lauren’s history
From bowties to A-line skirts, retro varsity sweaters and loafers, white dresses, embroidered berets and blazers, and of course, a running theme of tweed, it’s not hard to draw similarities between fashion from the era and this collection. But it also seems like the root of the collection was made with the schools at the forefront.
In a press release, the company said: “The white patchwork eyelet and silk wrap dresses, which anchor the Spelman collection, symbolize the highly anticipated white attire ceremony, marking students’ induction into the college. Similarly, the wool flannel blazer serves as an homage to the Morehouse blazer, a garment traditionally bestowed to students during their first days on campus.”
What I’m most happy about, as a Black woman, is that Morehouse and Spelman alum were involved from start to finish. Morehouse alum, James Jeter, was in charge of concept design. From Spelman, Dara Douglas, on inspirational concepts. Models consist of alum, students or faculty, and photography is done by Nadine Ijewere. It’s also the first all-Black production from the brand.
It seems like Ralph Lauren is finally deciding to embrace a part of history the brand hasn’t before. Like Chanel’s tradition of “Tweed, but make it fashion,” Ralph Lauren is a household name, its brand built upon nostalgia. But we know their classic country club, preppy releases have been notably very white.
According to Lauren himself in a press release about the collection’s intention, the idea was to share “a more complete and authentic portrait of American style and of the American dream—ensuring stories of Black life and experiences are embedded in the inspiration and aspiration of our brand.”
What the public thinks
While some have praised the spotlight on Black history and culture, some have criticized the collection. After all: Why this time period? Why HBCUs that are always prominent, as opposed to, say, Grambling, Fisk, or Talladega? And perhaps the most important question: Is Ralph Lauren aiming to profit off of Black culture, like so many other brands? All valid questions.
The time period can be noted to Lauren’s nostalgic brand. The colleges, possibly due to the RL employees paying homage to their alma mater. The last question is more complicated, and one Lauren hasn’t commented on. Robin Givhan, a Black fashion critic, analyzed the collection and wrote that the project is risky in the social media era, where mistakes will always be caught. That’s why Lauren was hesitant to speak about the collection at all.
But it was necessary for him to. Ralph Lauren as a brand is so focused on the American dream and lifestyle. It has Black employees that adhere to that as they work. And Black people know how bad it feels to not see ourselves as part of the American dream discussion. Black Americans are just that—Americans. Even though we’ve had to make our own ways of achieving our dreams and lifestyles, editing us out of the history books doesn’t mean we weren’t a major part. Not speaking on that is another way of saying that our history doesn’t matter.
The collection is beautiful, but I have mixed feelings. The arguments are worth being brought up. But in the grand scheme of things, this is one act that could bring forth change. On the other hand, change isn’t as easy as a collection may make it look. Of course, it’s not on Ralph Lauren to change the ways of numerous high fashion brands, and Black people don’t need them to validate our history and culture. We know we’re beautiful and deserve celebration, no matter what.
Photos via Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren