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From High Class To Hip-Hop: The Polo Brand

Updated on March 30, 2018
Ian Barron profile image

Ian has been studying sneakers for years, and has recently become an avid sneakerhead who participates in and loves the community

Dashing clothing for the dashing man.
Dashing clothing for the dashing man. | Source

The Man Before The Brand

The Polo brand is well loved, and almost instantly recognized by fashionistas and regular men and women alike. But not many people know the story well, and even less people know the man himself. Ralph's real name is Ralph Lifshitz, who was born in October 14, 1939 to Jewish immigrants Frieda and Frank Lifshitz. He was born in the Bronx, New York as the youngest of two brothers and a sister. Ralph actually did not have too substantial a childhood, attending day school and then graduating DeWitt Clinton High School in 1957. He then went into Baruch college in New York to study business, though he dropped out after two years. In 1962, Ralph then joined the army until 1964, when he dropped the army to work for Beau Brummell. He was only 28 when he convinced the CEO of Beau Brummell to let him start his own line of clothing in 1967.

Starting Polo: Ties and Sports

Ralph started Polo in 1967, taking inspiration from his interest in particular sports. After a year, Ralph released his first line of menswear, which he delivered to various stores himself. He worked out of a single office from the empire state building, designing and manufacturing the clothes himself. By 1969, Ralph had the pleasure of seeing his clothing become an exclusive outlet in Bloomingdale's. In two years, Ralph had begun to gain traction with menswear and tailored suits and ties for men. By 1971, Ralph introduced a line of shirts for women. This is where the world first saw the now iconic Polo emblem. It was on the sleeve of these shirts, and became an instant classic. 1971 also marked the opening of the first Polo store in California, selling exclusively Polo outside of New York. By 1972, Ralph moved the logo of Polo to the chest, and kept it there for years to come. Ralph was gaining serious traction among the more preppy crowd of people, and the high life style of clothes began to attract people outside of this preppy high class demographic Polo had originally aimed toward.

Timeless design on a timeless garment
Timeless design on a timeless garment | Source

Hip-Hop Begins to Take Hold

For some of us, we only know Polo as a simple polo shirt with the logo onto it, but there is so much more to Polo than those simple shirts. Especially back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The brand began small in the hip-hop community, being worn by people all over more impoverished areas of New York, California, and other such places all over the East and West coast. Polo was a status symbol. People saw Polo as a sign of affluence and wealth. With such a wide influence in impoverished areas, it was easy to see how easily it leaked into the hip-hop community. Polo was on the rise simply by being an affluent brand with high influence.

A lot of people loved Polo, and some people would literally wear it from head to toe.
A lot of people loved Polo, and some people would literally wear it from head to toe. | Source

Lo-Life Crew and Shoplifting

A huge issue for Polo back in the 80s and 90s was that of shoplifting. Several people, who banded into crews, began to go into popular outlets and shoplift Polo pieces such as rugbies and polo shirts. There were even well-known crews such as Ralphie's Boys and U.S.A (United Shoplifters Association). A bigger problem came after the shoplifting as well. Several people would steal from the shoplifters, sometimes killing and robbing for Polo. Polo was so sought after that people stole from the thieves, and thieves took from wherever they could. Some people could vividly recall stories of Polo being taken from people straight off their backs.

Polo's Breakout Into Mainstream Hip-Hop

With Polo being so loved by the developing streetwear community, it was obvious that it would be very prevalent in hip-hop culture. Rapper such as 2 Chainz, Nas, and Pimp C began to buy Polo in almost bulk. Atlanta was a particularly popular place for Polo during the 90s hip-hop era, with almost every popular Atlanta rapper wearing Ralph Lauren. And of course, Polo was not entirely apathetic to this new demographic they had attracted. Polo was quick to hire Tyson Beckford to advertise Polo to both his white and black demographics. Polo, however, never really accepted hip-hop as a whole. Though they knew their demographics, they were not willing to accept the hip-hop community. Later, people could spot figures such as Snoop Dogg, to the Wu Tang Clan, to even Young Dro who loved the brand.

Polo this, Polo that. Polo was basically the Balenciaga and Versace of hip-hop in the 90s.
Polo this, Polo that. Polo was basically the Balenciaga and Versace of hip-hop in the 90s. | Source

Post-Polo Era

Polo is not nearly as popular today as it was in the early to mid 90s. By time the 2000s came, the interest in Polo rapidly deteriorated as brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Versace became more popular in hip-hop culture. Polo quickly fell off, yet their influence can still be felt in design inspirations from brands such as Supreme, Bape, and even Gucci. Though vintage Polo is coming back to some extent, it will never be the same as it was in the early to mid 90s.

Even rappers like Chance and Kanye can be seen sporting Polo, especially vintage Polo, during public appearances and concerts.
Even rappers like Chance and Kanye can be seen sporting Polo, especially vintage Polo, during public appearances and concerts. | Source

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