Famed fashion designer Ralph Lauren recently collaborated with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to unveil his brand’s latest wardrobe collection that pays homage to Black collegiate fashion from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The limited-edition Polo by Ralph Lauren collection launched globally this spring and draws upon fashions from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. As part of the marketing campaign, the high-end brand also released a 30-minute mini documentary, A Portrait of the American Dream, featuring Morehouse and Spelman students, alumni, and faculty to bring historical context to the cultural contribution Black scholars have made to American fashion. It is available to stream for free on YouTube.com.
The collaboration is the brainchild of Morehouse alum James Jeter, the Ralph Lauren director of concept design and special projects, and Spelman alum Dara Douglas, director of inspirational content. This is the first time that Lauren has produced a collection and campaign featuring an all-Black team of models, photographers, cinematographers, and creators, largely sourced from the two HBCUs, according to the brand’s website.
“When I was approached with a collection inspired by the heritage and traditions of the timeless dressing of historically Black colleges and universities, it became clear that part of design sensibility has been missing,” Ralph Lauren stated in the documentary. “Our portrait of American style and our vision of the American dream would be incomplete without Black experiences like these.”
The vintage-inspired clothing ensemble comes after the brand was criticized in 2020 for placing the Greek letters of a Black fraternity on pants that retailed for more than $300. Upon facing backlash, the company discontinued the apparel, apologized, and committed to racial equity efforts. It also donated $2 million in scholarships for students at Morehouse, Spelman, and 10 additional HBCUs through the United Negro College Fund in December 2021.
The new collection has also sparked controversy, with some on social media criticizing the brand for cultural appropriation. Others have pointed out that the styles it draws upon have a complex history. On Twitter, fashion and costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie said of the collection:
“Something is a bit off — WASPY/preppy style was a self preservation tool for many generations of Black ppl. The thought of likening one’s self to whiteness would make you safe/seen. The same is seen in Gay history. Leveraging prep to “pass”/masc. That stuff goes unacknowledged imo.”
Christie and others have also said that while they appreciate the brand drawing attention to Black colleges, they wish that other HBCUs — rather than just the prominent Morehouse and Spelman — would receive attention.
Overall, feedback from HBCU administrators has been positive about the fashion line’s homage to their institutions.
“The beauty of what Ralph Lauren did with us: They made us part of this project,” Morehouse President David Thomas said in a press release. “They didn’t come in and appropriate culturally inspiring images of Black people and then go off and do something with it.”
Jeter has said of the controversy that he is just happy the clothing has motivated discussion.
“What I love about the reaction is that it started a conversation,” Jeter told The New York Times. “It wasn’t all negative. It wasn’t all positive, but it was the ebb and flows of both, and I think in the end a lot of people arrive at a better place than where they started as a result of those conversations.”●
This article was published in our June 2022 issue.