Ralph Lauren, hailed by many as the godfather of prep, built an empire on selling the American dream and the clothing to accompany it. But this isn't about his origin story, or the creation of Polo Ralph Lauren (1967), or how his most famous logo — the polo rider — came to be (1972). It's about the adorable and impeccably dressed Polo Bear that, since his birth in 1991, went on to capture the hearts of infants, mothers and grandparents — and the hip-hop community.
Maybe those who are deeply entrenched in the world of hip-hop understand how major of a role the bear plays in streetwear, but I wasn't one of those people; thankfully, my husband is. When we took a trip up to Harlem to browse a few stores, I noticed a pattern: merchandising walls dedicated to Ralph Lauren, with the Polo Bear sweaters prominently on display everywhere. "The Polo Bear sweater is so cool, I want one," he remarked. But, why? "It's iconic," he stated, matter of fact.
"Polo is really popular — it's more popular than Jordans," says an assistant manager at streetwear store Jimmy Jazz's Harlem location, who claims the bears are more popular than the horses. "We had a Polo event a few months ago with vintage Polo clothing from 1992, and it sold out. Everybody likes Polo; we sell at least one piece of Polo every day."
The bear has always found success, beginning from when it was first conceived. Legend has it that Ralph's brother Jerry was an avid collector of the Steiff teddy bear, so much so that one year, both were given bears dressed in their likeness, and it became something of a tradition. And then, in 1991, Ralph introduced a teddy bear — only 200 were made — and it immediately sold out that weekend. Soon thereafter, the bear was found knitted on sweaters, stamped on tees and embroidered on shirts.
One group in particular immediately saw its potential: the Lo-Life Crew, the Brooklyn-based gang notorious for stealing Ralph Lauren merchandise in the '80s and '90s. Rack-Lo, one of its founders and the holder of many titles, including author, designer of RL Jewelry, entrepreneur and artist, says the Polo Bear is special; that, after the horse, it's the brand's most famous symbol.
At 15 years old, Rack-Lo formed the Lo-Lifes in 1988 to unite the crews from Brownville and Crown Heights and create a 100-member force that embodied the hip-hop lifestyle. The only criterion? To live and breathe Polo Ralph Lauren.
"We focused on Polo and made it our signature brand, and for us, when we first started wearing it, it was seen as exclusive, something that you didn't see in the ghetto; it wasn't worn by people who lived in our community," says Rack-Lo. "Polo was made for the rich, WASP-y kids; it wasn't made for urban kids, and as teenagers, we couldn't afford it. My mom never went to college, my father worked various jobs to take care of the family, so we had to find other means to get our hands on it."
By "other means," it meant running into stores — any retailer that carried Polo, like the Polo Mansion on Madison Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's or Barneys, was a target — grabbing as much as they could, and bringing it back to Brooklyn. There were, of course, consequences. Some were incarcerated, others were maimed, and in some instances, per Rack-Lo, people lost their lives. But he says that was the price to pay to live that kind of lifestyle.
It wasn't just wearing one piece of Polo here and there; the Lo-Life uniform mandated a head-to-toe Polo dress code. They'd swarm the clubs, rub elbows with the golden-era rappers of the '90s and earned a reputation as the Polo Boys, the Polo Crew, the Polo Kids or the Polo Posse.
"Our names were related to Polo because we had massive amounts of it — it was really excessive, but that's how we lived our lives, and to this day, our whole culture is built around that," continues Rack-Lo, whose own personal collection of Polo is extensive, with pieces that date back to 1988. "We were attracted to it because of all the bright colors, so we were able to stand out, express ourselves and still coordinate with matching symbols."
And when the Polo Bear arrived, the Lo-Lifes wore theirs with abandon: "The Sit Down Bear, the Tennis Bear, the Golf Bear, the Football Bear, the Beach Bear, the Martini Bear," rattles off Rack-Lo. "We wore the bears and exposed them, and they became an item that people valued and still cherish. If you're a true collector, having multiple bears in your Polo collection is mandatory."
Rack-Lo credits the Lo-Lifes for giving Polo Ralph Lauren its mainstream appeal, for turning its many sports-specific apparel into streetwear and, ultimately, for introducing the brand to rappers and shaping the landscape of hip-hop fashion at large. There was Grand Puba of Brand Nubian who often emulated the Lo-Lifes's style, and in 1994, Raekwon famously wore a Polo Snow Beach pullover in the Wu-Tang Clan's "Can It All Be So Simple" music video. A decade later, Kanye West opted to wear a very dapper suit-clad Polo Bear knit on the cover of his "College Dropout" album. (A fan of Ralph Lauren — as if anyone can forget the meeting between the two backstage during New York Fashion Week in 2015 — West was captured in Polo Bear sweatshirts at least three times in the year 2004 alone.) And more recently, Chance the Rapper got his hands on the Flag Bear, a 2013 re-release, wearing it during performances in 2016 and 2017.
"The bear is like a mascot, and the whole idea of hip-hop culture is taking something mainstream and disrupting it; it's a little irreverent — you see it with a lot of symbols in hip-hop," says Tasha Lewis, assistant professor of fashion design management at Cornell University, who has studied hip-hop and fashion for 12 years. "An aspirational, upper-class lifestyle brand like Ralph Lauren may not market to them, but hip-hop is a reflection of our culture in terms of materialism and brand consciousness, so by wearing it, it signifies that you've made it, that you've arrived."
While the Polo fervor fizzled somewhat in the late aughts, dropping out of the public awareness for about a decade, Ralph Lauren's wildly popular sold-out vintage re-releases point to a resurgence fueled by nostalgia (another Lo-Life founder Thirstin Howl the 3rd even starred in the brand's Snow Beach re-release campaign). "Hip-hop has its own fashion cycle," says Lewis. "We're seeing it come back because it's been gone long enough that it looks fresh again."
For the Lo-Lifes, though, it never went away. (In fact, when Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan penned a less-than-positive review of Ralph Lauren's Spring 2018 collection, a Lo-Life fired back, immediately coming to the brand’s defense.) And their love of Polo may never go away.
"The Polo culture is never going to stop because we have young kids who are born into this lifestyle — that's how deep it is," says Rack-Lo, who believes there are thousands of Lo-Lifes all around the globe. "I can't say if Ralph Lauren will be around for generations, but I can say that the Lo-Life culture will — it's from the streets and it's rooted in hip-hop."