Tag Archives: Ralph Lauren polo

The Racial Construction of Preppiness, part II

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a really interesting story about the Lo-Lifes, a Brooklyn-based gang of Black and Latino young men that emerged in the late 1980s. Unlike previous Guardian articles which sensationalized the incongruity of non-White and poor men wearing the emblems of social and financial affluence, this article (written by John McDonnell) emphasizes the ideological and aspirational convergences of the Lo-Lifes and Ralph Lauren (the man and the company). This is something I discussed in my previous post on Mexican American preppies.

I only wish that McDonnell would have offered some evidence that the Lo-Lifes are, in fact, a gang. And indeed this evidence is not hard to come by since some of the more outre members discuss and display their lengthy rap sheets quite proudly. Without any kind of substantiation, though, the article suggests that it’s self-evident that any/all groups of non-White poor men constitute a “gang.” But the Lo-Lifes are more than a gang too; they’re a clique, a crew, and a fellowship of brothers. They’re also culture jammers.

In my very brief and admittedly very preliminary research on the Lo-Lifes, I found this trailer of a documentary – which, by all accounts is still under production. What’s so interesting about them is not just that they organize their personal and social identities around the material and corporeal sign of Ralph Lauren but why they do.

The trailer juxtaposes the life history and fantastic aspirations of Ralph Lauren (né Ralph Lifshitz, “a poor kid from the Bronx” who would later come to helm a corporate empire of staggering symbolic and financial proportions) with the emergence of the Lo-Lifes, a group of Brooklyn-based youth whose “goal was accumulation by any means necessary, of POLO clothes and accessories.” For both Lauren and the Lo-Lifes, their relationships to fashion are informed, guided by, and reflect back on the American Dream of social and economic mobility – but with an important racial difference.

While Lauren’s white skin and name change enabled him to possess the American Dream, the Lo-Lifes’ social and economic marginalization required them to take it “by any means necessary.”  The appropriation of this phrase, made famous by Malcolm X, is not accidental. The Lo-Lifes, as the trailer shows, are self-consciously puncturing the racial and economic borders of preppy Americana (with all the presumptions and entitlements of WASPy youth culture it entails).  In wearing POLO, they create a counter-culture, body, and imaginary of preppihood. (The audio track on the trailer begins with Thirstin Howl III rapping, “Yo, what’s my nationality? Polo-rican!” His intertwining of consumerism and nationalism suggests that this new nationality is not created out of whole cloth but is a polyracial refabrication of American identity.)

As culture jammers, the Lo-Lifes intervene on U.S. consumer capitalism (exemplified by Ralph Lauren POLO) using a subversive mode of anti-consumerism, but without a corresponding philosophy of anti-accumulation. Stolen luxury fashion is, for the Lo-Lifes, both a necessity (for one’s construction of an authentic self as a Lo-Life) as well as a badge of honor. This badge, ironically, denotes their racial exclusion from the American Dream and their claims to it. Indeed, the complex relationship between race, preppy fashion, and American identity is nowhere more skillfully interpreted and negotiated than by the Lo-Lifes themselves. Note that an early Lo-Life crew called themselves POLO USA, in which USA stands not (only) for the United States of America but (also) for United Shoplifters Association. What this semiotic slippage slips in is a new meaning of USA that includes theft as a central part of its national identity.

Fi Lo: “We have stole so much shit in our lifetime . . . this is for Ralph Lauren!”

Thirstin Howl III: “Ralphie don’t know, even though he ain’t on our team, we a motherfucking team our motherfucking selves. We still Lo-ed out.”


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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE

The Racial Construction of Preppiness

Monday’s article in The Guardian titled, “The Mexican Fans Ralph Lauren Could Do Without” by Sarah Ditum is mostly a rehash of an earlier Guardian article called, “Mexico: Youth Follows Drug Barons’ Fashion with Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts” by Jo Tuckman. Both begin with a photograph of alleged drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal – wearing a green Ralph Lauren Polo shirt – being escorted by armed Mexican federal officers dressed in riot gear.

The incongruity of this “Mexican outlaw” donning the symbol of American prep leads Ditum to conclude: “sometimes, the market gets away from the marketers.”

The company has spent nearly 50 years defining and refining preppiness. Its website is full of vomtastic talk of “American style” and “inviting people to take part in our dream”; the advertising is full of clean-cut boys starring in what could be a burlesque versions of The Great Gatsby. And then it turns out that some of the biggest fans of the label aren’t gilded Wasp youths after all, but thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers.

It should be noted right away that neither Ditum nor Tuckman offer statements by any representative of RLP on this matter. So their concerns for the company’s reputation and sales seem to be their own. But what is their concern?

For Ditum, it is the strange coupling of “thick-set and stubbly Mexican drug dealers” and the material symbols of “American style.” But Villareal is American, born and raised in Laredo, Texas. That this American should covet the “American style” of RLP and the aspirational social and economic values it symbolizes and secures is hardly noteworthy. Socioeconomic climbing is the promise at the heart of the American Dream. For Ditum, though,Villareal’s Americanness is not legible because his brown body is an inappropriate representative of the U.S. national body (which she describes in the racial terms of “gilded WASP”). Here, “thick-set and stubbly drug dealers” is code for “Mexican”. It is the collapsing together of his social, economic, and physical attributes that forecloses his Mexican identity for Ditum, in spite of the fact that he’s actually American (an American whose history in the U.S. predates the histories of most EuroAmericans).

Ditum’s criminalization of Mexicans is also evidenced in this alarmist statement about the harm Mexican consumers might have on the status and sales of RLP:

This is the sort of success a label would happily do without: sure, the brand is popular, but with people who’ve got no cachet to share, and worst of all, no compunction about shopping for fakes instead of the real thing – both cannibalising sales, and turning off those carefully nurtured core customers.

Again, knowing a little history helps. The Ralph Lauren Polo is itself a knock-off of Rene Lacoste’s polo shirt. Lacoste, a French (not American) 7-time Grand Slam tennis champion, wore the polo shirt for the first time in the 1926 U.S. Open championship and began mass-producing it in the 1930s—40 years before Lauren created his polo. Further, “Ralph Lauren” himself is not a gilded WASP. Born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrant parents, he anglicized his name to avoid schoolyard bullying. As he once told Oprah, “My given name has the word shit in it. When I was a kid, the other kids would make a lot of fun of me. It was a tough name. That’s why I decided to change it.” The “counterfeit” (and I use that term without any pejorative connotations) is not “foreign” to but rather embedded within the very history of American prep.

While Ditum’s assumption that Villareal is Mexican is a racist one, it’s supported by dominant discourses about the “drug war” in Mexico which tend to obscure the massive role the U.S. has played in this “war”. The U.S. government via the Merida Initiative (signed in 2007 by George W. Bush) has funneled more than $1.5 billion into this “war,” in the form of US military equipment and training. Moreover, drug trafficking is not limited within the Mexican borders. U.S. drug consumption is a multimillion dollar business—one that involves not only American drug users and dealers but also corrupt U.S. bankers and businesses (some of whom are no doubt of the “gilded WASP” set) to launder drug money. (By the way, the criminalization of drug use that enables the underground economy of drug trafficking to flourish unregulated is a social and legal policy that is opposed by the majority of Mexicans—as demonstrated by recent protests in Mexico City.)

Still, it’s curious to me that Ditum finds criminality and preppiness to be at odds with one another. What does she think the bankers responsible for the 2007 subprime crisis that brought the U.S. to its economic knees wear in their leisure time?

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Filed under COUNTERFEIT GOODS, FASHIONING RACE