Polo Ralph Lauren is launching its first collection in partnership with historically Black colleges and universities, Spelman and Morehouse. The collection, arriving later this month, pays tribute to styles worn at the institutions between the 1920s and 1950s.
With a collection that pays tribute to the HBCU influence, iconic American label Ralph Lauren is launching outerwear, knits, tailored suits, dresses, footwear, and accessories—all designed by employees who are alumni of Spelman or Morehouse, the label said.
“This collection expresses the spirited history, deep sense of community, and legacy of timeless dressing at historically Black colleges and universities,” Ralph Lauren, executive chairman and chief creative officer of Ralph Lauren Corporation, said in a statement. “It’s so much more than a portrayal of a collegiate design sensibility. It’s about sharing 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.”
The collection marks the label’s first in working with higher education institutions. It is the brainchild of Black designers: Morehouse alumnus James Jeter, Ralph Lauren’s director of concept design and special projects and Spelman graduate Dara Douglas, the director of inspirational content for Ralph Lauren.
The launch follows a $2 million pledge made last December by the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation for scholarships at HBCUs.
Ralph Lauren HBCU capsule collection
The inspiration for the collection runs across decades. An example is the “S” on a Spelman sweatshirt, which borrows from a late 1800s font used by the college newsletter, the Spelman Messenger, still in circulation.
White dresses were also a Spelman tradition.
“Since the inception of the institution in 1881, young women were instructed to bring a dress made of simple white cotton as a way to have something beautiful to wear on formal occasions and it’s a tradition that we continue to uphold,” Douglas said. “We wanted to pay homage to that tradition in creating these dresses.”
The collection was announced in a campaign-first for the label—the first all-Black cast for Ralph Lauren. It was shot by Black fashion photographer Nadine Ijewere and incorporated talent from both Spelman and Morehouse.
“Spelman College’s culture is a powerful combination of both community engagement and confident self-invention. This collection celebrates the inventiveness of individual style, when it intersects boldly with institutional tradition, such as the choices on display in the wearing of white attire,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president of Spelman.
“By sharing the early history of Spelman, as reflected in archival research, through clothing, the collection encourages conversations about the creative power of the Black experience and the ways in which a personal fashion aesthetic intersects with institutional values of solidarity and connection,” Campbell said.
“Historically Black colleges and universities have uniquely been centers of both intellectual discourse and cultural influence for more than 150 years,” said David A. Thomas, Ph.D., president of Morehouse College. “The Morehouse partnership with Ralph Lauren intelligently, creatively, and boldly puts this intersection on full display, reflecting the breadth of impact we have had in driving societal transformation throughout our history.”
But despite the collaborative effort and influence of alumni, the collection has earned some criticisms, reports Yahoo.
“Something is a bit off — WASPY/preppy style was a self-preservation tool for many generations of Black [people],” tweeted Shelby Ivey Christie, a fashion and costume historian. “The thought of likening one’s self to whiteness would make you safe/seen.”
But Jeter says it’s an opportunity to take another look at history. “It was really important to steep this in history to show that this is not new,” Jeter told WWD.
“A lot of this project was really about changing ownership around how we think about clothing. So who owns three-piece suits? Who owns cable cardigans? Who owns the circle skirt, for instance? And while it’s typically and historically been relegated to Ivy League schools, if you see a lot of these archival images from [Morehouse and] Spelman, that has really helped to inform a lot of the way that we approached not only the design but the way that we approached the campaigns as well,” he said.
The collection is also criticized for its focus on Spelman and Morehouse, two of the best-known HBCUs. Critics took to social media to suggest campaigns like this look at other colleges and universities as well.
“I wish brands, celebrities and donors would realize there are other HBCUs than Morehouse, Spelman and Howard,” read a Tweet.
“The skepticism is fair in its particularity—this is a complex history and other HBCUs are deserving of praise—and also in its generality. It arises from a people that have long watched fashion brands co-opt our culture for profit.”Cole Brown writes for GQ.
For my own part, I struggle with whether to look at this collection and applaud, or just to shout duh. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of his alma mater, Howard University, seems applicable here: his school, he’s written, “enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent [in Jim Crow days].” Open the aperture to include other HBCUs like Morehouse and Spelman, and the legacy is undeniable—and exactly the thing popular fashion would do well to reflect. Consider the leaders these schools produced: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stacey Abrams, Spike Lee, Alice Walker. What could be more aspirational—more American—than that?
Brown continues, “I see nothing particularly courageous about calling greatness, greatness. But in a country that has long ignored, avoided, or subverted our history, Ralph Lauren chose to honor us. That’s a win in my book,” he says.
A Portrait of the American Dream
Accompanying the launch is the Ralph Lauren film A Portrait of the American Dream. A first-of-its-kind film for the brand offers what it says is a thesis “about the inception of historically Black colleges and universities and the philosophies of living that they entrench within their students and American culture.”
It dives into the history of HBCU culture and style with a mix of archival footage, interviews, and re-enactments. A commemorative yearbook also accompanies the collection. It details the founding and historical significance of HBCUs, specifically Morehouse and Spelman.
“Our portrait of American style and our vision of the American dream would be incomplete without Black experiences like these,” Lauren says in the film.
The collection ranges in price from $20 to $2,500 and debuts to Morehouse and Spelman students and faculty before its commercially available on March 29. The film will premiere on March 28, 2022, at 7:30 p.m. EDT on select Ralph Lauren social channels.