My parents were immigrants to Canada. For those who understand what that means from those few words, it can elicit familiar feelings of travel and wonder and can also summon a combustible nightmarish fuel of endless dad jokes, displaying your lame breakdance moves for the family and very poor shopping decisions. Like a cat dragged to the vet, shopping for clothes after puberty hit was one of the worst trips a young kid could make.
Although I lived in a modest one story bungalow, I grew up in a fairly affluent neighbourhood. For fucks sake, the house across the street from me had a pool in the basement. Most of my friends wore Roots, Beaver Canoe, Benetton, and my my all time favourite Ralph Lauren. As many of you can remember, fitting in did not correlate with velcro off brands, two by four stiff like jeans, and popped collar knock off shirts with every range of knit animals from Bi Way and Zellers.
After spending an agonizing 5 years of high school trying to emulate the look of various afrocentric and high top fade rappers I was relieved to see the fashion trends evolve into workwear and eventually an embrace of the upper class jet set. I remember first hearing about the Lo Life crew in a Vibe magazine article in the early 90’s and thought “these are my guys”. Soon enough, every Hip Hop crew was wearing either Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. I always thought Tommy was trash with its gaudy billboard size logo, lacking the variety, depth and originality of Ralph.
When I got my first OASP payment during my first attempt at post secondary education, I convinced my then girlfriend to take me to Detroit to buy records and hit the outlet malls in what became my first spree on colourful Ralph polo shirts, sweaters and belts and continue this day to hunt for unusual finds and one-offs when I travel the world.
From a practical standpoint, the bucket hat isn’t very impressive. It keeps the sun away, sure—but you might pick a straw hat first for that specific purpose. In terms of the diversity of its adherents, though, the bucket hat is nothing short of remarkable.
However sweepingly you construe hip-hop culture, Steve Spurrier wearing a “bucket visor” or Gilligan wearing what Gilligan always wears would seem like the opposite of it. And yet, as a short-lived blog memorably points out, Ludacris wears all of five different bucket hats during the course of his minute-long verse in the music video for the 2003 hit “Holidae In.”
Somehow, headwear that was originally designed for the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1940s has become the refuge of famous rappers (see also: virtually any photograph of Schoolboy Q) and sunburn-fearing WASPs alike.
That kind of tension has been part of hip-hop fashion since (at least) the ’80s. And in their new coffee-table book Bury Me With the Lo On, rapper Thirstin Howl the 3rd (named for the very WASPiest Gilligan’s Island character) and photographer Tom Gould tell the story of the most vivid example: how Polo, arguably the gold sartorial standard of the privileged, became the center of an enduring, influential hip-hop fashion subculture.
Aside from his rap career, Thirstin Howl is a founding member of the Lo Lifes, a crew that formed in 1988 from the union of two Brooklyn boosting—shoplifting—outfits: Ralphie’s Kids from Crown Heights and Polo USA (United Shoplifters Association) from Brownsville. “Every day,” he writes, “was a fashion show and a shoplifting spree throughout upstate malls and Manhattan stores.”
The target was almost invariably Polo gear. On the one hand, there’s Brownsville, “the hardest and poorest section of Brooklyn … [that] provided a harsh life for those that lived there and was a criminal training ground for many Lo Life founders.” On the other hand, there’s an iconic teddy bear and, as one anecdote from the book recounts, at least 40 Lo Lifes simultaneously wearing Polo bathrobes at the late Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights. The Lo Lifes were a real gang; they just happened to be after gear that would look at home at Andover.
Part capsule, part lookbook, Bury Me captures the idiosyncrasies of Lo Life in lush, loving detail. Vintage shots and news clippings preserved by Thirstin Howl sit alongside Gould’s new portraits of Lo Lifes and other Polo lovers. Originally from New Zealand, Gould came to New York to get a closer look at hip-hop culture and has since directed music videos for Action Bronson (a Polo head himself who appears in the book) and Joey Bada$.
But a book that features quotes and writings from rap heavyweights like Bronson (Raekwon and Just Blaze also make appearances) is one that admits that it’s only an introduction to how Polo has pervaded hip-hop. This is no slight to Bury Me—it’s an admirably painstaking treatment—but a testament to Polo’s influence. In fact, the two most famous moments in the intersection of Polo and rap embody two very different eras of the form.
In 1994, Raekwon wore the Polo Snow Beach Pullover in the video for Wu-Tang’s “Can It All Be So Simple.” As XXL notes in its oral history of Polo in hip-hop, “the Snow Beach instantly [became] an iconic piece of hip-hop history and a holy grail for Lo heads worldwide, routinely selling for more than $2,000 dollars on eBay today.”
Ten years after that, Kanye West was wearing a Polo Bear sweater for the cover shootfor The College Dropout. “But I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go, and I’m doing pretty hood in my pink polo,” he rapped on the track “Barry Bonds.”
There are echoes of the Lo Lifes’ obsession in rappers’ specific fashion choices—Raekwon and Kanye, but also Drake and the Southern Lo contingent. And more broadly, there’s an undercurrent in hip-hop’s continuing relationship to fashion that can be traced to Thirstin Howl and co.
If the title of his and Gould’s book evokes the extent of Polo’s resonance (a “Rest in Polo” section at the back does indeed depict a real, Polo-styled open casket), it also calls to mind one of the more unforgettable rap hooks in recent years: “When I die, bury me inside the Gucci store / when I die, bury me inside the Louis store.”
And going back a decade, it was right around the time Pharrell hitched his wagon to the Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape and Nelly wrote a song entirely about Nike Air Force Ones. It’s hard to imagine that depth of loyalty to a fashion label taking root in any other type of music.
The old-school Polo aesthetic also lives on in contemporary hip-hop brands. The bright, primary colors, the bold patterns, the charmingly kitschy graphics, the sporty-preppy bent—all of this is at the heart of high-profile streetwear labels like Supreme and Only NY.
In the course of arguing that Polo is one of the greatest streetwear brands of all time, a Highsnobiety piece from last year points out that “you can probably thank the brand with the pony for Supreme’s love of clean-cut oxfords, color-blocked outerwear, rugby tops and collegiate branding.” You can probably also thank it for Only’s ’80s-style nods to sport, or for that brand’s jauntily nautical inclinations (seagulls, whales, fish, sailboats, and stripes, often in loud colors).
Crucially, vintage Polo and its descendants play on the trappings of Americana, or at least a preppy/WASPy subset of it. Maybe it’s no accident that hip-hop’s current leading designer—it’s getting to the point where finding Yeezys is as tough as finding a Snow Beach pullover—cut his style teeth on Lo, and that he so often puts his fashion dreams in terms of a political and social struggle, an effort to break into a white, monied world with extraordinarily high barriers to entry.
One strength of Bury Me is that it makes a subtle case that the Lo Lifes’ vision was as ideological as it was aesthetic. For them, to wear a brand like Polo was fundamentally aspirational, a reconfigured riff on the American Dream.
In the book’s foreword, the famed hip-hop journalist Bönz Malone writes, they were “a group of guys who stole garments because society told them they couldn’t afford the American Dream, and they chose not to listen. They challenged classism by wearing Polo—taking something that wasn’t meant for them and making it their own.”
Malone was also on the discussion panel at one of the book’s launch events, but that conversation eventually yielded to a round of testimony from the original Lo Lifes who made the trip out to Red Bull Studios in Chelsea.
If anyone in the audience found this level of attachment to Polo absurd, the most impassioned of the speakers said, they would only need a glimpse of the poverty in Marcus Garvey Village, or in the public schools in Brownsville where teachers told him he would never make it out of the neighborhood. “It was never about Ralph,” he said, but about “our piece of the pie.”
Looking around the room at a sleek, Red Bull-branded event, he seemed to be taking in the contrast between then and now: “This shit feel so good.” At both that event and a separate, champagne-soaked launch party, there was the feeling of a family reunion.
Home videos were projected on a wall and Lo Lifes embraced in their carefully preserved gear from the ’80s before signing autographs for a younger generation of hip-hop fans. To the extent that the party was a fashion show, it was stolen by the man who wore a kelly green, technicolor-sailboat-patterned shirt and white linen pants.
Ralph Lauren himself knows the method well: joyous sartorial spectacle as a way to repudiate the worst of one’s upbringing. Over the years, Polo has made little to no effort in its marketing to embrace the culture that created a totally new market for the brand. (Thirstin says Polo’s people were in the building for the launch party, though, and that “they know about us.”) There’s a passing reference to The College Dropout in the company’s tribute to “The Best Dressed Bear in the World,” but no mention of the hip-hop-loving eBay collectors who have made that bear legendary.
And yet, Ralph’s origin story is well known by now. And it’s one, as Bury Me makes clear, with significant parallels to the Lo Life story. Born Ralph Lifschitz, the multibillionaire is the Bronx-born son of poor Jewish immigrants from Belarus.
A Guardian profile from when he stepped down as CEO last year explains how “even as a child, Lauren, the third of four children, had a fascination with clothes and their ability to transform people: he emulated the preppy look of New York’s rich kids and would later riffle through thrift shops for authentically distressed denim, cowboy boots and leather jackets.” He dreamt of the Hamptons and of New England, and of having just the look for when he got there.
If Ralph doesn’t want hip-hop to be part of his brand’s image, the Lo Lifes figured, all the better for them to actually live up to his ideals. That Polo wasn’t meant for them was precisely why they were wearing Polo the right way. “Whether it be robbin’ or stealin’,” Raekwon says in Bury Me, “Lo just symbolized, ‘Yo, I’m getting mine.'”
“I’m not a cattle wrangler, I’m not a skier, and I don’t race yachts for a living,” says Just Blaze. “But as a young kid in the hood I wished I could be that, and that’s why we wear the clothes we do.” There’s a sense in which all fashion can be construed as aspirational: just consider the “look good, feel good, play good” maxim. But what Ralph and the Lo Lifes share in particular is a force of will, an unrelenting capacity for self-construction. It’s right in the name, as the rapper is fond of pointing out: Thirstin Howl the 3rd.
These days, the vintage Polo aesthetic reaches to places as far-flung as Japan and New Zealand. It can also still be found at the New England college parties that Ralph surely once fantasized about. But those parties, it can safely be said, are now set to hip-hop soundtracks. Putting all the pieces together, you’ve got Andover grads copying Kanye West, who inherited a tradition from black and Hispanic kids from Brownsville, who two decades ago stole clothes designed for Andover grads.
Not even Ralph Lauren could’ve dreamed it up.
Written By : Dan Adler
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Bucktown. The Planet. BK. There was a time when NYC’s proudest borough wasn’t yet synonymous with college girls in floppy hats and weed delivery for shut-ins. Being from Brooklyn used to conjure streetwise savvy with a healthy dose of attitude—and no small amount of danger. Still does if you’re not a dork.
The 1980s and early 1990s were no joke in Crown Heights and Brownsville, in particular.
And like many neglected New York City neighborhoods, they also spawned much of the creative energy which came to define the era’s burgeoning hiphop culture. For the Lo-Lifes—a coalition of Brooklyn shoplifters intent on stockpiling clothes with the Ralph Lauren Polo, or “Lo” label—appropriating swank fashion was a wholly subversive act.
Branded as country club clothes for the aspirational white middle class, Polo represented something completely foreign to inner city street life. But these teenage boosters took that aspiration for themselves, building in the process an underground following for preppy apparel which would eventually be recognized and emulated the world over.
The rise of Polo as streetwear marks the inception of hiphop’s march to the fashion boutique. The new book, Lo-Life: An American Classic, chronicles that moment through the collected snapshots of its image-conscious innovators.
Lo-Life also offers a reminder of modern youth image culture before the onslaught of social media. Photos, then, meant dime store prints handled with care, creased and caressed, examined then lovingly passed from one crew member to the next. Their weathered surfaces holding tight to the residual imprints of time and love.
The pictures collected in Lo-Life are of a time when personal snapshots were still precious objects to be coveted and kept. Resting atop the frame, that materiality contrasts with the crisp new gear being modeled within, affirming the image as much more than a flat projection of information—a cultural artifact made stronger by its role in the life of a movement.
Written By: Rian Dundon
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