Why The New Ralph Lauren x SpelHouse Collection Isn’t Sitting Quite Right With So Many Of Us

March 23, 2022

Late last week, Ralph Lauren unveiled the Polo Ralph Lauren Exclusively for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges Collection with a series of stunning visuals shot on the campuses of the two Atlanta HBCUs. Before the collection could be met with any accusations of appropriation or capitalist exploitation, Vogue published a story detailing the origin of the collection, which was conceptualized by Morehouse alumn James Jeter, who happens to be Ralph Lauren’s director of concept design and special projects.

According to the article, the collection is an extension of Ralph Lauren’s 2020 commitment to “examine how we portray the American Dream—in the stories we tell, the creators we champion, the faces we elevate, the families we hero, and the media partners we support.” It follows a December 2021 announcement that the company’s philanthropic arm, the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation, had pledged $2 million to support scholarship funds for students attending 12 HBCUs across the country.

Looks Great On Paper

On the surface, so many things about this campaign and collection look great. Beyond just being led by a Morehouse grad, the design team did their research. The pieces included in the collection are based on archival photos shared by Morehouse and Spelman, with some of those photos even being recreated for the collection’s ad campaign. Speaking of which, the creative mastermind behind the gorgeous visuals is Nadine Ijewere, a Black woman; and the models she directed in the shoot include current SpelHouse staff and students. As a matter of fact, according to reports, the entire BTS crew was Black.

In a statement, Ralph Lauren himself said that this collection goes beyond a celebration of the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities. “It’s about sharing a more complete and authentic portrait of American style and of the American dream,” he explains, “ensuring stories of Black life and experiences are embedded in the inspiration and aspiration of our brand.” His company even shot a whole documentary about the inception of HBCUs and “the use of style as an expression of aspiration, a form of self-empowerment, and a tool of resistance.”

The documentary, A Portrait Of The American Dream, will be released March 28 at 7:30 pm on YouTube and all Ralph Lauren social media platforms, while the Polo Ralph Lauren Exclusively for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges Collection hits stores the following Tuesday, March 29.

And then there are the clothes themselves. And that’s where much of the debate lies.

It’s Giving Complicated Nostalgia

As many have pointed out on social media, the Ralph Lauren brand is steeped in Americana and old-school prep vibes. So, the idea of the Polo Ralph Lauren Exclusively for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges Collection serving 1920s to 1950s looks is on-brand. 

If you’re among those who saw these beautiful images and couldn’t quite place what didn’t sit right with them, it’s probably the era of clothing. Yes, it fits the air of bourgeoisie that all Ralph Lauren ads tend to have. And yes, it’s period correct: this is exactly how Black folks dressed during that time. And we will never get tired of seeing beautifully dressed Black folks shining.

But while these two campuses specifically served as a haven for Black students in the deep South during that time, even seeing leaders of the Civil Rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walk their hallowed halls; it’s hard to evoke that period of America’s history and not talk about the racial injustice and brutality that surrounded it. And this is exactly why so many of us feel a little uneasy: what message is Ralph Lauren really sending by choosing to honor only this period in Morehouse and Spelman’s 155 and 140-year history, respectively?