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Ralph Lauren & The Old School
It's not gentrification, it's recognition.
If you ever have the chance to do a retrospective of Denzel Washington’s expansive work, before he’s dead and all the commercial stop are pulled out, you might notice one of his historical works, The Great Debaters. It was the story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Texas. Released in 2007 it was Washington’s second go at directing starring himself and Forest Whitaker. I think it would be worth your while to take it in. It’s available on Amazon in CD but not BluRay. I’m going to buy a copy today and add it to the Bowen Library.
My father had an extensive written correspondence with Professor Tolson and I’m sure those papers are in boxes somewhere in my barn. Pops was always inspired by poetry and so along with those papers are several copies of Tolson’s Harlem Gallery.
I often tell the story of how I, as a college freshman, ran over to the library and browsed the reference section for Who’s Who Among Black Americans. I was pleasantly surprised to see a very thick book with the names and bios at least 50,000 doctors, lawyers, businessmen, academics and other folks who poked their heads way above the high cotton. I walked away with much confidence that all I needed was 100 of them to be my friends and I would be satisfied in this American life. In those early 80s, I was part of that crazy gang of college students of the Reagan Era who were obsessed with the Polo brand and aiming to be as preppy as humanly possible. No photographic evidence remains, nor of my earlier Jheri curl for that matter. Nevertheless, I was all in, including pink Oxford shirts, penny loafers and houndstooth jackets. Some fraction of that style still influences me today.
However when I migrated my buppie butt out of LA to Brooklyn I was already on a new tack and the wind that filled my curious sails was that blowing from the direction of Umberto Eco and a cat named Marshall Blonsky. I caught the fever of semiotics. It stands to reason that in the burgeoning field of Business Intelligence a practitioner such as myself would be very curious not only about how truth could be represented digitally but how falsehood might as well. And so I took instruction from these two and especially from their great books Foucault’s Pendulum and American Mythologies respectively. It was in the latter book that Blonsky made an extensive and memorable example of the empire of fashion that was Ralph Lauren. In short, Blonsky demonstrated how there was no actual British pedigree behind the look and feel that Lauren had created so successfully for American consumers. It was all only symbolic of the wealth and privilege desired by ambitious college freshmen like I had been. Industrious successful people in search of excellence don’t play polo at all.
Fast forward to almost now. Several years after Benetton shocked the market with its multicultural aesthetic of mute models in the 80s, it became commonplace to see black American faces in the faux British playgrounds of the rich and famous portrayed in Lauren’s fashion front.
In 2012 I wrote:
I myself find cricket to be too damned dangerous, but I do love dressing in white. Here in Los Angeles it's about that time.
I'd only like to say that when I was a freshman in college, I was a transparently hard core preppie and for all the ridicule I suffered, I would have sacrificed a toe to be the dude on the cover of a Ralph Lauren catalog. I still have a pair of Rockports from back then and I cannot remember ever wearing them with socks. Now that I look at them, I see that I have finally wore a hole in the sole. Ah pity.
Clearly it has become no big deal for people like me to be our remarkable selves, and it's nice to have legions of homies just below us socially to affirm that our exceptionality is merely ordinary distinction, and not some freakish oddity.
File all that under the category of Social Capital, which again was quantifiably obvious to me after a quick run to the library in 1982, thirty years earlier. But guess what, it’s 2022; yet another decade and Ralph Lauren is still around hawking tweeds. This time he has hit a bullseye, sort of.
The worst thing any respectable critic can say about Lauren’s new Morehouse and Spelman collection is that it hardly looks like a spring collection and more like a fall collection. Beyond that, he’s 25 years behind Denzel’s film. Oh yeah and that it’s ridiculously overpriced. On the other hand, aesthetically and culturally speaking, as Lauren works to speak to the timeless, he has oh so nailed it. These, my pedigree chums, are old school clothes for Old School ladies and gents. And believe you me, although you may have never heard of Melvin B. Tolson or Wiley College, much less their style and comportment, we over here have. Those are our parents and grandparents and we are what they wanted us to be.
The downside of social capital of this sort is that it is not particularly fungible in America’s current mediasphere. No doubt you will likely hear some grumbling about cultural appropriation. Of course it’s applied to Lauren. Of course it’s not applied to Denzel. We are talking about the subtleties of symbolic manipulation aren’t we? That’s semiotics 101. You can indeed make mountains out of molehills. Fortunes depend on it. Cats like me desire to dress like Dizzy Gillespie in his prime, and here are the fundaments I can buy off the rack. But I don’t have the fame of Sam Jackson or even any of the Lil Youngz, and as such cannot presume to have the media presence my presence of mind deserves.
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In my Stoic embodiment it is difficult for me to be particularly taken with the cultural significance of fashion and style. It is a river I swim in to get from point A to point B, and I’m not particularly noticing if it’s upstream or downstream. Such is the benefit of being streamlined. I’m not always sticking my fins out to see which way the eddies are swirling. Yet I have represented the Old School with a passion in my past, and to the extent that set of aesthetics and values can persist, I’m happy. I don’t mind being associated with that part of black history that bore the fruit of jazz because I love many of its particulars. I also love its continuity with and extensions of older forms of American, European and African strains of music. These days, some of my favorites are the jazz melanges with Asian tabla, Arabic vocals, Caribbean dubs and American synthetic tones. Every once in a while, however I like to clear out the cross-currents and directly evoke some historical accuracy. The simulacra created by Ralph Lauren is ‘authentic enough’. It’s not as if he did it behind Morehouse and Spelman’s back. It’s a throwback collaboration that makes me feel good.
Now if I can only find a tailor who can make me a knockoff for half the price…