Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History [Pt. 2]
6. Mid-late 1990s – The Backlash:
After hip-hop’s overwhelming embrace of their clothing in the early ’90s, preppy brands, including Polo, begin to get away from the bright colors and sporty style that made their clothes so popular in urban fashion. A rumor that Polo competitor Tommy Hilfiger made racist comments about Black customers’ interest in his clothes on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show spreads (Oprah later had Hilfiger on her show to definitively deny the claims), and a slight backlash against these high-end labels ensues within the hip-hop community. Brands like FUBU and lines created by rappers including Rocawear and Sean John, rule hip-hop fashion going into the new millennium. Despite all of this, Polo gains notoriety for using Black model Tyson Beckford prominently in their ads.
Dallas Penn: [In] the mid-to-late ’90s, Polo tried to distance itself from the urban consumer. So, Polo kind of got away from some of the things that the urban consumer really liked about it. They reduced the teddy bear sweaters that they were offering. The knits with color blocked primary colors… They pulled out from that and became more conservative… I guess that is the evolution of the brand in a way, because you’re going with different design schemes and you’re trying out some different colorations and things, but my opinion is that they were definitely trying to run from the urban market sensibilities… My understanding always has been that these brands don’t particularly target Hip-Hop culture or urban culture, but urban culture targets them.
Young Dro: Yeah! That [Hilfiger comment] what made us stop rapping [about] and wearing Tommy. You know Raekwon used to be like, “Tommy Hilfiger.” C’mon shawty, it was the whole life. Then when he said that, it really—so, I was like, might as well go get ‘Lo’d up. So that whole thing with Tommy, I think Polo still sold more clothes than anybody all through those years, all through that time [because of that]… And you can see a black model on TV. Tyson Beckford or somebody that was doin’ Ralph Lauren. Black people and urban, like “Oh, OK cool.” ‘Cause that’s what I thought. The Black guy, the model. I automatically was like, “I’m one, too.” And I had the nickname, people used to call me the mannequin.
Raekwon: I mean, I heard about that. But, at the end of the day, nobody ain’t give a fuck about that, you know what I mean… Who knows? I don’t know if the nigga’s racist or not. I’ve seen Black people in posters wearing it. So, that was just a speculation. I don’t really believe that until I actually see it myself.
Just Blaze: You gotta remember, hip-hop has always been about taking something that wasn’t meant for us and making it ours. That whole thing, remember when they were saying, “Oh, Tommy Hilfiger said he didn’t want Black people wearing his clothes?” And then that kinda translated to Ralph Lauren saying [that]. It’s not that. The comment that was actually said was, “I’m surprised that my clothing has found it’s way into the urban space because I didn’t design it for that.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t necessarily make my music for a 70-year-old White man, but it doesn’t mean I have a problem with him listening to it.
Sean Price: I don’t think Ralph Lauren give a shit about hip-hop. We just like the clothes. Fuck ‘em. Straight up.