10 thoughts, prayers and concerns about ‘Polo Ralph Lauren Exclusively for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges Collection’ 

OPINION: This new HBCU collection takes Trick Daddy’s ‘hell naw, ho, you know they Polo’ to new levels.

(Credit: Nadine Ijewere for Ralph Lauren)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

If you spent any time on social media in the past two days, you undoubtedly saw the launch of the promotional campaign for Polo Ralph Lauren’s new, exclusive collection inspired by the sartorial history and legacy of both Spelman College and Morehouse College (or more colloquially, Spelhouse), two historically Black colleges in Atlanta. It’s a stunning campaign, really. 

Conceived of and helmed by James Jeter, a 2013 graduate of Morehouse College (and employee of Polo Ralph Lauren) and featuring faculty, alumni, students (of both schools) and models, the entire rollout is visually amazing. According to Vogue, the campaign was shot by Nadine Ijewere, making it the brand’s first where Black folks were used exclusively both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Chef’s kiss. 

Of course, a billion-dollar company entering the world of HBCU consumerism will generate conversations and lots of them. I spent a significant amount of time on the day the campaign was launched debating various aspects of the campaign and larger issues in multiple group texts, chats and on social media. Folks have thoughts, and I’m a folks (no gang gang), so here are 10 thoughts (maybe a prayer and some concerns) about the new collection. 

1. I wish I could say I was excited when I first saw the news about the collection, but I wasn’t. I wanted to be happy about it, but I had this nagging feeling, as is usually the case when Big White Companies hop onto Black causes and trends. Appropriation and exploitation are usually the order of the day. Now, in this case, and well before the launch of this collection, Ralph Lauren committed to donating money to HBCUs (the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation donated $2 million to Morehouse, Spelman and 10 other HBCUs via the United Negro College Fund in December 2021) and other efforts, so we’ll see what comes of it. But this speaks to the larger issue: It’s hard to trust that a big white company is really out to right the representation wrongs so much as exploit an economic opportunity. I hate that this was my first thought, and I hate it more that I’m not wrong to think that way at all. History has shown us that where exploitation and appropriation can be used to increase the wealth of white America, it usually is used. I hope I’m wrong in this case. More on that later.

2.  I also immediately thought about all of the Black companies who specialize in HBCU apparel or fancy fineables that I doubt would get this same opportunity from Morehouse College or Spelman College. Or who maybe could have been good to partner with from a company like Polo, which would REALLY have an impact. The thing that stands out most to me, honestly, is the amount of archival access Polo got and how they were able to, via Mr. Jeter, use it to inform an entire multimedia campaign marrying the old with the new. The whole thing is absolutely amazing in its presentation, and though I don’t know him, I’m exceedingly proud of Mr. Jeter for his work here conceiving and deploying this campaign. Like, dude is aces in my book. 

At the same time, was it just as simple as asking, or does Polo have the kind of cache that smaller, Black companies could never have for resource reasons? Does Polo have the resources and reach to make this whole thing make sense for Morehouse and Spelman in ways others don’t? And let me be clear, I do not know if other small, Black companies have asked Morehouse or Spelman to open up their archives so they could do a campaign on the campus and inside buildings and without the faculty, alumni and students. I ain’t saying the white man’s ice is colder, but maybe that bigger block of ice looks colder. 

3. I do wonder what the financial benefit is for the schools. Obviously, there is a licensing component; schools license out their marks for a fee to companies, which I imagine is good for HBCUs nowadays since there are so many more options for Black college gear on the market now, as opposed to when I was at Morehouse College in the late ’90s.  If you didn’t get to Collegiate (a store near campus) or the bookstore when that new fire shirt or hoodie dropped, you were short. Real talk, getting Black college gear before the internet was like copping shoes on Nike’s SNKRs app—a whole lot of L’s. 

4. At the same time (and let’s start getting to the good stuff), this is one HELL of a commercial for Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. I don’t know if this helps increase applications or convinces any other students that they need to look at HBCUs for college, but representation matters, and this represents the hell out of both schools. It’s giving period piece—the collection’s aesthetic is the 1920s to the 1950s; somebody in one of my group chats called it Civil Rights Chic, and now I cannot unthink that—and ain’t nothing like a good “back when we used to dress right” campaign to vindicate our grandparents and provide inspiration for folks who actively attend Great Gatsby parties in their finest tweeds and hosiery. I wonder if this collection came with an abacus, Bible and double-sided Martin Luther King Jr. and white Jesus church fan. 

5. I love the look of the clothes. All of them. Literally all of it. It’s saying, “come buy me,” and my wallet is saying, “take my money.” Now, this is all before I see the price tags on any of it, which, I mean, it’s Polo. You know this stuff ain’t coming cheap. But there’s a Morehouse varsity jacket on the back of a chair in one of the pictures…consider that copped. I don’t care how much it is; that is getting purchased.

Polo Ralph Lauren Morehouse Spelman theGrio.com
(Credit: Nadine Ijewere for Polo Ralph Lauren)

6. Speaking of, I’m curious where this stuff ends up. Like, will it be in Macy’s with the rest of the Polo stuff or just in Polo Ralph Lauren stores? Will it be mass-produced? Will I have to worry about getting this immediately? Look, Morehouse and Spelman aren’t exactly the most populous HBCUs, and I don’t imagine folks from Florida A&M or Hampton care about this that much (more on this later), but will this be sitting in stores in case one of my kids tears my trousers and I need to re-up right before the big sock hop? I’m guessing Polo is looking to cash out on this experience in the most maximal way possible, but I also don’t know how these collections work. Word to the wise, though, and since I know this will be online, Polo sizing is suspect as hell. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been humbled by Polo jean jackets trying to convince me that I wear a size small instead of the three extra-large I was at the height of the jersey craze. I’m just saying, you probably need to be able to try this stuff on before you buy it. 

7. Let’s talk about other HBCUs right quick: Hateration and holleration are always at the dancery. I’m sure other HBCUs are always annoyed that the same schools always get the donations, and despite the fact that there are many, many outlets where you can get Alabama State, Elizabeth City State and Coppin State gear, etc., there’s always this conversation about equity in donations and notice for all HBCUs. This is a tale as old as time and will never change. The top HBCUs will always get the shine, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Let’s not pretend like we don’t need the money, too. And I’d argue that when it comes to HBCUs, ensuring the top schools thrive helps the viability of other schools, but I ain’t one to gossip, so you ain’t heard that from me. And real talk, the only school that I think has any right to be annoyed (again and again and again) in the Spelhouse conversations is Bennett College in North Carolina, which is Morehouse’s actual sister school but is constantly erased from these conversations. But ya know, proximity and history is everything, and well, that’s that on that. Spelhouse all day, though I have nothing but love for my Bennett Belles. 

8. I’m glad this was done with Polo since, well, we already rock the hell out of Polo. I’d hate to be conflicted more than I am because the campaign was done with a name-brand label I didn’t care for. I won’t name names, but you know who you are, Others.

9. I do have one question for Polo and Mr. Jeter: Why fore come that Morehouse 1867 sweater that I kind of really want looks like a Howard University sweater? Howard University was also founded in 1867, and I bought my wife a Howard hoodie that looks an awful lot like that. Howard folks are gonna snag them things up and pretend it’s for them. 

10. I really do think the clothing and presentation are great here, and despite my misgivings about, ya know, exploitation, I’m very glad that Black people are behind every aspect of this. I don’t think that nagging feeling of exploitation and squeezing out the little guys will ever go away, and maybe that’s just business, but I hope folks are as likely to support Black businesses as they are Polo. Go on ahead and get you some fly gear and also support Black businesses, y’all.

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

 Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

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