Ralph Lauren’s Collegiate Bear is bundled up. He’s wearing a long, double-breasted camel coat and a chunky blue sweater with USA arching across the chest. There are still more layers underneath: a pink Oxford shirt with a tie fastened tightly at the top, not to mention the brown fur that covers him from paw to snout. It’s cold wherever he goes to school—maybe somewhere just outside Boston? He’s probably off to the local watering hole, got a date—they might discuss their latest reading of Ulysses while nursing a PBR. “Always dressed for class, with class,” is how Ralph Lauren describes the critter. But what you might not glean from his charmingly dweeby saddle shoes and woven belt is that Collegiate Bear is also a fighter.
That’s because Collegiate Bear is what Ralph Lauren describes as the first-ever bear “co-created” by the community of Polo enthusiasts. Translation: the brand made it possible to vote between four bears that had never appeared on a sweater before: in addition to Collegiate, there was the denim-loving Ranch Bear, the leathered-up Racer Bear, and Preppy Bear, who wears a sweater like a bouquet tied around his neck with such panache I was forced to lay down for a half-hour after first laying eyes on him. After all the votes were tallied up, Collegiate Bear had out-booksmarted and outwitted the competition. His prize? A sweater emblazoned with his image that will be available to buy only on the Polo App today, Monday.
The making of every Polo Bear starts with Ralph Lauren himself or his brother Jerry, the director of men’s design at the brand. And I don’t mean that in the straightforward way the head of a company and its men’s designer are involved in the creation of any product. The Polo Bear is their progeny, inheriting style from the brothers the way you and I might take cues from dear old dad. Every year since 1990, Jerry and Ralph have been given a teddy bear from German toymaker Steiff in their likeness as a gift by RL employees. These bears, always in Ralph Lauren clothes, are meant to capture some dimension of how the brothers dress. Ranch Bear, for example, is ready for Ralph’s Colorado ranch and a day riding horseback to the river where he can catch trophy-grade trout.
Collegiate Bear first enrolled in 1996, appearing as a Steiff bear, but never made it to the top-tier knit sweaters. (A similar version of the Collegiate Bear, on a sweatshirt, have him in glasses.)
Making a Polo Bear is a little like doing a Central Park caricature: an illustrator draws the stuffed toy, animating its best features, and adding embellishments where appropriate. The original stuffed version of the Collegiate Bear may not wear a striped green-and-navy woven belt or a watch with an intricately colorful dial, but its on-sweater cousin does.
From there, the bear takes many forms: pixelated digital recreation, vibrant print-out, and factory-ready swatch. A needle through the eye—ahhh!—gives it a sort of lifelike depth. The thread used to create his light pink Oxford shirt is also called upon to stitch the “RL” initials into the sweater’s bottom right corner. A machine handles the smaller details, like the belt and “USA” stitching on the sweater. And then—*voila—*a Polo Bear is born.
The Collegiate Bear is just one of the sloth (the name for a pack of bears) that have emerged ever since the Polo Bear heel-flipped back into our collective hearts with Ralph Lauren’s Palace collaboration last November. In recent months, Polo Bear has been everywhere: on 50th-anniversary edition watches, as a customizable set of options for tees and polos, playing rugby, waving an America flag post-regatta, studying abroad in Bear-ee (Paris, but for Polo Bears), skiing, dressed like a twee Englishman for an Opening Ceremony collaboration, captaining a skiff. His reach has never been wider, either, as he’s popped up on hats, beanies, socks, hoodies, sweatshirts, button-ups, polos, belts, ties, totes, towels, scarves, pocket squares, and even sneakers and boots. The range goes high and low, too, from $14 socks to $1,500 Purple Label cashmere sweaters. As streetwear has mauled the fashion landscape at large, the Polo Bear (not coincidentally, also a beloved figure in the Lo Head community) has been Ralph Lauren’s response to the instantly recognizable graphics of that world.
Demand for the Polo Bear is, clearly, treetop-high. But even if the making of a Polo Bear is a cascading effect, the tippity-top of Ralph or Jerry’s own outfit dribbling down to the illustrators and graphic artists and eye-pokers, the creation almost always remains within the walls of the brand. The Collegiate Bear’s selection by Polo Bear devotees makes it an almost guaranteed classic. A design that came to life in 1996 but is finally graduating, with a little help from voters, 23 years later.
Originally Appeared on GQ