Why Polo Ralph Lauren's HBCU-inspired new collection leaves some conflicted

The latest Polo Ralph Lauren collection draws inspiration from HBCUs. (Photo: Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren)
The latest Polo Ralph Lauren collection draws inspiration from HBCUs. (Photo: Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren)

Polo Ralph Lauren will release a capsule collection inspired by Spelman, Morehouse and collegiate Black fashion's impact on American style and evolution.

The HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities)-influenced collection, which launches on March 29, will feature outerwear, knits, tailored suits, dresses, footwear and accessories designed by Spelman and Morehouse alumni who work at the company. This capsule marks the first time the brand has produced a campaign with an all-Black cast, utilizing talent from students, faculty and alumni at both institutions. Acclaimed fashion photographer Nadine Ijewere lensed the shoot.

Polo Ralph Lauren's director of concept design and special projects, James Jeter, is a 2013 graduate of Morehouse College and the creative powerhouse behind the capsule collection. Jeter drew inspiration from old Spelman and Morehouse yearbooks for the collection.

The designs will pay homage to the styles worn at Spelman and Morehouse from the 1920s to 1950s and showcase the sartorial prestige and distinction present at HBCUs during that era.

"A lot of this project was really about changing ownership around how we think about clothing. So who owns three-piece suits? Who owns cable cardigans? Who owns the circle skirt, for instance? And while it's typically and historically been relegated to Ivy League schools, if you see a lot of these archival images from [Morehouse and] Spelman, that has really helped to inform a lot of the way that we approached not only the design but the way that we approached the campaigns as well,"Jeter told WWD.

This collection's archival nod to HBCU fashion is a part of a larger push to reshape outdated narratives and showcase the American dream from a more inclusive lens.

"It's so much more than a portrayal of a collegiate design sensibility. It's about sharing a more complete and authentic portrait of American style and of the American dream — ensuring stories of Black life and experiences are embedded in the inspiration and aspiration of our brand," said fashion designer Ralph Lauren in a press release.

The Ralph Lauren collection will be available to global consumers on March 29. (Photo: Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren)
The Ralph Lauren collection will be available to global consumers on March 29. (Photo: Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren)

The announcement has received mixed reviews on social media. While some are excited at the prospect of a legacy luxury brand prioritizing Black institutions and their contributions to fashion, others are skeptical of the antiquated style of clothing and prioritization of certain HBCUs by larger institutions.

"Something is a bit off — WASPY/preppy style was a self-preservation tool for many generations of Black [people]," tweeted Shelby Ivey Christie, a fashion and costume historian. "The thought of likening one’s self to whiteness would make you safe/seen."

Other people have shared their thoughts on HBCUs such as Spelman and Morehouse receiving more mainstream attention than other historically Black colleges and universities.

Related video: Shoe retailer DSW partners with HBCU design students

"Love what Ralph Lauren did for Spelman and Morehouse, but I would really appreciate if larger companies, like Polo, would expand to other HBCUs for campaigns like this," read one tweet.

"I wish brands, celebrities and donors would realize there are other HBCUs than Morehouse, Spelman and Howard," read another.

Christie also acknowledged the "white histories" embedded in some HBCUs that may influence the opportunities and collaborations they get. Her tweets also pointed out that the collaboration is not between Morehouse and its actual sister school, Bennett College, but instead with Spelman, the No.1 HBCU in the country.

Beyond clothing, the Polo Ralph Lauren campaign will also feature a film, A Portrait of the American Dream, and a commemorative yearbook available on March 28 and March 29, respectively.

This collaboration is an expansion of Ralph Lauren's continued partnership with Spelman and Morehouse and their commitments to address systemic racism and racial inequity.

In December 2021, Ralph Lauren announced a $2 million commitment to support scholarships for Black, African and African American students, including those at Morehouse, Spelman and 10 additional HBCUs.

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