On Tuesday, March 15, Ralph Lauren announced an upcoming capsule collection titled A Portrait of the American Dream, that blends the brand’s classic Americana stylings with the sartorial heritage of Atlanta-based HBCUs Morehouse College and Spelman College.
The announcement was a true exercise of craft, featuring a combination of visually striking photos from Nadine Ijewere and an equally stunning video—both felt more like a time capsule than a lookbook. In the imagery, we see Black people of all pigments dressed to the nines in gear inspired by styles seen in Morehouse and Spelman yearbooks between 1920 and 1950. To call the campaign beautiful is an understatement. Here, we see a sartorial excellence in lockstep with the institutions’ intellectual prowess.
Credit this to creative director, James Jeter, a Morehouse ’13 alum and Ralph’s Director of Concept Design and Special Projects. Jeter understood that the devil is in the details when you’re aligning an American institution like Ralph Lauren with grounds traditionally sacred and safe for Black people. Subtle details like enlisting students, alum, and staff to model the clothing, upholding the white dresses Spelmanites have traditionally rocked for generations, and even bringing in the respective campuses as a setting for the shots.
Jeter told WWD: “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.”
On paper, this looks like a well done campaign. Jeter even ensures that, “Ralph Lauren invested in this idea and empowered individuals from this community to tell this story. There wasn’t really micromanaging or this wasn’t Ralph’s version of it.”
As an alumni, it’s the ultimate IYKYK—a nod to a scholastic history and pride that’s emblazoned the moment you step foot onto campus. Like Black culture, the imagery represents a continuum of all that we’ve been, are, and will evolve to become.
News of the collection was initially met with praise, then came boasts from current students and alums of the two highlighted institutions (including me), and finally the standard competitive fodder from other HBCUs who didn’t share the spotlight (next time ;-)).
Then came a level of commentary, critique, and tales of ruffled feathers that’s par the course for all Internet dealings.
HBCU bragging rights aside, collections like this will always draw warranted side eyes followed by the reckoning brands faced in 2020, after the consecutive deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. These tragic deaths sparked a transformation within the Black community, especially in the expectations placed on the American institutions we’re expected to uphold. One can argue that no one has been called to the stand like brands, which have been tasked with loving the Black community out loud or not at all. To truly support people of color rather than pander to us for the sake of our dollars.
“I have always believed in the American dream. Since I started my company over 50 years ago, I considered our greatest responsibility to understand, be inspired by, and aspire to the dreams to all those who call this country home,” Ralph Lauren says at the start of the video. Then he quickly acknowledges that the prolonged omission of HBCU, and in turn “timeless” Black stylings, means part of his iconic brand’s “design sensibility” has been missing.
“Our portrait of American style and our vision of the American dream would be incomplete without Black experiences like these,” Lauren continues.
There is no Americana without Black people. We get that straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. But we’ve already known that. Sadly, a lot of American institutions are just now catching up.
Keeping the glass half-filled, having representation in these corporate rooms improves the chances of ideas like these seeing the light of day. And thankfully, this is more than a storytelling play to sell gear. WWD reports that the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation pledged $2 million in December 2021 to the United Negro College Fund to provide scholarships for students at Morehouse College, Spelman College and 10 other HBCUs. The company also plans to provide students at these institutions with internship, recruitment and mentorship opportunities.
The capsule collection will debut to Morehouse and Spelman students and faculty via a presale. General consumers will have to wait until March 29 to cop.