Streetwear is dead. Well, at least it’s “gonna die”, according to Virgil Abloh in an interview late last year. Coming from the apparently prophetic founder of Off-White, a label that indoctrinates the Yeezy-come-Yeezy-go enigma of urban dressing, perhaps it really is time to farewell our skatepark threads and make way for a new order. While he made no suggestion as to what he thinks will bloom in its wake, a valiant tide of fashion handsomeness is already surging. A revival of sorts, it’s one that dips back to an elegant yonder. A style vintage that stems from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and the starchy ‘drobes of Upstate pedigree. Of course, this collegiate classicism never really left. Its timeless, seasonless sweet-spot has been safe in the arms of weekend wear since the invention of private schools. In particular, athleisure’s originate – the Polo. Despite the wind blowing style in a constant new direction, the perpetually popped collar of Ralph Lauren’s iconic shirt is everpresent as a staple in the satorial wardrobe.
Ralph Lauren navigated a casuals collection when he was but a fresh-faced tie-designer in New York City in 1968. Having cut his teeth working as a salesperson for American label Brooks Brothers, he’d become versed in the language of the well-pressed Oxford and the slim-fit chino. A sport lover, Lauren gravitated to a fraternity tableau of college regalia, breaking rugby cuts and regatta stripes into his newly founded label. Polo, as it was initially named, struck a chord with a new-wave elite and its namesake shirt found instant favour. Cut from the cloth of preparatory-genre labels before it, Lauren’s version of the supercilious sport shirt has since been lauded as one of the most prosperous of all time.
So, did the billionaire designer, who has celebrated over half a century of lucrative sartorial success, intend to magic a product that would be as coveted by Prince William as it is your dad? A piece as malleable with schmick tweeds on Tyler The Creator as it is with creased plaid shorts on Scott Disick? A shirt as suitable on Nacho Figueras on the polo field as Joe Biden on the campaign trail?
Its epochal narrative of Jay Gatsby-inspiration weaves so tightly within its DNA it’s become cosplay. American dream costumery tethered to a WASP-y origin. But like all good deep-history style, the allure of modern irony beckons. While the chiselled cheek-boned and floppy haired characters of yacht weeks and tennis clubs are moths to the Polo flame, such gentrified gravitas is now being appropriated by more unusual suspects. Those whose treads and threads more commonly rotate Supreme rarities or Nike micro-collabs are gearing up for a season of sportified tailoring. Street stylers are looping popped collars, cable knits and penny loafers into their zeitgeist. They’re French-tucking and sleeve-cuffing and neckerchief-tying. They’re dappling in dapper and getting. The hell. Dressed.
The overzealous slouchy-volume of the last few seasons is being nipped into a polished new sleek. Refinery is rife. On the fall 2020 runways, dinner jackets downed in brushed wool were layered over marle cardis at Junya Watanabe (the Japanese designer also releasing it’s third Ivy League-inspired capsule with the aforementioned Brooks Brothers). Prada offered Brit-infused school-isms in the form of pleated trousers and slim-fit knit vests and Alessandro Michele deployed more than a few Gucci-fied incarnations of vintage prep. Even boys who gorge the core of cool, like Travis Scott, Post Malone and Harry Styles are vouching for indie takes on conservative construct. Weaving inflections of printed lapels, buttoned-up polos and vesty argyles into their signature styling. Hyped New York label Amié Leon Dore is boasting a reintroduction of tennis sweats and boat shoes while London’s YMC has done a “Rudeboy” juxta-redux with preppy centenarian label Farah.
Perhaps it’s an antidote to fashion’s oh-so-current fascination with all things doomy gloom. Style that takes a swift turn towards sturdy sophistication, racing away from the ominous gothics of the Rick Owens’ and the Demna Gvasalia’s. A respite in Pleasantville while Blade Runner hogs the headlines. Lauren has always been an advocate for upper echelon aspiration. His photographic campaigns are famous for delivering a type of campus fever dream. Groups of beautiful humans swathed in layers of appetizing Americana that drive a rugged, ranchy, richy discourse. And his stores match the trip. A Montauk mirage of knotted sisal, nautical weatherboards and plush furnishings-a-plenty so intoxicating it makes you want to pull up a Chesterfield and pour yourself a scotch. Such genius for marketing a lifestyle, and not just a brand, is why Polo never ebbs far from the retail frontline. A fashion ideal so coveted, it boasts a thriving bootleg sub-life. Fake Polos hunted by shoppers are epidemic in the imitation marketplace. In fact, countless Reddits and WikiHows are dedicated to explaining how to spot a diet version. The mallet on the motif is too round! The stitching is falling apart! The tag says Raph Laurin! Though the practice is degrading, such an incessant demand for the almost-Polo only certainly cements its unwavering appeal.
It seems strange to bestow such fascination upon what is essentially a collared, cotton t-shirt with a two-button placket. But the Polo’s image is fortified. A top shelf fashion Grange that never loses its value. And one now cemented in coffee-table-book history. Ralph Lauren’s Polo Shirt (Rizzoli, April 2020) is a 544-page tome dedicated to its ubiquitous prevalence. With a publicity overture that spins “the Polo is to Ralph Lauren, what Mickey Mouse is to Disney”, it showcases its jaunty history and celebrity fans.
The decade ahead is ritzing the Polo for a whole new generation. With a millennial culture already heavy into throwbacks, both for its upcycling type of sustainability and for its gregarious narrative, the Polo is perfect fodder. Form this time will likely take an ironic turn to a type of neo-aristocracy. One paired with unexpected partners and accessorised accordingly. And why not? Classics are but canvases for manipulation, after all. Lauren has said that “the clothes I design are the things I believe in, the things that last forever.” The antithesis of Abloh’s verbal decimation of his own favoured style. So, perhaps streetwear isn’t on its deathbed but rather taking a rite of passage towards a more grown up future. Because this is a Polo that takes the subway now, not just the Range Rover.
The Polo is a “chosen one” of sorts. A status symbol of a fabric nature that sees a stitchy polo-player-and-horse motif rearing within the good shirt section of just about every well-dressed human. It’s king of the stalwart everyman wardrobe but is now equally a flavouring buzzy trend. It’s iconic enough to have vintage pieces sold on collector hotspot Grailed and progressive enough to recently re-release its garish eighties ‘Casino’ shirt through Opening Ceremony stores. The Polo is a reinvention wizard. Sportif finery with such chameleon charisma and limitless appeal that it might just live forever.
Explore more on Ralph Lauren’s iconic Polo Shirt in the 544-page tome, published by Rizzoli New York, available in select Ralph Lauren stores and online from April 2020.
Yves / Elite Model