Ralph Lauren’s HBCU Capsule Rewrites the Record

That means rethinking who gets to run projects like these. The collection was the brainchild of James Jeter, director of concept design & special projects for Ralph Lauren and a Morehouse alum, in collaboration with Dara Douglas, director of inspirational content for Ralph Lauren and a Spelman alumna. Acclaimed photographer Nadine Ijewere, alongside Black cinematographers and creative directors, shot the images, which feature current students and professors as models. It followed a $2 million pledge from the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation made in December 2021 designated for scholarships for students at Morehouse, Spelman, and 10 other HBCUs. I’ve been struck by the authenticity of it all: a whole cast of current and future leaders empowered to redefine what’s aspirational—what’s American—in real time.

The collection is not without its skeptics: Some questioned why the brand chose to emulate this slice of history, a time perhaps more palatable to white audiences. Others criticized the broader wave of brands that continue to heap attention onto Morehouse and Spelman, two of the most prominent HBCUs, rather than other, lesser known Black colleges.

The skepticism is fair in its particularity—this is a complex history and other HBCUs are deserving of praise—and also in its generality. It arises from a people that have long watched fashion brands co-opt our culture for profit.

Nadine Ijewere/Polo Ralph Lauren

For my own part, I struggle with whether to look at this collection and applaud, or just to shout duh. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of his alma mater, Howard University, seems applicable here: his school, he’s written, “enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent [in Jim Crow days].” Open the aperture to include other HBCUs like Morehouse and Spelman, and the legacy is undeniable—and exactly the thing popular fashion would do well to reflect. Consider the leaders these schools produced: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stacey Abrams, Spike Lee, Alice Walker. What could be more aspirational—more American—than that?

I see nothing particularly courageous about calling greatness, greatness. But in a country that has long ignored, avoided, or subverted our history, Ralph Lauren chose to honor us. That’s a win in my book.

What this collection doesn’t do, though, is the same thing that no institution can do: validate our history. The rich legacies of Spelmanites and Morehouse Men were worthy long before Ralph Lauren deemed them so. Still, I can’t help but smile seeing an iconic brand recognize the beauty that many of us knew was there all along.

Cole Brown is a political commentator, producer, and author of the book Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World.

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