Ralph Lauren's HBCU Collaboration: Progress or Performative?

Ralph Lauren's new collection with Morehouse and Spelman is beautiful, but given the fashion industry's history of exploiting Black culture, people want to know: How does this benefit Black students?

Polo Ralph Lauren Morehouse campaign image -
Photo: NADINE IJEWERE/POLO RALPH LAUREN

Historically Black colleges and universities are central to the fabric of Black communities. These institutions allow us to forge new paths against the backdrop of an anti-Black society both now and in the past. And after Black History Month, when many of these institutions were disrespected and directly attacked with bomb threats, it's encouraging to see HBCUs attached to positive news: Polo Ralph Lauren's latest—and dare we say —breathtaking advertising campaign.

The collaboration with Ralph Lauren "centers Morehouse in the American story. You look at those pictures, and you can see the connection to the same fashion sensibilities that have defined Ralph Lauren. They were at Morehouse before Ralph Lauren was even born," Morehouse President David Thomas told the Washington Post. "If we really think about Morehouse in the period of those pictures, if we hadn't had racial discrimination, many of those young men could have gone to the best colleges in this country. Many could have ended up at Ivy League colleges."

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As the world takes in this new collection inspired by, and produced with, HBCUs like Spelman and Morehouse College, there's a lot to process. The campaign includes photographs, picture books, and a 30-minute film and prompts conversations of fashion, elitism, and what meaningful collaboration looks like. The items range from outerwear to tailored suits and dresses to accessories and everything in between.

The effort is not only visually stunning but somehow captures a surreal element of historic Black excellence—that is typically seen in Black in white—in dynamic color.

Polo Ralph Lauren Spelman campaign image
NADINE IJEWERE/POLO RALPH LAUREN

One of the reasons that the campaign was able to perfectly encapsulate such visually stunning elements is likely due to the fact alumni of these institutions not only helped ideate the campaign but were also present in front of, and behind, the camera lens. Ralph Lauren's choice to create the line of clothing spearheaded by Black creatives is in line with their effort to take action on racial equity.

Ralph Lauren, executive chairman and chief creative officer of Ralph Lauren Corporation noted the historical, communal, and aesthetic significance of HBCUs in a press release. "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."

James Jeter, a design director with Ralph Lauren and Morehouse graduate, oversaw the project, making the campaign what it is. His pride as a Morehouse man reflects the success often associated with the "Spelhouse" institutions that have graduated notable former attendees and alumni, including Samuel L Jackson, Stacey Abrams, and Alice Walker.

Again, the response was overwhelmingly positive; other reactions were less black and white.

Black Americans express varying perspectives on the long-term significance of this project. Everything from pride and skepticism to curiosity about why other institutions don't get the same opportunities has surfaced along with these images. Notably, many expressed concern on how Ralph Lauren benefits, as fashion brands have a long history of exploiting Black culture, traditions, and communities. Of course, this campaign was uniquely created with the consent, vision, and labor of Black institutions and creatives.

Expectedly, Spelhouse graduates have been most vocal in the praises. There have been some pretty funny memes in response to those asking why Morehouse and Spelman receive the opportunities but not other HBCUs.

Others believe the conversation is both dismissive and divisive.

"A lot of the 'why wasn't my HBCU?' chosen discourse is very dismissive of the raw & personal work that alumni put in THEMSELVES to be able to bring such dope partnerships to their HBCUs…anyways, congrats to all the women & men of Spelman & Morehouse that made this possible," said another Twitter user.

Others agreed, suggesting the attention Morehouse and Spelman receive reflects the labor they put in to give back to their institution.

Is there truth to this? Maybe. Both institutions were in the top four in a list of 10 HBCU that earn more than Black graduates in other states. Still, others challenged the significance of this collection and created an opportunity to discuss how these institutions and brands can better show up to support Black communities in impactful yet authentic ways.

"Is Ralph Lauren also donating some ownership of its company to HBCU endowments? Because otherwise, these symbolic gestures while profiting off our culture is getting old." wrote another user.

Ralph Lauren is not directly donating proceeds from the collab to HBCUs, but in an email to Kindred by Parents.com, a spokesperson for Ralph Lauren clarified that Morehouse and Spelman will receive compensation for logo, likeness, and imagery through a standard licensing agreement:

"We are excited to have a robust, multi-pronged partnership with Morehouse College and Spelman College beyond the collection. Specifically pertaining to our commercial relationship for the collection, we have engaged in a standard collegiate apparel licensing agreement operated through the CLC (Collegiate Licensing Company)—the largest and oldest collegiate licensing company in the United States."

Ralph Lauren Corporate also donated $2 million toward grants and scholarships specifically for HBCU students last year.

Even with mixed reactions, the power of these institutions—and all other HBCUs—are undeniable. One can hope this Ralph Lauren campaign is the first of many steps towards reconciliation between the fashion industry and Black communities. And perhaps other institutions will get the recognition they deserve soon.

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