Ralph Lauren has always been a master of appropriation — from hunting jackets to polo shirts, the great man’s finest designs are heavily indebted to the world of functional clobber. But what happens when the appropriator is… er… appropriated?
In the late 80s, at a time when Ralph’s American dream was aimed squarely at the minted elite, a crew of working-class kids from New York known as the Lo Lifes took to nabbing his most audacious creations from the racks as a way to stand out on the streets of Brooklyn.
And whilst most would look daft in head-to-toe Polo ski attire, this lot managed to pull it off, helping to take hip-hop style beyond fat laces and leather tracksuits.
Rack Lo was one of the original Lo Lifes, and is still heavily involved today, running his own brand dedicated to Polo-inspired paraphernalia, and helping to organise the various Lo Life gatherings that take place throughout the year.
We sent him a barrage of questions via trans-Atlantic e-mail, and thankfully, he replied…
Do you remember being into clothes as a kid?
Oh man, I remember well. As a kid, my brother was more into materialism and brand names, and I was satisfied with whatever my mother and father were able to provide for me, but as I got older things changed and I became very materialistic.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 80s, how important was it to wear the right stuff?
It was very important because what you wore told a story in itself — what you wore pretty much separated you from the others. For instance, if you didn’t have street respect or a reputation, there were some things you just couldn’t wear, and it would be very dangerous to do so.
So in Brooklyn before you wanted to get fly and fresh, you had to know how to fight and defend yourself. If you didn’t have a reputation for defending yourself, you became what we called ‘The Herb’, and people would take advantage of you anytime you were seen.
In Brooklyn getting fresh was a part of the street life for many of the street legends.
When did the Lo Life Crew start? When did it go from being a few people wearing Polo stuff, to a full crew?
It started in 1988. The crew got bigger and gained more members once I decided to unite both parties, Marcus Garvey Village and St Johns. Then some time later, the late, great Boostin Billy started a chapter in Philadelphia, and it started to pick up from there.
Why Polo? What was the appeal of this stuff?
Polo just stood out the most. For some reason we were just attracted to it. First, it had amazing color ways and wasn’t prevalent in the United States ghettos. Polo wasn’t designed for poor urban kids; it was made for the upper class, waspy and collegiate kids. So when we started wearing we took it to a whole different level.
"In Brooklyn getting fresh was a part of the street life."
The Lo Lifes made Polo popular in the ghetto. We took what Ralph Lauren designed and created new looks and styles based around our concept of ‘Lo Down’. Lo Down is a term used when a person is wearing Polo Ralph Lauren from head to toe.
I was going to ask you about that. Could someone ever go too far and wear too much Polo stuff?
Many of the times we dressed in what we called ‘layers’ — layers of nothing but the finest Ralph Lauren Polo on the market. From head to toe all of our clothing was Polo Ralph Lauren. This particular dress code shocked a lot of people, and even Ralph Lauren was amazed.
For us it was never about just having Polo, but more about how you wore and coordinated the Polo — that is what made you special.
Do you remember the first Polo item you got?
The first Polo item I remember shoplifting was the Anniversary Cross Flags Sweater in 1987. An OG named Mike-Lo (cousin of Friz-Lo) had taken us to Riverside Square Mall out in Bergen County, New Jersey. We had taken the sweaters from a major department named Saks Fifth Avenue.
What was New York like in the late 80s and early 90s? What was a normal day like back then?
New York was very violent and filled with a lot of criminals from all communities. At any time you could have lost your life for the pettiest things — people just didn’t see the value in life back in those times.
A normal day for me was doing crime, and by me engaging in criminal activities I was able to sustain who I was and my lavish lifestyle.
I suppose it’s probably pointless talking about the Lo Life Crew without talking about boosting or racking. Wearing all that bright gear, you lot were hardly inconspicuous – so what were your tactics for getting your hands on Polo gear?
Our first tactic was called ‘geeing’ or ‘city slicking’. Using this strategy was more of a calm approach. Even though we wore bright colors, we were still clever in the stores.
"At any time you could have lost your life for the pettiest things — people just didn’t see the value in life back in those times."
Then I coined the term ‘million man rush’ as I helped usher in our newest strategy called ‘steaming’. This is where we just entered the store with a mob of like 50 heads and would just snatch what we wanted and headed to the door. I would say the ‘Million Man Rush’ tactic was the more dangerous. And further that act brought you a heavier jail/prison sentence if you were apprehended.
Did you ever get caught?
Yes, I have been caught on many occasions. As a result I was locked up in juvenile detention and I was an inmate on the infamous ‘Riker’s Island’. But in my case I was still fortunate because I never spent time in prison — only in city jails for very short time periods. The longest I spent incarcerated was four months.
The whole thing of nabbing and wearing aspirational clothing wasn’t too different to what casuals were doing in England and the Paninaro were doing in Italy around a similar time. Were you aware of any of those subcultures?
No, I never heard of those, sounds interesting out in England though. Dope!
Why do you think people gravitate to this high-class functional stuff? A lot of people wear hunting jackets or skiing coats, but they'll never go hunting or skiing.
That’s just how the ghetto operates. Although the clothes were made for those occasions and atmospheres we simply turned those wears into hood fashion artifacts. We never played by the rules, we made our own rules.
The Polo stuff at that time seemed to be particularly intense. Lots of bright colors and big logos — what were the main items you’d go for?
My favorite polo pieces are the Crest, the Yacht, the Anniversary Cross Flags and the Cookie.
I’ve read in other articles about something called the ‘Endless Bear’ knit – a jumper with a classic Ralph bear on the front, which is wearing a jumper with a classic Ralph bear on the front, which is also wearing a classic Ralph bear on the front. Does this thing really exist?
That doesn’t exist. And if it does – it sounds corny. Just too much happening in one sweater. Sometimes simple is better.
Was there a competitive element to all this? Were you trying to one-up your friends by finding rarer stuff?
Yes, every day each Lo Life’s intension was to out-dress the next. The competition was high amongst individuals in the crew and we also competed against other crews as well. Some of the greatest show downs took place at Empire Skating Rink’.
What else were you lot wearing back then? What else was in the mix?
Besides Polo, I wore Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Nautica, Gucci, Descente, Head, Prince, Sergio Tacchini and Coca-Cola. There was a lot of fresh brands we rocked.
Obviously the clothes were a big part of it, but what else was Lo Life about? What else was going on?
Everything that was a part of hip hop was happening. Remember this was 1988 the golden era of hip hop. But besides the clothes we did a lot of crime, partying and just running the streets. It was all about survival. So either you were a street kid or you played it safe and stayed out of trouble. But for us, we always found trouble, because most of the times we initiated it.
How has New York changed since the late 80s? Do you think you lot could get away with the same stuff if you were growing up now?
New York has definitely changed. The time I’m reflecting on is considered ‘The Old New York’. Nowadays, there are cameras everywhere. The city is filled with surveillance, so yes in the current times getting caught would be a realistic matter. Plus there are a lot more cops on the streets now. In the 1980s you had cops, but you also had crime fighters like ‘The Guardian Angels’ who also tried to prevent a lot of the madness from happening on the New York City streets. It worked sometimes, but for the most part, the criminals prevailed.
"We never played by the rules, we made our own rules."
But I know for a fact, if the Lo Life’s were committing the same acts in the 1980s in the new millennium a lot of us would be in jail for decades and life on the back of the sentence. Because a lot of Lo-Life’s are three time losers meaning they already have three felony convictions. So a fourth one will keep them incarcerated for life. 2018 is not the time to being doing anything stupid.
What are your thoughts on streetwear today? Now that kids can just sit on a computer and buy whatever they want, is it still ‘street’?
No, it’s not street. I’m not into the new fashion and styles — I like gear that stands the test of time. Nowadays, a lot of the brands don’t have staying power. Polo has been here since 1967 and it’s still so relevant — it’s timeless and will never go out of style.
This staying power is what all of the other brands fight and struggle for. Will they last for the next 10 or 20 years? I see clothing brands come and go so often.
Have you ever heard what Ralph thinks of all this?
Yes, Ralph had no choice but to acknowledge our movement. I never cared about meeting Ralph or none of that. He was a non-factor in my life as far as my aspirations are concerned. I’m a realist.
The Lo-Lifes go hand in hand with Ralph. In the same way he created a brand, so did the Lo-Lifes. We have come a long way and we are still on the front lines doing it big.
What do you get up to these days? What’s an average day like for you now?
Nowadays, I’m all about business, traveling, family, being a great husband and father and truly helping other people realize and pursue their dreams. I view myself as the Creative Director and Visionary in all that I engage in. I have a lot of great things coming down the pipeline.
Sounds good. Any wise words you’d like to add?
Yes, check out my book Lo Life: An American Classic. It feels great to be a published author, and this is just my first book, I have plenty of stories to tell.
Thank You! 2L’s Up and SaLLute!
Lo Life: An American Classic is available now. Get it here.
This interview was originally published in Pica~Post 14. Thanks to Madison at Powerhouse Books for the help.