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When I arrive at the Black Bear bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for A Night of Lo and Lyrics, there's hardly anyone in there. I'm early, it's a little before the 8pm doors, but nervous: I'm here for a night centered around one of, if not, the most important American designer in history, Ralph Lauren — but what if no one shows up?
In the other room, the bar is playing highlights from a surfing competition, in this room, one or two polo-clad attendees mill around. The event promises Ralph Lauren-themed fashion shows, performances, and an award ceremony, but has no affiliation with the storied brand. I'm suddenly skeptical that there could be a whole independent event organized around love for a fashion designer. I'm about to be proven very wrong.
Around 8:15, a few more people slowly start to trickle in, and everyone greets each other like a family member they haven’t seen since the last reunion. I meet one of the venue’s more vocal attendees, who tells me first his name is SJP and second that he’s from New Jersey. These sort of identifications crop up throughout the night, members of the community who shout out different boroughs — Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn — or honorary boroughs, like New Jersey. SJP tells me that’s he an original Lo Life member and fell in love with the brand because it’s timeless. The "Lo" in Lo Life is, of course, short for Polo, Lauren's signature brand. The Lo Lifes formed in the late ‘80s and brought together Ralph Lauren obsessives who would swarm the brand’s flagship store on 42nd street, take as much off the racks as possible, and get back onto the subway as quickly as they came — a practice called boosting.
Later, when a banner is erected on stage, SJP’s name appears on it. He’s clearly important enough to be on the banner, but when I Google him, hardly anything comes up, speaking to how insular this community is. SJP shouts out another guy across the room, Rudy, another "OG Lo Life," who has been charged with taking photographs for the night. When someone tries to introduce themselves to Rudy and get his name he tells them, essentially, that if they don’t know who he is, they'd better take off the Ralph Lauren rugby polo they’re wearing.
In hindsight, maybe it’s not so ridiculous that around 8:45pm the night’s opening DJ, DJ J-Ronin (who shares an unshakeable resemblance to Teen Mom's Gary Shirley), says to a collective group of no more than a dozen people, "There’s already a lot of important motherfuckers in here." He later tells the crowd that if they enjoy the music, they can show their appreciation by buying him a screwdriver.
J-Ronin also proves prophetic. Shortly after his time on the mic, a legitimately "important motherfucker" shows up carrying two duffle bags, trailed by his wife. The man with the (of course) Ralph Lauren duffle bags is Rack-Lo, the event’s organizer as well as a designer and rapper. Along with Lo Life founding member Thirstin’ Howl the 3rd, Rack-Lo co-founded the Ralph-inspired clothing brand named after their community. They print "Lo Life" and the number 1988, the year the Lo Lifes were formed, on familiar RL designs. Celebrities like Chris Brown wear Lo Life, and many of the event’s attendees mix it with actual Polo gear. Rack-Lo tells me that when he was growing up, Ralph Lauren was a "neighborhood thing," and they would use the designer’s clothes as a way to stand out and be unique.
Rack-Lo and his wife, Sheena, are still early by the event’s standards. Sheena quickly commandeers a table that’s been sitting in the corner and starts to spread out items from the duffle bag’s contents. Out of the bags come CDs, DVDs, iPhone cases, and beaded necklaces with plastic emblems attached to them all with a Ralph Lauren theme. Jewel case CD covers are printed with Ralph Lauren’s iconic Paddington bear logos, iPhone cases advertise Ralph Lauren Sport ski and tennis designs, and necklaces feature emblems from vintage Ralph Lauren clothing. "We make it in-house and do all the designs," Sheena tells me.
She says that Lo Life members could tell you the story and inspiration behind every one of the emblems; they can tell you what year and what collection every design is from. They know every stitch, she says, joking that you probably couldn’t find a Ralph Lauren staffer with the same level of knowledge.
But she can’t think of a single time that someone from the brand has reached out or acknowledged the Lo Lifes. You could also easily argue that the Lo Lifes are a major part of the reason that Ralph Lauren still carries so much cultural cachet; why rappers like Kanye West readily utters phrases like, "It ain’t Ralph, though," as a way of setting the brand as the bar for quality. These are the designer’s biggest and most devoted fans and the brand refuses to acknowledge their existence. Ralph Lauren declined to provide a comment for this story.
But even Kanye is dismissed by Sheena, who claims that he’s too far gone in the stratosphere. In Sheena’s eyes, Kanye isn’t on the street level, which is where trends really start. However, the Lo Lifes and Kanye do share a similar perspective on the designer: Ralph is the standard of quality. Sheena says that the Lo Lifes came together as a group of people "seeking a certain quality of life" and remain bonded all these years later through that same principle. Sheena also tells me that the community has come a long way from its boosting roots (although she still recalls sitting at home biting her nails when her husband-to-be was out later than expected) even though people still think they’re a gang because their coordinating, Polo-themed outfits. They're just a group of people who agree that buying Ralph is a sign that you’ve made it.
Events like A Night of Lo & Lyrics started as a small BBQ over a decade ago; a way to bring Lo Life members together after they had lost touch. Since then it has evolved into larger and larger venues, with Black Bear marking their biggest space yet. They will get together again in January at the old Ralph Lauren flagship store on 42nd street in Manhattan, where people will come from as far as Germany to reminisce in the blistering cold for hours.
After my conversation with Sheena, I weave through the crowd as performances are about to kick off. It's 10pm now, and the place is finally packed. Like with SJP, many of the performers start off with their name and borough or crew; there are many factions within the Lo Life community, smaller groups such as RLPC and AyAk Nation. There are dozens of performers throughout the night, but the common thread pulling them together is Ralph Lauren.
The performers' lyrics are indistinguishable from the type you hear on the radio — but they always come back to Ralph. "That’s why chicks fuck with your boy," Sunny Rae spits, "Because he’s dipped in Lo." An act named Sanford n Sun, a father and son duo from New Jersey, have a song and video called "Polo Fresh" with lyrics like "Polo dumb, never leave the residence unless I got Polo on." Another act wears a rubber horse head, a reference to Ralph Lauren’s logo, while performing on stage.
The stream of acts are interrupted by an awards ceremony for the best dressed people in the building. Judges note how much Ralph each participant is wearing, calling out the collections jackets and shirts are from with ease. To pick a winner of the "Equestrian" trophy, the audience is asked to vote by applause for their favorites. Winners generally stuck to a theme, like the best dressed female who wore a matching beanie, sweater, and scarf featuring the skiing Paddington bear.
The night continues early into the morning with more performers who ask the crowd to "throw their two Ls up" — in reference to Lo Lifes. "This is all one family right here," one of the performers remarks.
Leaving, I'm incredulous that a spokesperson from Ralph Lauren has never, to Sheena’s recollection, extended even a thank you to this dedicated community. But maybe Ralph isn't really the reason the Lo Lifes still gather. When I asked Sheena and Rack-Lo if they were both into Ralph Lauren when they got together at 15, Sheena tells me she wasn’t particularly. As knowledgeable as she is about the brand, her true joy comes from being a part of this community — from walking around the event talking to lifelong friends and meeting new Ralph Lauren fanatics. Talking to her about her life with Lo Life, she was beaming, dressed head-to-toe in the brand her husband co-founded. I later spotted her in the crowd when Rack-Lo was performing, feeling the beat and bopping to her husband’s lyrics.
For the best looks from A Night of Lo & Lyrics, click here.