By the late 1980s Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand was the epitome of wealthy, predominantly white, America. While Ralph himself, born Ralph Lifschitz, grew up in a working class Jewish family in The Bronx, the name he created in the fashion world was a far cry from those small-time roots in the Big Apple.
It was around this time, however, that Polo gained a following from a little outside of their target market. Groups of youths, mostly from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Brownsville, like United Shoplifters Association and Raplhie’s Kids became obsessed with Polo. In their crack-riddled neighbourhoods their drug of choice was Ralph Lauren’s garments.
These young men were dressed head to toe in ‘Lo’, right down to the socks and drawers. In 1988 these once separate groups were brought together by Victor DeJesus, aka Thirstin Howl III (named after ‘The Millionaire’ of a similar name from Gilligan’s Island). Thirstin and others formed The Lo Life Crew, the name coming after Thirstin was called a low life for shoplifting, or boosting, Polo from well-todo department stores in NYC.
Lo Life would go on to shape the aesthetic of urban culture in New York and heavily influence hip hop fashion. After decades of being ignored by the brand they adored, Thirstin this year modelled for Ralph Lauren’s Snow Beach line.
On Thursday August 23 Hen’s Teeth will invite documentarian and photographer Tom Gould and Thirstin Howl III to their Fade Street store to launch the pair’s book and film ‘Bury Me With the Lo On’. As well as a screening of the film there will be an exhibition of bootleg Lo merch and a talk hosted by District’s Eric Davidson.
We caught up with rapper, artist and now Polo model Thirstin Howl III (pictured left) for a conversation ahead of the event.
Was it odd after all of these years to be acknowledged by Ralph Lauren?
It was unexpected. But it finally happened. It wasn’t like they weren’t aware, they’ve been aware all this time. I’ve heard that photos of myself and the other Lo Lifes are all over the Polo offices and have been for many years.
In a Complex documentary, Jeffery Tweedy from Sean John was speaking about working for Ralph Lauren back in the day. He recalled the brand looking at what styles were stolen the most as a way to dictate which items were most sought after. Did you know you were having such a big affect outside of your world in Brooklyn?
We knew we were making the impact, we just didn’t know how far it was going. Because our impact was happening all around us, anything close to us was being infected by us with the Polo. Everybody was picking it up all over Brooklyn, all over my housing projects, even within my own family. So we knew that impact was happening, but we didn’t know we were affecting the world.
When did you realise that it wasn’t just a love for a clothing brand but a movement?
It’s a brotherhood, it’s always been that way. The bond and the way we were associated, that’s been ongoing forever.
Ralph Lauren was born in the bronx to immigrant parents. A$AP Ferg is even quoted as saying, “He came from the dirt just like me”. Did Ralph Lauren’s backstory have any bearing on why you guys picked up on Polo so much?
Not at all. It was just a coincidence. When we were doing what we were doing, we had no clue about his background, nor were we seeking it out. What was it, then, that drew you to the brand? The style! How everything looked. It was based on that, nobody really cared about anything else. I don’t think anyone was interested in the fabric, the texture, none of that was a factor, all that mattered was how you looked in that shit.
You said before that wearing the clothes made you forget about what you were dealing with. How did that work?
Well, you felt like a million dollars. And you were poor. If people saw me on the street they’d think I was the flyest guy, then if you went into my apartment there was no furniture. There were so many things in reality that we had no control over, but we also didn’t let it affect us that way, you know? It didn’t matter what I didn’t have, it mattered how I felt.
Did you ever feel like you had a target on your back wearing Polo? I read people’s houses used to get broken into specifically for it?
I was one of the guys painting the targets on people’s backs, so it was different for me. It wasn’t just the Polo either. Jewellery had the same effect. It’s up to you, if you’re willing to deal with the problems with the stuff you’re wearing… A lot of different things gave us that drama, it wasn’t just the Polo. Just being from a certain area you got those problems. Period.
Do you remember the first time seeing it on someone and thinking, ‘Yeah, I like this’?
Not really, I remember seeing it various times in other places, but when I started seeing my close, close friends adapting to it heavy that’s when we knew it was it. Because we were all influencing each other, we weren’t influenced by anything outside.
I saw security tag merch online. The celebration of that is super interesting. There’s a Robin Hood vibe to it. Was this an important part of the story and the mythology behind Lo Life?
Yeah, people are purchasing them as merch, but that was the shit we were trying to get off the clothes. Some people would keep the alarm on, to brag, but having the holes in the clothes from the alarms was just as braggadocious.
‘Dad hats’ became cool in recent years, with lots of people donning Ralph Lauren versions. Do you feel like that brand would have even been considered in 2018 without Lo Life?
Not in hip hop. It probably would have been a major brand in America, but not to urban people and the hip hop world, which is what, I believe, has kept Ralph Lauren going so long. What we’ve done for the urban markets… We made Ralph Lauren an all time favourite brand that never goes out of style.
All of the brands that have been in existence, they’ve all gone through periods and phases of popularity and the opposite. We made sure Ralph Lauren never had that. It never went up and down, it remained the brand.
‘Bury Me With the Lo On’ launches in Hen’s Teeth on August 23.