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Ralph Lauren x HBCUs: The Broader Conversation of Diversity and Inclusion in Fashion

Photographs by Nadine Ijewere

Ralph Lauren’s newest collaboration with the historically-Black Morehouse College and Spelman College commemorates Black collegiate style during the 1920s to 1950s through a campaign composed of all-Black photographers, cinematographers, directors, and models. The collection was released to the public on March 29th accompanied by a short film, “A Portrait of the American Dream.” James Jeter, Ralph Lauren’s director of creative design and special projects and a Morehouse College class of 2013 alum, and Dara Douglas, the company’s director of inspirational content and a Spelman College class of 2003 alum, both conceptualized and designed the collegiate-inspired collection, composed of wool flannel blazers, varsity knit sweaters, and white patchwork eyelet and silk wrap dresses. With the unveiling of this capsule collection, the president of Spelman College ​​Mary Schmidt Campbell praised Ralph Lauren’s efforts for “sharing the early history of Spelman, as reflected in archival research, through clothing, the collection encourages conversations about the creative power of the Black experience.”

After the reexamination of race and representation within many corporations two summers ago, Ralph Lauren previously pledged “to deeply examine bias—including looking critically at the structures and practices inside [their] company, how [they] use [their] voice as a leader in [the fashion] industry, and the role [they] play in portraying the American dream.” Though numerous fashion industry leaders vowed to highlight Black voices following the surge in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ralph Lauren’s collection marks the brand’s first all-Black cast campaign that aims to provide substantial action beyond their initial statement and $2 million dollar donation to the United Negro College Fund in the summer of 2020.

Receiving both praise and criticism upon the initial reveal, Ralph Lauren’s partnership with two HBCUs poses the question: is this collection a step in the right direction in leveling the playing field for Black voices in fashion or merely another performative act to placate diversity and inclusion concerns from consumers?

Though the initial announcement elicited overwhelming approval from Black journalists and African-American studies professors, there have been a number of skeptics that question whether Ralph Lauren, a brand that is predominantly and historically operated by white people, could produce a Black-centered campaign without possibly displaying appropriation. Many have also taken to social media to vocalize their concerns that the collection glamorizes the Jim Crow era and questioned Ralph Lauren’s choice to collaborate with Morehouse and Spelman – two of the more prominent HBCUs – instead of the lesser-known HBCUs. Concerning the apprehension of Ralph Lauren’s HBCU collection, Cole Brown, a political commentator and author, wrote “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.” It is critical for brands not to be dissuaded by the debate elicited by this partnership, but rather aim to continue creating these opportunities for historically marginalized creatives and redefining the fashion industry to represent and commemorate all backgrounds.

As a longtime curator of collections inspired by historically white elite Ivy League institutions, Ralph Lauren’s most recent collection seeks to showcase the traditions of historically Black colleges and celebrate Black creative voices – a group that has been traditionally underrepresented – in the fashion industry. In doing so, the brand has also sparked discourse and debate regarding the importance of well-developed campaigns backed with research and representation on and off camera – an integral step to further inclusivity in the fashion industry.

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