That means rethinking who runs projects like this. The collection is the brainchild of James Jeter, director of concept design & special projects for Ralph Lauren and Morehouse alumnus, in collaboration with Dara Douglas, director of inspirational content for Ralph Lauren and former Spelman student. Renowned photographer Nadine Ijewere, along with Black cinematographers and creative directors, took the pictures, featuring current students and professors as models. It follows a $2 million commitment from the Ralph Lauren Corporate Fund made in December 2021 designated to award scholarships to students at Morehouse, Spelman, and 10 other HBCUs. I was struck by the authenticity of it all: entire current and future leadership empowered to redefine what is aspirational – what is American – in real time.
The collection is not without skeptics: Some question why the brand chose to reimagine this piece of history, a perhaps more palatable moment for white audiences. Others criticized the broader wave of brands that continued to focus attention on Morehouse and Spelman, two of the most prominent HBCUs, rather than other, lesser-known Black colleges. .
The skepticism is justifiable in terms of its specifics – this is a complicated history and other HBCUs deserve praise – and also in its generality. It arose from someone who has long watched fashion brands partner with our culture for profit.
For my part, I struggle with viewing this collection and appreciating it or just screaming of course. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of his alma mater, Howard University, seems to apply here: his school, he writes, is “almost exclusively black talent. [in Jim Crow days]. “Open the aperture to include other HBCUs like Morehouse and Spelman, and the legacy is undeniable — and exactly what popular fashion would do well to reflect on. Consider the leaders these schools have produced: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stacey Abrams, Spike Lee, Alice Walker. What could be more aspirational — more Americans — than that?
I see nothing particularly courageous in calling greatness, greatness. But in a country that has long ignored, avoided, or subverted our history, Ralph Lauren has chosen to honor us. That’s a win in my book.
What this collection fails to do, however, is the same as what no other organization can do: confirm our history. The rich legacies of the Spelmanites and the Morehouse Men were deserved long before Ralph Lauren considered them as such. Still, I can’t help but smile when I see an iconic brand that recognizes the beauty that many of us know have been there all along.