How The Lo-Life Gangs Shaped The Success Of Ralph Lauren
Hip-hop’s relationship with fashion is nothing new, but it hasn’t always been a mutual love affair. Long before Kanye West was the self-professed Louis Vuitton Don or A$AP Rocky had an entire song about all the designers he loves, hip-hop fashion was deeply influenced by the streets. Like many aspects of the culture, this particular aspect of hip-hop style can be traced back to New York City—or, to be more precise, a particular group of kids from Brooklyn who came to be known as the Lo-Lifes.
The Lo-Lifes started off as two rival boosting gangs—Ralphie’s Kids from Crown Heights and the Polo USA from Brownsville—with a single mission: to acquire as much Polo Ralph Lauren as possible, and by any means necessary. Since they didn’t have the money to buy the designer goods they coveted, they’d shoplift from every designer store in Manhattan, sometimes even robbing each other. Then, in 1988, the groups converged and became the Lo-Lifes, a unified crew with a simple motto: Money, Clothes, and Hoes.
Since then, a lot has changed—many of the original Lo-Lifes have been in and out of jail, and many have passed away—but their influence on street style and hip-hop as a whole remains unparalleled. The lifestyle may have changed, but it remains immortalized forever, both through meticulous record-keeping and through a new book, Bury Me With the Lo On, by OG Lo-Life Thirstin Howl III and New Zealand born, NYC-based photographer Tom Gould. Only 1,500 copies of the book are being issued—it’s designed to be a collector’s item, just like vintage Polo.
We caught up with Gould to talk about photography, fashion, and how a gang of kids from Crown Heights and Brownsville influenced an entire generation.
What made you interested in the Lo-Lifes?
I first heard about them when I was still living in New Zealand as a teenager, after Thirstin had put out his first album, Skillionaire. Some of the older guys I was hanging out with as a teenager got ahold of the music and were big into Polo already. Growing up in New Zealand, we were really far removed from New York and…the states. Everything that came down to New Zealand, in music videos, magazines, or later on through the internet, was special to us and we were inspired by it. We always looked to the fashion first.
What was interesting to me was that these guys were rapping about shoplifting and stealing these clothes. All the other rappers at the time were talking about girls, guns, drugs. To me, it stuck out, it was interesting. I started following them and seeing what they were doing.
How did you meet Thirstin and the other Lo-Lifes?
Being interested in all of this, I moved to New York from New Zealand in 2009. I had never been to New York before. I didn’t know anybody there, I just moved over and started taking pictures. I happened to meet Meyhem Lauren, a friend of mine who is part of the younger generation of the Lo-Lifes. He was close with Thirstin, and he introduced me. I had always wanted to do something on the Lo-Lifes to document it. It had never been documented in a proper book format. Once I got cool with Thirstin, I said we should work on a book project. He wanted to do it, and we started working on it in August 2010. The last five years have been creating this book, taking pictures, interviews, and getting everything together. And finally, it’s out.
And throughout those five years, it was you taking new photos, getting together the archival footage, and interviewing people.
It took a long time, because the book isn’t just focused on the original Lo-Life gang from the ‘80s. It shows the whole evolution of Polo culture from different generations. The culture was obviously birthed with the Lo-Lifes in 1988 and it went through different generations. Throughout the ‘90s, a lot of the original Lo-Lifes either died or went to jail, or had families and moved on from their old ways.
“Basically, kids were taking this clothing that wasn’t marketed to them and wasn’t meant for them, but they were making it their own.”
A new generation of kids was running with the same ideas and themes of boosting this clothing and wearing the clothing in the streets. Basically, kids were taking this clothing that wasn’t marketed to them and wasn’t meant for them, but they were making it their own. The book captures the whole culture: how it started, who carried on these traditions, and how it spread around the world. We traveled to Philly, Miami, and Japan to shoot people who were a part of this culture and collected these vintage Ralph Lauren garments.
Back then, it used to be about getting the latest drops. There was a part in the book about the Lo-Lifes going all the way to White Plains to get the new Crown shirts. But now it’s about preserving what you already have.
Yeah, the designs that everyone respects are from when Polo was putting out these classic designs that everyone loves. These days, it’s changed. People aren’t rushing to the stores to get these specific designs; now they’re not as loud, they’re not as bold. Polo is starting to retro a lot of the designs from the ‘80s now because they’ve seen how the culture has affected people on the streets, how much they love them. But nothing has really come out that people have tried to collect, when you compare it to the late ‘80s and mid ‘90s. The culture is really about these vintage pieces that might have been sold for a couple hundred dollars in stores and are now worth upwards of a thousand dollars, maybe even more. It’s really a culture of preservation, collecting things that are rare and hard to find, and looking better than the next guy.
And there was a tipping point where this evolved from a small subculture to part of a larger hip-hop culture.
When you speak to hip-hop documentarians from New York, a lot of people say it starts with the kids on the streets. The kids set the trends and it goes out from there. I definitely believe that. The streets dictate what’s hot with music. You hear people playing the hottest song when you pull up next to them in the car at a light; with fashion, it’s the same thing. With the Lo-Lifes, these kids are running around Brooklyn wearing all this high-end clothing stolen from department stores, and rappers started wearing it too. And from there, that’s what spread the fashion and made it mainstream around the world. As soon as it was in music videos, on Yo! MTV Raps, it made kids from outside of New York—from all over the world—want to get these items of clothing. They became staples in hip-hop culture. Once the Lo-Life story got out there, you realize who you can trace this hip-hop fashion back to.
There was this really great part in the book where you take Ralph Lauren’s transformation from Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx to this idealized designer and compare it to the way both the Lo-Lifes and the rappers were able to transform themselves through clothing.
There are different parallels between Ralph Lauren, the Lo-Lifes, and hip-hop artists. Ralph was creating an alias, a name for himself, and he created this persona, this man named Ralph Lauren who was elite, high class, an all-American guy with a great sense of style. The reality was he was a kid from the Bronx who started out a company making skinny ties. But he grew into his persona and became a fashion icon.
The same kind of sentiment transpires with the Lo-Lifes who were coming out of Brownsville and Crown Heights. They were coming from the poorest sections of New York, but by wearing this clothing they were empowering themselves, they were giving themselves a different look and making themselves feel different, as if they could be from the Upper East Side, walking up 5th Avenue, wearing this clothing. But in reality, they were from the hood.
It’s the same thing with hip-hop artists creating names for themselves. It’s all about aspiring to be something greater.
From July 8th – 10th, Tom Gould and Thirstin Howl III will be hosting a pop-up book release event at Red Bull Studios, with a panel discussion on July 9th // 220 W 18th Street 10011 New York, NY // RSVP here.
All images courtesy of Tom Gould and Thirstin Howl III.
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