In the realm of “lifestyle brands,” Ralph Lauren is ground zero. Beginning in the late 1960s, Lauren started out selling neckties at Brooks Brothers and later created a tie design of his own, which he sold at department stores including Bloomingdale’s. By the early 70s, Lauren had introduced more options for men, as well as for women and children, from the 1971 launch of the luxury Ralph Lauren Purple label to the now-iconic 1972 debut of its polo shirts. Ralph Lauren is the quintessential example of a 1.0 brand.

The diversification of Ralph Lauren into myriad product lines helped the brand permeate numerous aspects of everyday life. While exposure of the brand reached the Olympics and Hollywood, the brand’s DNA remained grounded in Lauren’s founding story (authenticity). Lauren’s humble upbringing in the Bronx was central to the aspirationality of the brand’s preppy style, infused with notes of British elite and thoroughbred Americana (aspirationality). Lauren’s apparel and accessories simulated belonging to the upper class, complete with its own “seal,” the pony.

1) Ralph Lauren’s Brand aspires to climb the socioeconomic ladder, but its products sell a style of dress, rather than a way of life.

This aspiration-minded aesthetic propelled the brand forward and dovetailed with growing insecurity among America’s “middle class” in the 60s and 70s—a time of social revolutions, technological advances and rising consumerism. Lauren’s disciples, who, like the founder, wished to “move up the socioeconomic ladder,” expressed their middle-class malaise through what they wore and what cars they drove. With Ralph Lauren, they could access a wide breadth of SKUs in numerous product categories for this very purpose: from jackets to shoes, fragrance to handbags, jewelry to suits, golf attire to pajamas, bedding to glassware (accessibility, scalability).

Because of the brand’s longevity, its aesthetics have acquired iconic status over time. Ralph Lauren’s cultural resonance as a manifestation of socioeconomic aspiration is no less relevant today than it was in the 60s. In time, Lauren’s aesthetics grew into what is known as quintessentially American, which attracts modern consumers both with its preppy style, and with the nostalgic it exudes as a heritage brand for a “better” or “simpler” time.

But notably, while Ralph Lauren’s brand is aspirational, its products are only projections of this aspiration—the brand does not catapult its customers into the upper crust, nor does wearing the clothes garner admission to elite colleges or clubs. In this sense, Ralph Lauren did not create a world, but the semblance of this world. Customers displayed their affinity for the upper class lifestyle, but they did not necessarily join it.

2) The Lo Lifes inverted Ralph Lauren’s aspirationality, endowing the brand with cultural capital that is monetizing today.

This very incongruity was—to the chagrin of the company—illuminated by the Lo Lifes, a group of Latino and African American Brooklynites and notorious Polo shoplifters in the 80s (the “Lo” in Lo Lifes comes from an abbreviated form of “Polo”). Instead of pursuing the aspirationality of the clothes, the Lo Lifes upended the aspiration altogether, flaunting the same sartorial sensibilities in Brownsville and Crown Heights as those seen on posh 5th Avenue. Though by no means Lauren’s intention, it popularized the brand beyond prep schools to become the trademark for gangs and other unintended social circles (distribution). Later, the brand would surface in the Wu Tang Clan’s 1994 music video for “Can It All Be So Simple” and on Kanye West, who wore Lauren’s classic bear knit sweater on his 2004 album “The College Dropout” (aspiration).

Given this history, responses to Ralph Lauren’s decision to re-release the vintage capsule collections Stadium and Snow Beach in 2018—styles that were popularized by the Lo Lifes—were mixed. On the one hand, the decision both acknowledged the growing streetwear industry and served as a means for Ralph Lauren to evolve, matching changing consumer tastes. But on the other, it manipulated the impact of streetwear trailblazers and diluted the point the Lo Lifes were making by profiting off of their creed.

Now that the company is considered a heritage brand, Ralph Lauren will likely propel itself forward with its own legacy in order to remain a cultural touchstone—it recently reached into its archive to resurface old heritage collections. But this legacy status also means that the brand has more to lose and that its position in the economy is more precarious (evolution). While, in early 2018, Ralph Lauren’s CEO Patrice Louvet noted that the company wanted to focus on its icons, it may be difficult to evolve the brand beyond these classic styles moving forward if it is restricted to legacy status. Moreover, the style that Ralph Lauren projects is more 20th-century than it is 21st. In an era where authenticity matters, the brand is not as holy as it used it be.