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Ralph Lauren honors HBCUs in new collection with Morehouse and Spelman Colleges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Designer Ralph Lauren's clothes have always been about the American experience, but until now, that experience didn't reflect African American fashion. Well, his latest collection now includes tweed blazers and skirts, white eyelet dresses and classic newsboy caps. They're part of Ralph Lauren's new collaboration with historically Black Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Robin Givhan is the senior critic-at-large for The Washington Post and joins us now to talk about the importance of this new collection. Welcome.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. Well, first, can you just tell us, how did this collaboration even come about? Like, I understand a Black designer at Ralph Lauren first inspired it.

GIVHAN: Yeah. It began - it grew out of a series of conversations that the company was having in 2020, in the wake of the many social justice protests. And Ralph asked one of his designers, how are you doing? And James Jeter responded that he had questions about his place in the company, and he questioned really sort of what the company stood for. And, you know, the way that the company expressed the American dream and he as a Morehouse graduate. And out of that conversation, there grew this collaboration, which was guided by James and also Daria (ph), who is a graduate of Spelman. And the clothing was inspired by the students from back in the '20s through the 1950s.

CHANG: Wow. That is so cool. Can you just give us a little historical context here, like specifically the importance of fashion of how one dresses at historically Black colleges and universities?

GIVHAN: Well, you know, one of the things that is part of the Morehouse legacy is this idea of the five wells, you know, being well-traveled, being well-read. And one of them is being well-dressed. And Spelman also has this history of its graduates wearing white attire. And a lot of that comes from this idea that, in dressing well, you are also expressing your own sense of dignity and self-respect. But it's also about just sort of the importance and the value that was placed on education and being in these intellectual spaces. And it's also just sort of a part of a sense of being able to define yourself, particularly at a time when that was so difficult for Black men and women, when the country sought to define them as as lesser.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, can you tell us how this new line strives specifically to advance some of those principles, some of those - that culture that you laid out?

GIVHAN: Well, what's really interesting about the collection is that when you look at it, it is sort of seamlessly part of the story that Ralph Lauren has been telling for well over 50 years about his idea of the American dream and what that entails. But when you also look at the photographs from students from Morehouse and Spelman, you also see these images. And so what the collection really does is to just remind people, to spotlight the fact that even though there has been these grave omissions in the way that the American dream is defined, there has always been this sort of Black sensibility, aesthetic, spirit that has been intrinsic to that story.

CHANG: Do you think, Robin, that this collaboration between this fashion giant and these two HBCUs will mean something to the fashion world going forward, that we're going to see continue to evolve?

GIVHAN: Well, you know, it's hard to know how much it will impact the industry at large. But I do think it will serve as a reminder to a lot of designers that they need to broaden their field of vision when they are looking for inspiration, when they start talking about how, you know, sort of Americana is expressed in their collection, that they realize that, for a significant amount of time and for a significant number of brands, their vision has been very narrowly focused. And it only adds to the creativity to expand it.

CHANG: Robin Givhan is the senior critic at large for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for joining us today.

GIVHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.