The crew that raided NYC stores for Polo Ralph Lauren

Watch ‘Bury Me With The Lo On’, a film about the guys that stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Polo and became an influential subculture

In 1987, New York City was home to two gangs, both utterly obsessed with the fashion label Ralph Lauren – and neither was made up of WASPY, country club types. There was Ralphie’s Kids from St John’s and Utica in Crown Heights, and the amusingly titled United Shoplifters Association hailing from Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville. They would occasionally pass each other, exchanging knowing nods or stopping to pose for group pictures, until the following year when members Thirstin Howl the 3rd and Rack-Lo would bring the two parties together. Their respective names were ditched and the Lo Lifes were born – a tribe of stylish young men with a love of Polo by Ralph Lauren. Nearly thirty years later, the subculture that the Lo Lifes spawned remains – you only need to turn up to their annual Brooklyn BBQ to witness it in full effect.

Meanwhile across town, Ralph Lauren (originally Ralph Lipschitz) would spend much of the late 80s and early 90s trying to appeal to a white, aspirational, middle-class audience – often with great success. In his clothes, he was selling them the American Dream. This wasn’t clothing intended for the likes of the Lo Lifes, so they decided to take it anyway.

“No one cherishes the brand like these guys,” says filmmaker Tom Gould. Together with Howl, he has spent the past five years putting together a book and accompanying film, both titled Bury Me With The Lo On, documenting this decidedly New York subculture, which according to him, has subsequently spread all over the world. “Being from New Zealand, we were so isolated, and anything coming out of New York was special because we were so far removed from it,” he says. Gould would move to New York in 2009 and later strike up a friendship with Howl, but he says his first encounter with the Lo Life co-founder was through his 1999 album Skillionaire. “To me it was all original, it was different. They were talking about shoplifting – running into Saks and Bloomingdales and stealing these items of Ralph Lauren. No one was rapping about that, they were rapping about girls and parties,” he says. “These guys were humorous and they were rapping about stealing clothing which was, to me, amazing.”

Hailing from some of the most disadvantaged areas in Brooklyn, acquiring the label’s wares became a badge of honour for Howl and Rack Lo’s crew – and they would get their hands on them by any means necessary. “From the beginning, it was just to look fresh, to look fly, to get girls,” says Gould, adding that the advent of hip-hop also influenced the explosion of this phenomenon. Much like the music of that genre, the Lo Lifes applied a similar mentality of one-upmanship when it came to their style choices. “It was loud, it was bold, it was colourful, and it was hard to obtain,” he says. “You always want what you can’t have, so they decided to take it. I think that was a big part of what attracted them to it – you could see someone on Fifth Ave wearing a Ralph Lauren knit sweater with a polo player, and you could see a guy in Brooklyn wearing it, but you’d know he didn't pay for that shit. The reality was, it wasn't for them, it was never marketed to them.”

“You could see someone on Fifth Ave wearing a Ralph Lauren knit sweater with a polo player, and you could see a guy in Brooklyn wearing it, but you’d know he didn't pay for that shit” – Tom Gould

Naturally, the subconscious subversiveness of this spurred them on. At one point, one of the crew’s most talented shoplifters was caught by Bloomingdale’s security with $4,000 worth of stolen Polo in his bag. (He would later steal the file they had amassed on him while they were holding him in the store’s security office.) “Basically they said that they were empowering themselves to be something greater,” says Gould, who despite not being an original Lo Life member, has gained the trust of many of the Lo Life’s key remaining figures. “They came from the hood – Brownsville is still the toughest neighbourhood in New York – and coming from there, dressing in this high-end clothing, they were aspiring to be something greater. They wanted to look like they had money, like they belonged wearing these clothes.”

“Boosting” Polo, the name given to the process by which they obtained the brand, saw them develop a range of tricks to get by store security. In fact, there’s a whole section of Gould and Howl’s book dedicated to the various tricks and tactics they would employ. “One of the most amazing things was the fact that they used to use a woman's girdle,” says Gould. “They would stuff the clothes down the girdle and their pants, and it was so tight that it would press it up there against their bodies, so there would be no bulges. It meant they could basically steal without it looking noticeable.” Today, he says, if you find a piece of vintage Polo in New York, there’s also a good chance it’ll come with two small holes at the neckline from where the security tag was ripped out.

“They used to use a woman's girdle. They would stuff the clothes down the girdle and their pants, and it was so tight that it would press it up there against their bodies” – Tom Gould

There were, however, drawbacks to this, as the film documents. The freshest garments also inspired jealousy, and being robbed – or sometimes even killed – for your attire became commonplace. “87 was when crack came out on the streets of New York, it was obviously a really wild time,” says Gould. In the years that followed, Howl would often pay tribute to fallen Lo Lifes on his songs. Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren would become a mainstay label in hip-hop, with the likes of Wu Tang Clan and Nas adopting the brand. (Even in contemporary hip-hop, the brand is still name-dropped frequently, with jewels such as “all this Polo on I got horsepower,” or Kanye’s infamous “It ain’t Ralph tho,” line.)

Add to that the host of labels who frequently reference the kind of late 80s and 90s Polo sportswear that the Lo Lifes were so fond of – in particular Supreme, as highlighted by the fantastically in-depth Supreme Copies Instagram – and it’s hard not to appreciate the subtle impact this crew of fanatics has had on fashion as a whole. “I started wearing Polo in the early 2000s because of these guys, not because I saw an advertisement or Ralph Lauren on a billboard or in a magazine and thought ‘Oh, shit that’s great’. The advertisements were tailored to rich people,” says Gould.

The Lo Lifes’ devotion to Ralph Lauren has always had an air of unrequited love about it. They’ve never been publicly acknowledged by the company, but they do know that Ralph Lauren knows about their crew. These renegade boosters from Brooklyn took a desire to be dressed in the clothes that weren’t meant for them and in the process created a subculture that encapsulated a story of race, class, and urban life in the USA – a more real American Dream than one you can buy in Barney’s.

The Second edition of “Bury Me With The Lo On” published by Victory Journal is now available here.