When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Ralph Lauren, keep our black Greek iconography off of your chinos. In what was the latest but likely most inadvertent incident of cultural appropriation since Gucci’s blackface-sweater scandal this time last year, American legacy brand Ralph Lauren crossed the line—by demonstrating that no one on their design staff has likely ever crossed a black Greek line. (True Confession Time: Neither has this writer, which hopefully doesn’t disqualify me from commenting on what is clearly a very loaded issue, as indicated by The Root’s staff conversation.)
The issue at hand initially arose last week, when Ralph Lauren’s namesake company decided to take their relentlessly preppy aesthetic to the next level by adding some Greek lettering to the back of an otherwise mediocre pair of $334 chinos sold on its French site—except, in this case, the lettering happened to be that of black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, which celebrated its 106th Founders’ Day on Jan. 9.
Was it blatant and callous appropriation, or the inevitable gaffe of a company that has long benefitted from being promoted within black culture without feeling compelled to pay much attention to it? We all know black folks have long loved themselves some damned Polo, but if Beyoncé has taught us anything, it’s that black Greek culture is a force not to be ignored; a point Phi Beta Sigma’s membership and allies made abundantly clear, first by digital and social media and soon after by the launch of a Color of Change petition calling out Ralph Lauren for copyright infringement.
“If Polo is using these beloved letters so freely, where are the royalties going? To whom did they ask & get permission to use these letters, and why did they feel so comfortable doing this?” asked the petition. “We are demanding that Ralph Lauren do the right thing and RECALL, DESTROY, & PUBLICLY APOLOGIZE for trying to capitalize off of Black Culture!”
The use of these symbols on our products was an oversight for which we deeply apologize. We are immediately taking action to remove the product from our sales channels. While we have a rigorous review process in place for all of our designs, this has prompted us to take another review of our protocols to help ensure that this does not happen again.
As an American brand with more than 50 years of heritage, Ralph Lauren is inspired by many facets of American culture. As part of this, we are firmly committed to respectful and appropriate use of all cultural icons and insignias.
Furthermore, Forbes reports that a legal representative for Phi Beta Sigma (identified by NBC as Andrea Hence Evans) emailed her own statement, which read:
We are shocked and appalled that Ralph Lauren, without our client’s consent, would violate our client’s trademarks by using them on articles of clothing...We are currently investigating this matter and we hope that Ralph Lauren will cooperate in providing relief for their infringing conduct.
No word yet on what “relief” might look like, but we have a feeling it’s more than an apology. We’ll be watching the yard to see what develops—oh, and Happy Founders’ Day to Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.