Polo by Ralph Lauren was originally intended for the preppy yacht-and-tennis set. In the 80s and 90s, however, it was discovered by fashion-forward folks in the projects of Brooklyn who began obsessing over it and boosting it from stores in mass quantities, creating one of the most incongruous subcultures of the last three decades. They called themselves the Lo-Lifes, and Brayden Olson recently shot some of them for our Photo Issue.
We talked to two of the Lo-Lifes—one of whom likes Ralph Lauren so much he raps under the name Meyhem Lauren—to learn what it was like to rock and rack Lo. We also spoke with Brayden about his experience with the Lo-Lifes.
VICE: How old were you when you got involved with the Lo-Life crew?
Meyhem Lauren: I was always into fashion and paying attention to clothes, but I’d say I was about 12 or 13 when I got into the whole scene and started racking Polos. There’s a difference between wearing Polo and rocking Lo. It was about coming through with the graphic shit, y’know, big crests, the wings, everything. It was about putting things together in a certain way.
Everything I’ve heard about this era makes it sounds like how you got the Polo gear was just as important as having it, like you wouldn’t get respect if you bought it.
It was more about the pieces for me. I didn’t care about buying, I didn’t care about racking, I just wanted it. There was a time in my life when I was racking Polo, pulling schemes for Polo, and spending checks from my day job on Polo. At the end of the day, it was about coming through fresh.
How many pieces did you have at your peak?
Wow, do you still have that many?
Not hard pieces with big symbols and graphics, but I probably have 1,000 items.
Chris Lo: I don’t have as many. Throughout the years I’ve kind of fallen off the bandwagon. Most of the stuff I’ve kept from back then are items with battle scars on them that I won’t get rid of because of sentimental value. But I probably have a good couple of hundred pieces left.
What would you say is the most valuable piece you own?
Meyhem: You know, it all depends on the person. There’s a lot of 80s pieces that older Heads value more, because that’s what they wore coming up, and kids from the 90s, like me, might drop their money on something more graphic than the 80s pieces. It all depends on what type of Lo-Head you are and where you’re from. Different pieces held different weight in different neighborhoods.
What’s the most expensive piece that’s been sold?
Chris: The most expensive piece right now is the Martini turtleneck. It’s probably like seven or eight grand.
What about really rare pieces? Were there certain ones that you couldn’t find anywhere?
There are pieces that are like, mythological.
Meyhem: The Never-Ending Bear.
The Never-Ending Bear?
Well, supposedly there’s a knit out there with a bear rockin’ a knit with himself on it, and he’s rocking a bear, and it just goes on and on forever [laughs]. Guys will swear they have three of those but they never bring it out, never rock it for flicks, but supposedly it’s there.
Ralph Lauren must have a bunch of rare items in storage somewhere, right?
One of my friends works for Ralph Lauren, and he told me that they have a warehouse with a bunch of old pieces: collector’s items, valuable things, items that would go for a lot of cash. But they test them before they release them. So he’s like, “Yo, I’ve seen them take Indian Heads and cut them, just to test the fabric, slice them all up, take a square out of the middle of a sweatshirt.” And this shit is crazy to me, it’s like telling me they put a baby in a cheese grater [laughs].
When you were racking Lo, what were some of your techniques?
Chris: We weren’t petty thieves, that’s one thing I want to make clear.
Meyhem: When it went down, it was a lot bigger than just Los. We wore Los, but we were boosting all types of shit. We had more money as kids than a lot of adults do right now.
Chris: We used to take book bags and put tinfoil in them or use Café Bustelo cans so the sensors wouldn’t go off. Later on they started coming out with those ink alarms—
Meyhem: But with those, you just throw a balloon on top of them so the ink would go in the balloon.
Chris: There are people who had tools to take the alarms off, too.
Meyhem: I didn’t really boost that crazy in New York City, we were hitting like Woodbury or Frankie Mills, the outlets upstate—they weren’t ready for us.
Chris: There’s people I know who used to go to Puerto Rico to the outlets and Lo rack. They’d buy a plane ticket, go out to PR and rack, and come back with mad gear.
What’s the difference between Lo-heads and Lo-Lifes?
Meyhem: Lo-Lifes are like the original crew, and one of the original Polo crews. There’s mad people who are just Lo-heads (collectors) who we’re cool with.
Chris: Don’t get it twisted, though—there was beef between Lo-heads, too.
Meyhem: Oh, of course. New York in general was dangerous back then. Riding on the train people would get their pockets picked or their wallet stolen. Imagine you’re wearing a thousand dollars worth of shit and you’re 15 and you run into another pack of kids that know what the deal is—it got crazy a lot.
Hey Brayden. What was it like going into the Lo-life den?
Brayden: Oh man, It was a trip. I went to a few locations all over the New York area and each time I was meeting up with people I had never met in person before. One day I got stuck holding a boom box at Fulton Street Mall while they filmed a music video. I kept trying to pawn the job off to someone else so I could take photos, but no one wanted to do it. That was a really long day. The most memorable place was Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville, though.
Brownsville is rough. I heard the Lo-lifes acted like your bodyguards while you were out there.
Yeah, about four or five stops from the Marcus Garvey Village it was apparent I was the only white kid on the train. When I got off they knew it was me. This big guy in a bright red Polo windbreaker came up to me and said, " No disrespect, but you have to be Brayden, right?" They basically escorted me around and kept letting me know that no one was going to fuck with me.
I also heard you almost got arrested. What happened?
They were giving me a ride back from Brownsville because it was getting late and they refused to let me take the train at that hour. Which was nice, but I had watched the dude driving us drink about half a liter of Hennessy that night. On the way home they kept pulling over to do graffiti, and after about the third time an undercover cop caught all of them. Meanwhile I was in the back of this bright blue Lexus on rims with flat screens everywhere with its hazards on, right next to the undercover car. I have a warrant for drinking in public from last summer, so I was like "fuck!" I carefully snuck out of the rear door without the cop seeing me, crossed the street, and started walking. Five minutes later they found me and told me to get in the car, laughing the whole time. It turned out the cop was from Queens and so were they, so he let them all go.
Did you ever feel like you were about to get your ass kicked?
I knew there was a good possibility that someone might try and run up on me for my camera, but the guys I was with grew up there and no one was going to fuck with me as long as I was with them. I am not going to lie, though, when the Hennessy was flowing and dudes were showing up on street bikes, I knew anything could happen.
Do you own any Polo clothing?
I'm not really big on Polo or logos all over me, but I remember having this super ugly bright orange sweatshirt in 5th grade that said Polo in huge red letters on the chest.
What's going on in that photo of the guy putting on the red bandana in the bodega? He looks like he's about to rob the place.
That guy is rad. He was with us the day they were filming the music video. I walked into this deli to get a drink and he was in the mirror doing that. It kind of freaked me out, but I managed to get the photo before he noticed. He was just messing around, I guess, but the strange thing is that the deli clerk didn't skip a beat.
What about the archival photo of the guy with like 5 million dollars spread out in front of him. I know you didn't take that photo, but do you know the story behind it?
I am not even going to go there.
PHOTOS BY BRAYDEN OLSON