We simply cannot talk about fashion and style in the late 80's and early 90's without mentioning the various boosting crews- most notable the LO-Lifes and all their off shoots. What is a boosting crew, who are the LO-Lifes and why were they such an important part of Black American style? Keep reading to find out...
The LO-Lifes were a crew of shoplifting teens from Brooklyn, New York that formed together in 1988 by Thirstin Howel III and Rack-Lo, all sharing an obsession with Ralph Lauren's Polo sportswear brand. They were basically an organized crime ring of skilled boosters that would terrorize department stores like Macy's, Saks, and Bloomingdale's in Manhattan, often lifting entire racks of clothing for themselves and to take to the hood to profit. What the hell does this crew of thievin' misfits have to do with Black fashion and style? Everything!
At that time the most popular brands included Fila and Lacoste, and later on Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica DKNY and other sportswear with a never ending obsession with ski gear- Columbia, Goretex and Northface- but not much Polo until Ralph came out with big huge symbols that decorated the polo shirts, tees, jackets and hats the LO-Lifes gravitated towards. The LO-Lifes prided themselves and stood out by wearing the exclusive, flashy, expensive and fly Polo uniform from head to toe. And when I say head to toe- that's exactly what I mean- hat, goggles, scarf, t-shirt, sweater, undershirt, boxers, pants, socks, and a jacket or vest all in one outfit! I'm not a thousand percent sure, but they may have even introduced us to the art of layering...
Ralph Lauren's backstory might help to get an understanding of the LO's affinity for all things Polo... Born Ralph Lifschitz in the Bronx, New York, his parents were Jewish immigrants, dirt poor and he often got teased for his last name so he changed it at the age of 16. He started his fashion career as a salesperson for Brooks Brothers before moving on to tie manufacturer Beau Brummel. In 1967, Lauren started designing his own line of wide cut colorful ties out of high end scraps when the current trend was to wear skinny ties and he ended up striking gold at Bloomingdale's. Lauren finessed his way to the top of the fashion food chain by selling ties, polo tops and everything else he could think of to turn his aspirational lifestyle brand into a billion dollar business- a true tale of a hustlers rags to riches.
The teens could relate to that story, plus the brand one of the flyest out so they took to wearing clothes that represented a lifestyle that they did not live or barely knew anything about while stocking up on ski, hunting, kayaking and other gear that bared the Polo name and logo boldly splashed in big huge letters. Ralph Lauren supplied the uniform that screamed "I am wealthy, unbothered and living the American Dream while vacationing in luxury sportswear!" But the harsh reality was that most could never actually afford those or any trips outside of the hood.
Regardless, the LO-Lifes wanted a piece of that dream by any means necessary, but with the most coveted pieces starting at $500 and up- they had no choice but to steal.
Stunting in their colorful fits and large logos, the LO-Lifes created the hypebeast before there was a name for it. Back then Polo was made for rich kids, not poor inner city Black kids so when they introduced it to the hood, the brand was still very exclusive. It's crazy how the crew took the preppiest pieces available and put them together in the most obnoxiously stylish way that allowed them to create streetwear looks that were fresher than anything coming down Ralph Lauren's runway.
It wasn't all about looking fresh though, like most professional boosters, a lot of the guys used this hustle as a way to pay their bills and feed their families, often selling the stolen goods on the trains, in salons and nail shops for half the price. This act made luxury items available to those who never could afford them otherwise and in turn helped spread the trend even further than Brooklyn and outside of New York reaching as far as down south and everywhere in between.
Dressed in head to toe 'LO, the crews would hit the clubs, first meeting up to show off and have impromtu photo shoots that kids today would call lookbooks, showcasing how they each styled their pieces. Out of a 100 member crew some were bound to have similar garments, but there were no "Who Wore It Better" moments because they all did! They became popular in the nightlife crowd, hobnobbing with street legends, rappers and celebrities while standing out in their excessive amounts of Polo gear. It was only a matter of time before the right people took notice...
Lauren was one of them, although he never publicly acknowledge what the LO-Lifes were doing as far as the "free marketing" but of course he knew something was happening. How could he not with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise being stolen from department stores uptown bearing his name? The stolen inventory paid for itself once he did two things: the first was to increase production on the most swiped garments which happened to be the rugby top, and the second was to hire Tyson Beckford, the first unofficial "hip hop" model, with his shaven head, tattoos and hard bodied build whoalso helped to further push the brand into the stratosphere. Along with Lo-Life founder Thirstin Howl III, rappers like Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Pimp C from UGK also became unofficial poster boys rocking exclusive pieces at shows, on television, in magazines and other visuals helping to solidify the brand as a hip hop staple.
Although some LO-Lifes have passed away or are locked up, the movement never died and is kept alive through later generations and has a resurgence every ten years or so. Back when Kanye West was a backpack rapping producer, he was a huge fan of Polo, wearing it on his College Dropout album cover and in appearances on TV. More recently, younger newer acts like ASAP Rocky and Chance the Rapper can be seen rocking the new and retro pieces today along with a whole new generation of LO-Life fans and stans that are now old enough to appreciate the vintage and cop the fresh new new too.
As far as for the remaining members of the LO-Lifes, they are still active (although no longer boosting!) and they have grown by the thousands with new members popping up all around the globe in Sweden, Japan, and Australia. They come together for events throughout the year and meet up to show of their rare finds, vintage pieces, to trade, buy, sell and congregate, even getting a chance to win a trophy for best dressed male and female.
The legacy continues and I bet that if you step outside in any hood in the USA right now, you will see a mix of kids, teens, young adults and folks 30 and up who are rocking something Polo. It might not be as extreme as the LO-Lifes, but it's clear that the Polo horseman, bear and cookie patch are still OG luxury symbols in the hood, even today among Gucci belts, Louis Vuitton bags and other designer goods that serve as obtainable luxury no matter the cost.
I'm not saying it's right, or that it is OK- but the LO-Lifes are a major reason behind Ralph Lauren being a huge part of Black fashion and style, even today. Shout out to Instagram accounts @livestyle1hunnid, @shillzdareal and @rljewelry for additional tips and the use of some photos! What do you think of the LO-Lives story and their contribution to fashion and personal style?
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