29 October 2009

Polo Porn

1970's Polo from Bloomingdales:










1980's Polo via Brittons of Columbia, SC







It is said that behind every successful salesperson is someone with a really big shovel. I think they're a bunch of shovels behind Polo but I wanted to look closely at its early history of marketing, advertising and especially photography.

Ralph Lauren's first employee was a clothes loving salesman from Norman Hilton, Anthony Edgeworth. According to Mr. Edgeworth things didn't work out and he was 'politely' fired with this advice from Lauren, "...find what it is in life that's yours. I did. You need to." Edgeworth had a Leica M4 and decided to take classes at the School of Visual Arts while apprenticing for Pete Turner. That was the reality of photography years ago. You could apprentice for the royalty of the art. I apprenticed for a photographer my senior year of high school. He was no Pete Turner. He sure as heck wasn't royalty. He was shooting canned pecans, in B&W, for a Georgia mail order catalog.

So how did he do it? Lauren -- not the guy I apprenticed for...I think he did it with a photographer and stylist. He didn't go with Edgeworth. Not right away. That was to come later. Instead, he hired Bruce Weber. And while I've never understood Weber's bandannas and the whole sailor-soldier thing...I respect his photography. But look at Weber's photography outside a Polo shoot and some thing's missing. And I think that something was Sandy Carlson Tarlow.

The photographer I apprenticed for had two cases of Hassleblad bodies and lenses along with a 8x10 view camera. You couldn't find better equipment anywhere. But he had no idea how to make pecans look good in B&W or in color for that matter. He spread them around a can and I listened to the clunk of the Hasslblad and the pop of the strobe and thought to myself, "...he's in trouble" which is what I think everytime I shoot the Friday belt.

Ms Tarlow may well have been the secret behind it all. Despite more than 30 years having passed -- these images still tell a powerful story. Sure, there's the money, class and inclusion stuff going on -- huge. But these were quality goods. Much of it simple and basic like Shetlands, khakis and oxford button downs. And it was all priced out of this world.

The images above are from Jam Good. A man who knows more about the apparel business and those who work in it than anyone I've ever known. He knows the story behind that Shaker Knit sweater (seamless and made by some guy in a Brooklyn basement), who did the suits in 1977 (Lanham Ltd of Lowell, MA until 1994) and who made the shirts (Ike Behar). Polo eye wear was handmade in France , the Polo blanket was made in Switzerland and Corgi Hosiery made the Shetlands.

I didn't really notice Polo until the late 70's. If I recall, my first love was a pair of khakis. I picked them up and immediately knew they were something special by the heft and finish. Almost like a British sports car. I took a look at the price and couldn't believe it...just like a British sports car. I thought, "Who the hell gets this kinda money for a pair of khakis?" Little did I know. The button down oxfords were next. Perfectly cut and priced for the rich. In college I was lucky and skinny enough to wear a boy's size 20. At $5 or $10 more than a man's Gant I could barely afford them but I had to have them.

The photography did it to me. I was putting myself through college on the GI Bill and I had a Fiat that was keeping me broke. I juggled a college work grant job and two other part time jobs off campus. I was taking out college loans from anyone that would give them to me and still - - I managed to scrape the bucks together for Polo madras trousers, some khakis and a handful of oxfords.

Someone told me a long time ago that people buy two things: Solutions to problems and good feelings. Polo went beyond good feelings. With those carefully styled settings and a talented photographer-- they sold me more than just pants. They sold me Ektachrome visions of an Anglo - American fantasy that I couldn't afford. But toss in the amazing quality and I convinced myself I wasn't a total fool for dropping over $100 bucks on madras pants. I was really buying quality... and slides.

29 comments:

LPC said...

Some lotta hair going on in those pictures...

Brian said...

Couldn't agree more. Polo always did sell the lifestyle. Heck beack in high school it was assumed if you weren't wearing a Polo oxford you must of been there on scholarship, we were rather imature then. The ads just spoke to everyone. It meant you went on the right vacations and you lived the right lifestyle.

Conor said...

Who says a beard can't be stylish as hell?

Great photos, thanks Tintin.

DAM said...

That's one of the best posts I've read in some time - from any blogger.

The Preppy Pauper said...

Oh lord, the Polo memories. I remember going to Harry Rosen (Canada's preeminent menswear chain) on Bloor Street in Toronto when I was 16 and climbing the stairs to a mezzanine that was all Polo. The wall of pastel polo shirts! The clubby exclusivity! The prices! I spent way too much money on two polo shirts and a lime green velour summer pullover (it was the late 70s okay - give me a break). Once you were hooked on the Ralph cult, you were hooked for life. That Harry Rosen store is now a Banana Republic and Harry built a more lavish store down the street which tends to lean more toward labels like Canali and Tom Ford these days.

Kurt said...

Ditto that. I learned quite a bit.

initials CG said...

The first piece of clothing I bought with my own money was a Polo oxford button-down in pink. The start of very expensive addiction....

These are great pictures. They sure hit the mark in making you want to buy. Wonder why today's advertising is so out of touch. Or am I turning into an old fart?

Ben said...

Great analysis! You know who else did it all with photographs was J.Crew from the 80s. Man I wanted so bad to be friends with the people in their catalogs.

Anonymous said...

Anytime you mention Leica M4, Anthony Edgeworth and Pete Turner you have my attention. Turner, especially, had an influence on a lot of people.

You and I knew long ago that, standing at magazine racks peeling through women's magazines searching for great photo shoots, never compromised our masculinity. And we didn't care who might be looking. Heck, that's where the best photographers and the best spreads were showcased.

I wouldn't worry: you don't ever seem to be in trouble when you shoot the Friday Belt because you "sell" it, something your pecan shooter didn't know how to do.

-DB

Anonymous said...

Edgeworth Editions boks on Great Golf Clubs are wonderfully done and highly recommended.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

JamGood's post over at AAAC are pretty impressive.

As I think you alluded to especially in your posts about RL's inappropriate use of military insignia way back when, RL still to this day can't get past a certain element of phoniness. When he gets it right, it's amazing, but I can't tell you how many pieces have been ruined by some tacky crest or graphic. As you can guess, I favor the un-ponied pieces of RL best.

L.A.S said...

"Someone told me a long time ago that people buy two things: Solutions to problems and good feelings."

Wow. Your last paragraph may be the best thing I've ever read over here.

How Polo managed to create the most dominant lifestyle brand in recent memory is truly beyond me. Regardless of marketing and quality goods, I would have never expected it to get as big as it has. Deal with the Devil? Maybe, but, like most Jews, I doubt Lifshitz believes in him.

Anonymous said...

Thirty years ago, I bought nearly all my clothes from Polo. Now I wouldn't wear a thing he has to sell, though my wife still treasures some tweed jackets and hand-knit sweaters I bought her in the early Eighties. The look is seriously off -- it's as if he hired a bunch of designers from Calvin Klein six or eight years ago and just stopped caring.

But what strikes me about the men in those early pictures is how heterosexual they all look. That's another thing Lauren's walked away from -- at least in his advertising.

Paul said...

Great photos Tintin -- More and more my eye catches these old(er) photos and I can remember when I bought what I see.

Got lots of RL Polo in the closet

Thanks for a wonderful post!

ScottyAlexander said...

Great post to match some great photos! Polo was THE thing for guys to wear at my high school. I'm 22 now but in the past two years alone I've been completely addicted to the Polo lifestyle depicted in these photos that draws us all in. Do you know where to find any more photos like this? I'm trying to put together a senior project on RL's photography.

JRS said...

Great post...it's amazing how 'great' style is timeless. Quite a few of those pictures would be relevant ads today.

Mom on the Run said...

The people lined up along the fence...oh I used to dream I was one of those people.

A college boyfriend who was an Olympic wrestler was photographed by Bruce Weber. It was...hmmm....interesting, shall we say. Very odd. I had no idea that he did all of RL's early advertising, but it makes sense.

heavy tweed jacket said...

I'm liking those wider lapels in the second photo. A lot. I remember when I first saw a Polo button-down in prep school and wondered where the pocket went. I rarely see any Polo advertising today that is so heady and evocative of the American/Anglo country sporting life. Great post.

Tony said...

Once again, a perfect blog post - Firstly an interesting find. Secondly, an original and intelligent commentary.

Thank you.

ADG said...

Amazing. I watched the Charlie Rose interview with Ralph again last night. Aspirational Lifestyle. That's always been the PRL strategy.

Enzo AGC said...

Fantastic writing. This post is the best example of why I consider your blog to be the best one out there, period. Close to 40 years later these images still resonate. That's powerful branding.

TWA said...

Polo porn- even the title is genius. I cannot express how much I love the Polo brand- Ralph had/has amazing people working for him and I have to say I think they might be the real genius behind the brand. Nonetheless loved the post.

Anonymous said...

ba haa what's with the first broke back cowboy picture, looks like a total faggot. Then again, polo is for faggots.

Alice Olive said...

Some of these shots are amazing. I am completely influenced by the photography and styling of all things fashion. The magazines and the houses. Love it all!

Switching lanes slightly... look at Victoria's Secret. AMAZING photography and styling. Beautiful women. Sexy women. The lingerie looks absolutely stunning. Sensual. I love their advertising. But in real life? That stuff is priced for the lowest common denominator and it shows in the finished product, not to mention in their harshly-lit stores. (Clearly, I am not their target customer!!)

Easy and Elegant Life said...

Those were the days. He got me hooked in prep school. I was surrounded by guys wearing the real deal: Harris Tweeds, LL Bean canvas duck hunting gear, tote bags, Shetland sweaters, LaCoste polos, khakis and wide wales with whales. By the time I left, Rl had made inroads with that crowd, too and there was many a pony on a popped collar under those Brooks Brothers OCBDs. Life. Style.

But the branding has gone overboard. Get back to classic Mr. Lauren.

Rasputin said...

Paen to all thats Polo- Amen, Brother!
RL has maintained the aspirational lifestyle goal, but mostly with the Purple Range- the lower end stuff really looks like costumes.
But when Ralph gets it right, he belts it out of the park.
Thanks for the post- it brings back fond memories!

tintin said...

I guess the thing about Polo is, whatever is happening over there at 650 Mad, customers care. Say what you will (myself included), people don't give a shit about Tommy Hilfiger jumping the shark, most people don't know who Alan Flusser is but folks have passionate things to say about Polo. Good and bad And that says a lot.

Thank you all for sharing you comments and feelings.

Some Assembly Required said...

I too could fit into boys' size 20 Polo oxford shirts in high school and early on in college, but after a couple of years I decided I didn't want to wear things with logos, and more than 25 years later I still don't.

That said, I've found a few good logoless PRL pieces over the years. These days, not so much.

Isaac Buie said...

One of the greatest posts I've ever seen.