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New from Vice comes this fascinating series of photographs and interviews delving into a little-explored subculture that many are aware of, but few interested in enough to explore. Referring to themselves as “Lo Lifes,” a select portion of urban youth in the 1980s and 1990s became obsessed with wearing and collecting items from Polo Ralph Lauren. Although the brand is usually more closely associated with prepsters sipping martinis around oak tables than gangsters robbing, tagging and slinging dope, the Lo Lifes turned a culture completely on its head by embracing both the ironic and aesthetic values of wearing Polo pieces. Included in the Vice interview are Lo Lifes Meyhem Lauren and Chris Lo (notice the brand-influenced names chosen by the two aspiring rappers) as well as photographer Brayden Olson, who had quite an interesting experience shooting the images for the piece. Some excerpts are provided below, but make sure to check out the full feature over at Vice.
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.
Mayhem Lauren: 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?
Mayhem Lauren: Over 1,000.
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 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.
Brayden: 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?
Brayden: 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.