‘Lo-Life’ is the remarkable story of a small group of teenagers fighting to make a name for themselves who eventually made themselves seen, heard, and emulated globally.
Lo-Life: An American Classic takes the reader on a trip to New York City in the early 80s—a time when crime and violence ran the streets. The infamous Lo-Life gang emerged from this tumultuous time. Formed by crews of teenagers from the Brownsville and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn, they made a name for themselves by dressing head-to-toe in expensive Ralph Lauren clothing, or “Lo.” Polo apparel—and other preppy 80s fashion labels like Guess, Nautica, and Benetton, among others—represented an aspirational lifestyle for these kids from rough neighborhoods just struggling to get by. Fighting for style and survival, the Lo-Lifes targeted these brands, and would acquire them by any means necessary, including stick-ups, shoplifting, and hustling. A reign of terror ensued, when your new winter coat could make you the target for a robbery—or worse.
The book covers the background of what was happening culturally and socially in the greater New York area in the 1980s, and progresses until present time. There are images from published features about the members of these gangs, a ‘style-book” of sorts showing some of the most desired Lo-Life clothing, and the personal photographs and stories from some of the members of the gangs, with names like Rack-Lo, Thirstin Howl the 3rd, Uncle Disco, and Boostin’ Billy. They recount what is was like to go on boosting sprees in high-end clothing stores like Lord & Taylor, Saks 5th Avenue, John Wanamaker’s, and Trump Towers – stealing as many as possible, or the most prized pieces in the Ralph Lauren collection of clothing that defined their social status. One gang member recalls what is was like to steal a silk Crown shirt from a Lord & Taylor store:
“If you had that shirt, you were exclusive. People treated me like a celebrity, everyone wanted to take pictures with me. I didn’t even know these people, it was all because of the shirt. To other people, it was that serious.” Bek-Live
What started as an informal gang uniform organized around clean designs and bright colors, became a devotion to a lifestyle brand, and eventually created an association between the streets and luxury that would fundamentally change the fashion industry. The iconic clothing style designed by Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, NY to Jewish immigrant parents in 1939) as an expression of quality, taste, and style, an expression of the ultimate luxury living experience, was adopted by street gangs as their uniform of choice. Their desire to achieve their American Dream was presented to the world through apparel that was designed to declare: I have made it.
‘Lo-Life’ is an intriguing look inside this gang culture and its members. Although I never knew anyone personally who had been mugged or hurt for their designer clothing from that era, I heard stories of people being shot for their Air Jordans, or had their designer jacket stolen (be it Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, or Bennetton) – and this was in the midwest, far from the hustle and bustle of New York. ‘Lo-Life’ is ultimately the story of a life journey, a story of the American Dream, and what is was like for these young kids from New York to make a name for themselves – just like Ralph Lauren himself.
Lo-Life: An American Classic by George “Rack-Lo” Billips and Jackson Blount
Hardcover, 7.25 x 9.75 inches, 232 pages
To buy a copy of Lo-Life, please visit the book’s website: http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/lo-life-an-american-classic/
Jackson Blount, a Brooklyn native, graduated from SVA in 2001. He has designed professionally since, doing both corporate and freelance work throughout his design career.
Rack-Lo is one of the main catalysts of the Lo-Life movement. He played a major role in the unification of boosting crews of the early 80s to form the world-renowned Lo-Life crew.
This is an edited version of the article originally published in F-Stop Magazine, Janurary 2017.