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Hold the Polo
By ANITA M. SAMUELS
Published: April 17, 1994, The New York Times
Charles Walker Jr. doesn't play polo. Neither do most of the young men and women, including black Americans like him, who at one time or another have made Ralph Lauren's Polo gear and Tommy Hilfiger clothing part of their daily wardrobes.
And so it is that Mr. Walker, 26, of Augusta, Ga., has designed a line of clothing that he calls "Afrocentric preppy" and that made its debut this month. Instead of a polo-pony logo, some of his shirts and caps bear an embroidered African-American crest of his devising: his slogan is "We Don't Play Polo." He also puts a new spin on preppy tradition by using African kente prints in his button-down shirts; the crest adorns rugby shirts and even, yes, polo shirts.
Mr. Walker said he started the line because he felt that designers like Mr. Lauren and Mr. Hilfiger didn't make clothes that reflected blacks' life styles or culture. Its name is Heritage by Paris Walker (Paris is Mr. Walker's 7-year-old daughter).
His clothing, he said, allows the wearer both to dress in preppy style and to express cultural pride. "I wanted to take it a step further and provide designs that anyone can wear to work, church and school without being festive," he said.
Heritage is not the first sportswear line geared toward black tastes. Cross Colours, for example, is street-oriented, hip-hop and ethnic, but not preppy. And Russell Simmons's Phat Threads line is classic sportswear, but not Afrocentric. Heritage marries preppy and ethnic looks.
Mr. Simmons, the hip-hop music mogul, who owns the Phat Farm clothing store in SoHo, said black rappers and the people who follow them wear Lauren and Hilfiger clothing because they associate it with an "upscale, progressive" style. And in turn, "ghetto kids want to escape, so they wear things that represent success," he said.
Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, said blacks might buy and help popularize Lauren and Hilfiger clothing but still feel ambivalent about it, since they identified it with blue-eyed blonds who are upper middle class. He said he thought Mr. Walker's Heritage line might alter that ambivalence. "We are quite comfortable with wearing garments that symbolize our heritage," Dr. Poussaint said.
A highlight of much of the Heritage clothing is the embroidered crest. It is in the shape of a Masai shield and contains numerous symbols of black culture, including crossed Zulu spears; a silhouette of the African continent; the scarab, a symbol of rebirth, and two majestic lions. "The crest is the first one of its kind representing blacks in the United States," Mr. Walker said.
Just as plaids are rich in family and cultural significance for the Scots and the Irish, kente prints, or "African plaid," used by designers like Mr. Walker, are expressions of black heritage.
Which is not to say that his designs are intended only for blacks. "Heritage is not intended to be worn just by black people, but should appeal to anyone who wants to wear it," he said. And the "We Don't Play Polo" motto is not meant to disparage the Lauren label, he said, but "to let people know that the 'we' means not just blacks but all people who choose to dress on their own terms."
Another difference that sets Heritage apart: it sells for 15 to 20 percent less than Hilfiger clothing and 25 percent less than Polo by Ralph Lauren, Mr. Walker said. For example, a short-sleeved knit shirt from Polo retails for $55, while a comparable Heritage design sells for $39.
The Heritage line is sold at Abraham & Strauss, Dayton Hudson, Macy's, Merry-Go-Round, Chess King, Nordstrom's and in speciality stores.
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