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Cult or Culture - Brands That Have Cultivated a Loyal Following [Op-Ed]


Cult (n)

2a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (via The Merriam-Webster Dictionary ; www.merriam-webster.com)

Culture (n)

1a: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group

also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time (via The Merriam-Webster Dictionary ; www.merriam-webster.com)


The line between cult and culture, similar to the one between love and hate, can be thin at times. This is the case especially regarding the fashion world. There are mainstay brands that have been a steady stronghold for decades, utilizing timeless style as well as subtle adaptations to each concurrent generation without swinging the pendulum too far towards microwave trends. Though at some points items offered by these brands may follow their own micro-trends, becoming obsolete to the crowd that made it popular, they are versatile enough to combat this. Versatility and adaptability are not the only distinguishing characteristics that breed the fervor people have for these types of brands; these brands also have nostalgia, aesthetic, timelessness and scarcity on their sides.

I can vividly remember a turning point in sneaker culture, where simply walking into a store to get your size was no longer an assured way of securing a pair. Due to a combination of retros being nostalgically coveted, a limited number of pairs being available and the burgeoning resale market; the conventional methods of making a successful purchase had been shelved.

Physical & online ticket raffles, time-sensitive internet reservations and lines wrapped around the building (with security) became the norm. I can remember leaving the mall at nighttime and driving by lines formed for sneakers that would be available for purchase the next day; in some cases, sneakers wouldn’t go on sale until multiple days after the lines were first formed. In the midst of this new development, entrepreneurship gave way in the form of resale and paid line-waiters. As Plato once stated, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Cult or culture? Which modality would give way to such developments in fashion culture? One possible answer to this question could lie in these brands (or their offerings) having reached the proverbial tipping point as described by Malcolm Gladwell. I have identified (2) main brands that fit the parameters set forth above, each of which I have observed throughout this process thus far and have varying experience with. This experience ranges from first-hand purchases, purchases through a third-party and social media (or other second-hand) observation.

The first pair of Air Jordans to be worn by “Mike”, the 1’s, debuted during the 1984 preseason. After he donned these new kicks, that particular colorway of the shoes were swiftly banned. Thus, with one stroke of a pen, the legend began. “Legend in two games, like I’m Peewee Kirkland” is a rap lyric popularized by the artist Pusha-T which describes a Harlem legend, but can just as easily be used to describe “Mike.” His mythos has been felt in the game of basketball as well as in fashion. As some people would say, every outfit is built from the ground up. Meaning the shoes are the foundation of the outfit’s structure.

The legend of Ralph Lauren actually began with the meager beginnings of one Ralph Lipschitz. A son to Jewish immigrants who began his fashion journey with Brooks Brothers as a clerk. He developed his initial fashion inspiration for what would become Polo Ralph Lauren, by attending his first polo match. Yes, seriously. This was the direct inspiration behind the iconic Polo Player Logo. Though this moniker is the most well known, one other figure from the Ralph Lauren line is more feverishly pursued.

The Polo Bear came into being due to the Lauren brothers’, Ralph and Jerry, affinity for Steiff Teddy Bears. In 1990 they were each gifted with teddy bears made by Steiff, a company famous at the time for making such bears. These bears though were special, donning clothing synonymous with each of the brothers’ personal style. These gifts wrapped in Oxford shirts, knit sweaters and ties; served as the inspiration for one of the most nostalgic Ralph Lauren collections to date.

In 1991, in collaboration with Steiff, Ralph Lauren produced a limited run of “Preppy Bears” that immediately sold-out of the Madison Avenue Flagship location. Subsequently, the Ralph Lauren Bear logo has been adapted to numerous styles including the Iconic Polo Bear, the Martini Bear and the Fishing Bear among many others. The Polo Bear has been a mainstay in “urban” culture including Hip-Hop as well as the streets that Hip-Hop music stems from. There have been crews, specifically in New York, that donned themselves in Ralph Lauren from head to toe which is a serious exhibition of the community’s reverence for the brand.

Some brands do numbers for a season before they are relegated to the depths of yesteryear, while others break the bank and are mainstays for decades. Ralph Lauren and the Jordan Brand are but two of the many other brands that can be listed as having possible cult-like status, or shall I say cultural significance. For all of you readers who’ve gotten through this Op-Ed, please leave your opinion in the comments as well as other brands you feel fit the mold.



- Pedro Cruz

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