At 17, James Jeter was certain of where he would spend the next few years of his life.
He applied to a college — Morehouse in Atlanta — and was accepted. Seven years after graduating, Jeter took another leap. This time it was to share with the head of the iconic fashion designer he worked for, Ralph Lauren, how he really felt about the brand’s blind spots when it came to running and creating what could be considered an unmistakably American look.
In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Jeter, a concept designer at the time, participated in a corporate conversation about racial reconciliation where he voiced his concerns to the founder of the Ralph Lauren brand.
Jeter, now director of design and special projects, had worked for the company as a part-time salesman since he was 16, but always felt something was missing despite his passion for the brand. He kicked off the partnership by talking to Lauren about his Morehouse experience.
The brand is known for “that kind of ambitious image that has historically been associated with the Ivy Leagues and a kind of white American culture,” he said. “All the while, those images were kind of alive and well in those amazing HBCUs that are Morehouse and Spelman College.”
Images of the White Robe Ceremony established circa 1900, in which all freshmen at Spelman gather in variations of white attire during the orientation of new students, all help to paint a portrait of the dignity. The robe symbolizes the brotherhood and solidarity of Morehouse students as they walk across campus to class.
Jeter and his colleague Dara Douglas aimed to reflect how higher education and expression through clothing had a history of coexistence for many black people.
Together, the duo designed a collection for Ralph Lauren inspired by the traditions and fashion that have united HBCU students and alumni for generations.
It was the first time that Ralph Lauren had staged a campaign with an all-black creative team and cast.
The project includes a series of photos taken by the photographer Nadine Ijewere where most of the models were current students, alumni, and faculty of Spelman and Morehouse. The collection includes white dresses, varsity sweaters, varsity jackets and blazers that mimic styles from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Jeter had a kindred spirit to Douglas, now head of brand and product for design with intention at Ralph Lauren. She knew she wanted to attend Spelman College after a campus tour when she was 10 years old.
She still vividly remembers when her acceptance letter arrived at her house in a “Spelman Blue” envelope. “I opened the front door, and she falls into the house, and we just screamed and screamed and cried and hugged,” Douglas said.
Although Spelman is a women’s university and Morehouse is a men’s university, the schools have a unique bond. Their common nickname, “SpelHouse”, reflects the proximity of the campuses to each other, with their social activity and their common traditions.
Although they graduated a decade apart, Jeter and Douglas said they felt connected even before their collaboration.
“Because of James’ background, going to Morehouse and being a Morehouse man, I knew there was a level of confidence in his abilities and skills,” Douglas said. “We are a family.”
This family connection is common among graduates of historically black colleges. Although each school has different backgrounds and traditions, the foundations are the same: creating space for black people in a time when exclusionary practices were pervasive.
The collection echoes the history of these institutions using fashion to reflect values and self-expression, an experience Douglas and Jeter could relate to during their respective time on campus.
“You had to show up to Friday Market and Hump Wednesday looking fresh,” Jeter said of the weekly social events on campus where Spelman and Morehouse College students gather, often bonding over their choices. of outfits.
“Yes!” Douglas intervened.
“It was just the campus aesthetic,” Jeter said. “It was just part of the culture.”
When developing the project, Douglas and Jeter relied heavily on personal experience, polished language and archival footage to share what it’s like to attend an HBCU, an experience unfamiliar to many in the business.
“Before we even started talking about clothing, we really started educating a lot of our leaders around, you know, what does an HBCU mean? Why were they founded? Why are they still important today? Jeter said.
Tori Soudan, designer and owner of the Tori Soudan brand, a collection of luxury shoes and handbags and a Spelman graduate, said fashion is a historical expression of the values of the black community.
“HBCUs are incubators,” Sudan said. “For many people who attend an HBCU, it is one of the first times they are in an environment where they can express themselves completely freely. Fashion is naturally part of it.
The project is accompanied by a film, “A Portrait of the American Dream” and one phone bookshowcasing the collection and the process of its creation, while educating viewers on the historical relevance of the HBCU experience through the lens of these institutions.
“It’s not just about inspiring black people. It inspires all Americans,” Douglas said, “inspires people around the world, to just be able to see the beauty of the black experience.”