The influence that Ralph Lauren's Polo label has had over the hip-hop community is undisputed, providing the ultimate in fly aspirational attire since the late '80s, when crews of hardcore Brooklyn shoplifters competed with each other to see who could be the freshest dipped, eventually uniting under the banner of the Lo-Lifes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, young Melbourne graff writers were reappropriating their very own symbol of the affluent lifestyle — Country Road clothing.
Founded in 1974, Country Road evolved into Australia's 'first lifestyle brand' in the '80s when it expanded beyond shirts to women's apparel, menswear, and accessories. Targeted at the upper-middle class, it quickly became essential for future 'soccer mums' and private school students, to the point where no teenage girl in Camberwell would be caught dead in public without her CR bag and top combo. With an ever improving range of classically-styled preppy jumpers and jackets for men released in the late '80s and early '90s, Country Road soon found a loyal following amongst writers and rap fiends who gave the yuppie stylings of the gear a new twist.
The label's penchant for the 'stormy' colourways of olive green, mustard, brown, and navy ensured that their over-priced garments were increasingly being racked from shops in large numbers. Classic pieces such as the reversible waterproof/wool hooded jacket, the navy styled knitwear, and the crew wear windcheater were essential items amongst the more sartorially minded. Considering the limited alternatives available out here at the time, Country Road was one of the best options for those who weren't willing to shell out/steal a $600 imported velour Fila piece. Rap album covers provided more stylistic direction over time, leading to the uptake of Lacoste, Le Coq Sportif, Hugo Boss, and Benneton for those who wanted to move beyond the Nike/Adidas/Puma flow.
Although Australia took many of our visual cues from New York and Philadelphia in terms of street styles, we differed in the way we recontextualised luxury brands. Unlike the New York b-boys who flipped brands never intended for them into something fresher, many of the graff kids sporting a Country Road anorak with a pair Air Max 90's and Levi 501's were actually the middle class target market for these products, but chose to gain them via illegal means and wear them in a different context. Some took it further still, fully embracing the 'rich kid' look in head to toe Country Road, from boat shoes to the beanie, while causing major damage to the local train system via insides and panels.
We even had our own version of the Million Man Rush, where a large crew of graffers would storm a shop in such numbers that the staff had no choice but to let them take whatever they pleased — lest they find themselves on the losing end of a king hit. The days before clothing buzzer tags and dye bombs were truly a wonderful time to be alive for criminally-minded members of the local garment renaissance, with the ill-gotten gains serving as valuable street currency to be traded for cash, paint, or weed.
By the mid '90s, the label's designers either fell off or were instructed not to make anything that might even be vaguely appealing to the youthful ne'er do wells that had been robbing them blind — but it hardly mattered. Many local rap scallywags had moved onto the 'ruff, rugged, and raw' outdoor stylings of Timberland and Kathmandu, reflecting the influence of Naughty By Nature, Das-EFX, and Redman. At the same time Polo, Nautica, and Guess became more widely available for those who preferred Grand Puba's uptown flavour. As hip-hop magazines and music videos became readily accessible, local styles became a little more homogenised. Unless you were one of the diehards who refused to abandon your Aerosports and two-stripe tracksuit pants.
Despite the apparent rise in popularity of vintage '90s clothing collectors on these shores, Country Road continues to be under-represented. Whether this is due to a lack of demand or simply because they produced smaller shipments of each item and thus there are fewer surviving pieces in circulation remains to be seen. I would personally prefer every piece of choice Country Road outdoor wear from the early '90s than an entire shipping container of deadstock Snowbeach jackets. While Country Road aficionado's never approached the level of dedication that the Lo-Lifers who carried photos of Ralph Lauren around in their wallets, the Crew Wear faithful will never forget those glorious days when Australia was designing world-class fresh gear.