Long before the Polo Bar, there was the Polo Bear.
As the story goes, back in the late ’80s, Ralph Lauren was so taken with a birthday gift he got from his design team — a classic Steiff teddy bear, wearing a teddy-bear-size Polo getup — that he began carrying these Polo-clad bears in his stores. The stuffed animals were a hit, and he decided to stamp them on his clothes: The first sweater, released in 1991, featured a bear looking very much the Buckley sixth grader, sporting a blazer and chinos. Subsequent iterations (of which there have been many) have included the P-Bear wearing an American-flag sweater and jeans; wearing a hoodie and holding a basketball; teeing off on the golf course; and, one of my favorites, channeling Picasso in a beret and a striped Breton shirt. The Polo Bear went on to become a recognizable mascot, a cuddly counterpart to the Polo pony. There is also, legend has it, a mythical sweater on which there is knitted a Never-Ending Bear. Meaning: a bear that is itself wearing a Polo Bear sweater, whose bear is also wearing a Polo Bear sweater, and on and on ad infinitum.
But first, some backstory: In the mid-’80s and early ‘90s, Polo was indeed popular with the type of people who might actually wear the brand while taking part in a polo match, but one could argue that it didn’t really hit the mainstream in a major way until fashionable young African-American kids from Brownsville and Crown Heights began obsessing over the brand; shirts and hats with the Polo Bear on it were particularly desirable. Those who wore head-to-toe ‘Lo (sometimes copping it from stores in Manhattan) became known as Lo-Lifes. “I think that it was all about taking something that wasn’t meant for you and making it yours,” Vintage Gear Addicts founder Victor Ving told XXL for the magazine’s 2010 “Polo and Hip-Hop, an Oral History.” Rapper Raekwon added that if you didn’t have “a good Polo shirt on, or some Polo sneakers, or anything like that, we didn’t consider you really that fly when you came out that day.” In 1993, when Raekwon famously wore a Polo Snow Beach pullover in the “Wu Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple” video, the brand became synonymous with hip-hop, and soon after, with white people who wanted to emulate hip-hop culture.
Over 20 years later, there are still aficionados who call themselves Lo-Lifes and Lo-Heads (while Lo-Lifes refer to the ‘80s-era Polophiles, Lo-Heads are anyone who wears full Polo looks) who’ll get together to swap their finest gear. Rare vintage pieces go for thousands of dollars on eBay — like the aforementioned Polo Snow Beach shirt (“the holy grail of Ralph Lauren jackets,” according to Mass Appeal) and an extremely coveted cashmere Polo Bear sweater. But among these devoted Lo-Heads, there is one piece that is the most sought-after: the Never-Ending Bear. That is, if it even exists. Polo-devotee and rapper Mayhem Lauren told Vice in 2011 that it’s almost “mythological.” He said: “Well, supposedly there’s a knit out there with a bear rockin’ a knit with himself on it, and he’s rocking a bear, and it just goes on and on forever. Guys will swear they have three of those but they never bring it out, never rock it for flicks, but supposedly it’s there.”
Brian Procell, a vintage expert and owner of the eponymous East Village shop, says he doesn’t think it’s physically possible for the Never-Ending Bear sweater to have been made. “It’s too complex to render as a knit; it would be too abstract,” he told me. But, he added, it’s possible it exists in other iterations. “The bears are often represented in home goods like ceramics. It’s possible that there might be some limited samples of that bear on fine china floating around out there. Maybe even a silk scarf or tie, possibly made for the Japanese market. If that’s the case, then it’s no surprise that someone is claiming to have the never-ending sweater in hopes to outdo everyone in the game.”
At press time, the folks over at Ralph Lauren had yet to find proof of its existence. Which doesn’t mean it’s not out there somewhere. So, for now, the legend continues.