Minting Teddy

The woman behind Ralph Lauren’s iconic Polo Bear is launching bear NFTs

Collab Bears will feel instantly familiar, but its mascot will take on a broad range of personalities.

When an ecosystem becomes overpopulated with a single species, predators may be introduced to restore balance. Just as hunters in the U.S. have intervened to curb the overabundance of deer, bears could be the solution for the increasingly boring omnipresence of apes in the metaverse.

Collab Bears is a new NFT project launching with artwork from Audrey Schilt, a 45-year fashion industry veteran and the woman who first conceptualized Ralph Lauren’s iconic Polo Bear. Her hand-drawn teddy bears will be central to the appeal as the first tokens are minted in March, but as the name suggests, so too will be an assemblage of collaborators in the spaces of fashion, music, sports, and beyond.

Audrey’s co-founders in the endeavor are her son Matthew Schilt, a longtime A&R in the music industry, and David Borish, who brings experience in tech and finance. Together, they hope to build a community around their virtual bears with a DAO, a decentralized autonomous organization of NFT holders, helping to make decisions on where the brand goes next. Bored Ape Yacht Club helped set the stage for anthropomorphic characters to become wildly popular as digital tokens, and the goodwill generated by the Polo Bear goes back even further.

Collab Bears

Audrey Schilt worked at Ralph Lauren for nearly 20 years beginning in the mid-’80s, when the man himself offered her a job based on the strength of her sketches in prior roles at Halston and Bergdorf Goodman. In one of her first meetings as a conceptual artist with Lauren, she suggested a polar bear as a mascot of sorts for the brand. The arctic bear was intended as a pun for Polo, and bears had long been a subject of her own personal sketches.

Lauren questioned what bears had to do with the brand, and Schilt says she shrunk with the thought that she was naive for making such a suggestion and so early on. But days later, having ruminated on the idea more himself, Lauren came back and suggested working with Steiff, the German teddy bear specialists in business since 1890, to create a Polo Bear plush.

“I have one of those bears, and he sits on my bed. I feel like I birthed him, and I’m happy Ralph’s done so well with him.”

Schilt doesn’t take credit for what was to come, as the Polo Bear made its introduction to the world on a sweater with an illustration by Richard Tahsin. And as the character appeared on more apparel throughout the ‘90s, it would become one of the most sought-after designs for collectors and an inextricable part of Ralph Lauren’s iconography. Schilt is just proud that her niche interest and suggestion provided the spark for such a legacy.

“It’s brilliant,” Schilt said in an interview with Input. “I’m very proud of [Lauren], and of the bear, and my association with it. I have one of those bears, and he sits on my bed. Every morning, I get up, pick him up, and give him a kiss. I feel like I birthed him, and I’m happy Ralph’s done so well with him.”

Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Web 1.0 roughly came into fruition in the same year the first Polo Bear launched, and just over 30 years later, Schilt is now preparing to bring her own Collab Bears to Web 3.0. The resemblance of the two bears is clear at first glance, but the possibilities for the Collab Bears’ choice of dress and activities is much broader than the strict sphere that Ralph Lauren’s operates in. [London streetwear brand Palace featuring the Polo Bear doing a kickflip on a sweater as part of their 2018 collaboration, as well as the Polo’s first skate decks released last year, qualifies as subversive given the character’s preppy history.]

“I’m getting some really interesting direction in changing the bear so that it takes on the personality of the collaboration we’re doing,” Schilt says. “I’m glad to be involved in it because it really brings me forward in areas I haven’t explored, bringing newness to innovation in my art.”

Sneak peeks posted in the Collab Bears Discord channel, which launched in mid-February and is nearing 2,000 members, have shown outfits that include a hoodie and camel coat combo, a very emo short-sleeve shirt, and a highlighter pink sweatsuit with squiggly black lines. For now, each of the illustrations is hand-drawn by Schilt, but that’s subject to change with Collab Bears’ planned entry into blockchain-based gaming and the possibility of different methods for rendering such as 3D — the decision of which could come down to voting from the DAO.

Collab Bears

NFT enthusiasts pushing back on the criticism of the medium being used as a pyramid scheme funneling money up to the wealthy often tout the communities built around the artwork. The team behind Collab Bears says it’s committed to fostering such a group with plenty of opportunities for engagement through its DAO and beyond. Events are already in planning for the eventual NFT holders, as is bear-centric clothing designed by Schilt that’ll be exclusive to Collab Bear owners.

Priority purchasing will also be given to Collab Bears’ early followers, as the first 2,500 members of its Discord will be given first access to the NFTs on March 30 at .10 ETH (worth approximately $260 at the time of writing). The wider launch on April 1 will then bring the total number of tokens to 10,000, and those who hold onto the tokens will then be invited to the DAO.

“As long as it makes sense, the artwork is beautiful and lends itself to the brand, we’re not afraid of it.”

The early list of collaborators for the project is still being kept a mystery, but the Discord channel has pointed toward the younger Schilt’s association with rapper Talib Kweli and producer 88 Keys as a clue. The latter is a noted Polo collector and longtime collaborator with Kanye West, from the days before The College Dropout up to the yet-to-be-released album Donda 2. Both the Schilts have also worked with West before in the capacity of music and fashion, including Audrey being part of the team for Dw (short for Donda West), the short-lived women’s label created by Kanye prior to launching Yeezy.

None of this is to suggest West himself will be involved — his recent Instagram post suggests otherwise — but to showcase the musical network the co-founders of Collab Bears have already established. Street and fine art are also areas the team is interested in exploring relationships with, as is Hollywood and, of course, fashion and streetwear.

Audrey Schilt, the artist behind Collab Bears. Collab Bears

“The luxury fashion industry is not always about inclusiveness, but Audrey has always been about it, and it comes across in our series,” Borish says. “As long as it makes sense, the artwork is beautiful and lends itself to the brand, we’re not afraid of it.”

Through Collab Bears, Schilt also hopes to lead by example in showing that the metaverse isn’t just a space for millennials or Gen Z. She’s older than most of the artists we’re used to seeing create NFTs, but that may just be the sort of differing perspective that the field needs. She wants to bring in colleagues she’s worked with throughout her career, and she also wants to encourage everyone, regardless of age, to look into cryptocurrencies. Schilt created her first wallet in 2020, right before the NFT boom, and now her investment in crypto is going deeper as a new creator in the space.

There are no guarantees that Collab Bears will take off, the very same way there’s no promise that, say, a rookie trading card you pick up may be worth a lot of money down the road. What’s readily apparent from the jump, however, is that these bears will look a lot different than the pixelated, cartoonish, or 3D-modeled artwork NFTs that have already become the defining style of the emerging metaverse. We might not be able to wipe out the apes, but at least there will soon be a new animal to look at, and one with close and earned associations with one of the most iconic fashion characters ever made.