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CROCODILE AND STYLE

2 June 2022

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Illustration from the archives of the Lacoste brand

In 1924, nineteen-year-old Rene Lacoste played in Wimbledon finals for the first time. A year earlier, he was a gifted student at the Polytechnic School. His great passion towards tennis motivated him to play it professionally which resulted in something almost unimaginable. Lacoste wrote the history of both French and international tennis. He did not know how to play tennis until he turned fifteen, and when he learned, his father gave him an ultimatum. He had five years to become a world champion, and that is exactly what happened – in 1926 and 1927 he became a champion. Afterwards, he won seven more Grand Slams and earned the nickname – The Crocodile. The nickname was a result of a bet in which Rene bet with the captain of the French Davis Cup that if he won the next match, the captain would buy him a crocodile leather suitcase that Rene had been admiring in the shop window. He lost the match, but in recognition of his tenaciousness on the court, the American newspapers gave him the moniker “the crocodile”. The rest of the tennis world soon adopted that nickname as well. Rene Lacoste took advantage of his new nickname and asked his friend and designer Robert George to sew a crocodile onto the white jacket he wore when on the court. And with that, the story of the famous crocodile logotype began. 

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Young Rene Lacoste during his tennis playing days 

Traditional tennis attire from the beginning of the 20th century looked more like formalwear for special high-class occasions than the simple and functional clothes that were meant to serve the players. Long-sleeved dress shirts, neckties and long pants were considered an “ideal” attire for the court. In the 1920s, men’s tennis attire included high-waist white cloth pants (most commonly made of cotton, cotton duck, linen or blended wool), thin black or brown leather belt, unbuttoned white dress shirt with sleeves rolled up underneath a so-called “tennis” sweater with a pointed turned-down collar (which was usually blue or grey), white tennis shoes or canvas Oxfords. However, being the best player in the world, Lacoste redefined the tennis attire by making it simpler. 

 

They say that we have to try certain things in life to see what can be improved. Rene Lacoste was indeed the best example of that saying. He spent every day at the tennis court and was aware of what could make the game easier. It was clear to him that the attire traditionally used by tennis professionals was too heavy and that its functionality had to be improved. Inspired by his nickname and the crocodile sewn on his jacket, he decided to patent that logo and create new clothing items for that elegant sport. In 1929 he stopped playing tennis professionally but remained in the world of tennis as a creator and inventor. 

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A handbook for victory in tennis published in 1928 by Rene Lacoste
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The first examples of pique-polo shirt 

In 1933, a couple of years after he stopped playing tennis, Lacoste started a company Lacoste Company, officially known as La Chemise Lacoste, with Andre Giller who was the owner and CEO of the largest French knitwear manufacturing company of that time. Their first product was a revolutionary pique knit polo shirt. It was a shirt with textured cotton knitwear, soft unstarched collar, and shorter sleeves which allowed the wearer more flexibility, breathability and lightness at the tennis court – these were the attributes of the still iconic pique-polo shirt. Its name is derived from its fabric, petit pique. Petit means “small” in French, and pique refers to a weaving style usually used with a cotton yarn. It is characterized by raised parallel cords or geometric designs in the fabric. To put it briefly, Lacoste proved his inventiveness with a functional but still elegant shirt needed in the world of tennis and by launching a first brand with its logo on a clothing item. 

 

However, Rene Lacoste did not stop at the tennis attire. His most memorable quote is: “Inventor! If I had to put a profession on my business card, that is what I would write. I have invented my whole life.” Moreover, Lacoste had filed more than thirty patents, although only two of them became part of history. His first significant invention in tennis (after the polo shirt, of course) was a metal racket. Presented in 1961, it was an idea he had been working on for 30 years. Using metal instead of wood made the racket more resilient, and just as importantly, the ball could be hit with far more power. Among his other famous inventions is a tennis ball machine that shoots tennis balls with calibrated force to help a player practice alone. Those are the inventions that had improved his game as well as that of all the generations of tennis players that followed.

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The tennis ball machine and its inventor Rene Lacoste ​

 
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A metal racket, Rene Lacoste’s invention ​

 

In 1951 due to the introduction of pique-polo shirts in different colours, Lacoste’s brand had expanded significantly beyond the boundaries of this elegant sport. It became synonymous with a preppy style (a style of neat, modest and often expensive clothes, youthful but classic, suggesting that the wearer is wealthy, high-class and conservative). In 1963, Bernard Lacoste took over the management of the company from his father Rene. At that time, around 300,000 Lacoste products were sold annually, but under Bernard’s management the company grew significantly. The company also began to introduce other products into their line, including shorts, perfumes, spectacles and sunglasses, tennis shoes, walking shoes, watches, and various leather goods. 

But the brand could not be separated from tennis. In the early 1970s, Lacoste began its partnership with Roland-Garros and the partnership is still ongoing. It had signified the beginning of Lacoste’s marketing partnership with professional tennis that has reached new heights in the twenty-first century. The Lacoste brand reached the peak of its popularity in the US during the late 1970s and became the signature preppy wardrobe in the 1980s. During the next couple of decades, the brand stagnated as a result of overexposure. A French scientist blamed the corruption of the brand on the French youth, further damaging the brand’s exclusive image. 

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The brand’s old adverts 

At the beginning of this century, Lacoste’s popularity grew thanks to the French designer Christophe Lemaire’s effort to create a more modern, upscale look. In 2005, almost 50 million Lacoste products were sold in over 110 countries. The brand’s visibility also increased due to the contracts between Lacoste and several young tennis players that the brand sponsored, which in turn strengthened its influence both in and outside of the tennis courts. In November 2012, the brand stopped being solely family owned and was partly sold to the Swiss group Maus Freres. In the recent years, the brand has been enjoying its renewed status of an elegant sportswear brand with a modern twist. This is thanks to Louise Trotter, an Englishwoman and the first female creative director in Lacoste. Aware of Lacoste’s quality as the brand’s most important feature, Trotter insisted on modernization nurtured by the fashion industry, which is why she started with the reconstruction of “the crocodile”. With such an approach and with keeping the logo as the brand’s most important asset, she laid clear foundations for its future both in sport and as part of the everyday apparel.   

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The brand’s modern reconstruction with a traditional note by the creator Louise Trotter 

Rene Lacoste left us back in 1996. Until the end, he enjoyed tennis, he observed, contemplated and dreamed up new inventions. Always a perfectionist, he noted down his every move, which led to his book Tennis published in 1928 as a handbook for victory. Besides his tennis tips, he also left us with the most relevant brand that merges sport with elegance, two only seemingly contradictory notions. Constantly full of new ideas, the Crocodile won, revolutionized, and invented. Finally, as he himself said, it does not matter what you do, just do it perfectly. Mocked for his nickname in his early days, decades later he remains the epitome of sport elegance. 

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