Rene Lacoste was one of the best known French tennis players of all time. He won two Wimbeldon singles titles in 1925 and 1928, as well as 2 US Opens, 2 Davis Cup championships and three French Opens.
Beyond tennis, Lacoste is perhaps even better known worldwide for the famous tennis shirt that bears his name. But the road that leads up to his classic shirt is worth exploring.
As a young man, Rene Lacoste was on the brink of going to the Polytechnique; the most famous engineering school in France. This was considered a risky move by any stretch of the imagination, but even more so in 1922 during the amateur era of tennis.The competitive circuits at that time drew very little money. In a miraculous act of faith, Rene’s father allowed him to pursue his ambitions in tennis.
Lacoste would quickly cement his reputation as a studious player. He would practice tennis obsessively, hitting the ball against the walls of his family home for so long, the walls needed repair. Interestingly, Lacoste was not even considered a “natural talent” at tennis. He would compensate for this by studying his opponent’s game in such detail that he could formulate a custom strategy to attack the weaknesses for that particular player. Lacoste even incorporated weight training into his tennis practice. Such comprehensive workouts were unheard of at that time. Lacoste was actually criticized by his own trainer for training too much. When his coach told him to take a break, Lacoste invented the first automated ball throwing machine.
Lacoste was known by his opponents as a grueling player whose main strategy was to simply stay at the back of the court and return the ball within the lines until his opponent made a mistake. Considered a “boring” player by some, his conservative strategy paid off. Lacoste went on to win two Wimbledons , three French Opens and two US Open titles.
Lacoste earned the nickname “alligator” for an alligator suitcase that he spotted in a Boston shop window. Lacoste bet his team captain that if he won the match, the team captain would buy him the bag. Lacoste didn’t win the match, but the alligator nickname stuck (better known as “crocodile” in France). This was partly due to the coincidence that the nickname was also a metaphor for Lacoste’s tenacious style of playing; like an alligator who wouldn’t release its grip. The nickname was so apt that Robert George, a friend of Lacoste’s, actually embroidered an alligator into a shirt and gave it to Lacoste as a gift. This gift gave Lacoste the idea to create a line of sport shirts that had the alligator logo sewn into them . This was perhaps the first time in history a logo was ever sewn into the outside of an article of clothing.
Rene Lacoste retired from tennis at 25 years of age, after suffering from a chronic respiratory ailment. He went on to found The Societe Chemise Lacoste, which began producing the some of the shirts that Lacoste had been wearing on the court. The shirt did well enough but it only came in long sleeves and was white, with a stiff collar.
It wasn’t until 1951 when Lacoste started manufacturing the shirt in more colors and styles that sales really began to take off. One of the things that facilitated sales early on was the solid knit construction of the shirts, made to handle lots of activity. It was perhaps one of the first examples of “high performance” sport clothing. In the mid sixties, Lacoste cemented his reputation as an inventor by creating the first all metal tennis racquet, later used my tennis pro Jimmy Connors.
By 1960, Lacoste teamed up with David Crystal who owned Izod clothing, and the sales momentum increased to the point in the late 70s and early 80s when Izod/Lacoste was perhaps the most popular shirt in the pop culture. Rebounding from the era of the seventies, the “preppy” look became intensely popular. The sporty Izod/ Lacoste design was sought after with the alligator logo in particular being seen as a desirable status symbol.
In the early 90s, David Crystal began to run into financial trouble from other poor investments he had made. As a result, Izod sold its share of Lacoste to a French company and the Lacoste sales began to falter. Rene Lacoste died in 1996 at the age of 92. His son Bernard, now head of the company, hired Rene Lemaire, a new fashion designer, to reinvigorate the brand name and its logo. Under Lemaire’s watch, Lacoste has enjoyed a strong rebound in sales worldwide.
In the end, the Lacoste line of clothing has proven to be as tenacious as its namesake, the original Crocodile himself, Rene Lacoste.