HOW THE VEST WAS WON
We all know what polo shirts are, but we forget that they are tennis shirts invented by René Lacoste. Can the French reclaim a shirt that has now become an American classic?
WHEN DID we start using the term ‘polo shirt’ in India? I was trying to recall when the phrase passed into the vernacular and my best guess was that it happened some time in the early 1990s. And even then, it was a linguistic transition brought about by the power of a single brand rather than the influence of fashion or even of the sport of polo.
Until that point we used the term ‘polo’ to refer to a roll-neck shirt or sweater of the sort that was often called a ‘turtleneck’. (Fashionistas will tell you that a turtleneck starts slightly lower down the collar than a polo-neck but most of us could not really care less about the difference.) The polo shirt (as we now know it) went by a generic. It was just a Tshirt. And in that era, T-shirt meant a casual sports shirt that did not button all the way down the front. The term had not yet come to mean – in India, at least – the sort of shirt we used to call a singlet or even, when I was at school, a Vishwas Banian.
My guess is that current usage for T-shirt and polo shirt both owe something to brands. It was The Gap that popularised the use of the term Tshirt for its signature garment in the late 1980s. And as far as we in India were concerned, the term polo shirt only came into popular usage thanks to Ralph Lauren.
In the mid to late 1980s, floods of fake Ralph Lauren shirts reached India by way of Bangkok and nearly everywhere you looked men were sporting a motif of a polo player on their left nipples. The real thing was still expensive (in the days before Lauren started making cheaper versions in Bangladesh for his outlet stores) but given that the fakes looked convincing enough, few people bothered with the genuine article. So, when people talked about a polo shirt, did they mean one that was made by Ralph Lauren’s Polo label or were they using a generic term? I was never quite sure.
Then, in the 1990s, Lacoste arrived in India – the brand has been here for 20 years, making it one of the first fashion companies to target India. I knew Lacoste, of course. The symbol of the crocodile (or alligator as they sometimes called it in America, much to Lacoste’s annoyance) was one of the world’s best-known logos, turning up on T-shirts (okay, I am sorry, polo shirts), shoes, colognes (made originally by Jean Patou for Lacoste) and sports equipment.
But I never really thought too much about whether there was a real Mr Lacoste and whether he was connected in some way to the crocodile or the polo shirt.
In Paris, a few weeks ago, for the celebration of Lacoste’s 80th anniversary, I finally learned the truth. René Lacoste was a famous French tennis player, who captained the country’s Davis Cup team and who was given the nickname ‘The Crocodile.’ While playing tennis, Lacoste used a crocodile motif, designed for him by a friend, on his blazer. He was also the first man to popularise the wearing of short-sleeved T-shirts during tennis matches, because the formal long-sleeved white shirts that were traditionally worn on the court were much too hot for him during the summer. Lacoste single-handedly changed the way in which players dressed at Wimbledon and in the 1930s, he began commercial production of the tennis shirts he had popularised.
Naturally, he called the company Lacoste to cash in on his celebrity and he used the crocodile logo (remember this was long before
most fashion houses used any logos at all) to remind customers of his nickname. Why then, is the shirt he popularised called the Polo Shirt and not the Tennis Shirt? Well, because Lacoste got the idea from the shirts used by polo players.
In the 1960s and the early 1970s, before the designer boom had begun, the crocodile shirt (not necessarily called a polo shirt at the time) became the shirt of choice for rich white kids in America, especially in the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) enclaves of the East Coast. In Peter Benchley’s early 1970s bestseller Jaws, the police chief (a poor boy) is admonished by his mother for trying to keep up with the rich boys with their alligator shirts. Similar references to the upper-class nature of the crocodile shirt crop up again and again in the popular literature of the period.
I’m not sure that the Lacoste company, still family-run in those days, recognised the value of their shirts or the snob value of the crocodile but many American designers did. Ralph Lauren based his empire on shirts inspired by Lacoste and replaced the crocodile with his own logo. He also had the smart idea of playing up the rich-guy associations of polo, a sport most American knew nothing about.
By the early 1990s, America was awash in Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and though the Lacoste version remained the old-money staple on the East Coast, its allure faded when you moved away from Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. For newly-rich Americans – and soon, for buyers in emerging markets – Ralph Lauren’s Polo shirt represented designer chic.
My guess is that because Lacoste has always been a successful company with a healthy bottom-line, it lost sight of the need to sell the luxury dream. Other brands stole away the top-end of the sportswear market (Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, etc.) and Lacoste became a hardy staple rather than the symbol of affordable luxury it should have been.
All that may be changing. Last year, one of the biggest stories in the fashion press was the messy takeover of Lacoste. The battle tore apart the Lacoste family, pitting father against daughter and ended with control of the company being wrested by Switzerland’s Maus Frères. ( The Maus brothers then proceeded to take over Gant as well.) So, Lacoste now has a new management team that is determined to reposition the brand. José Luis Duran, the new president, told me that the company would refit its shops (at present they are sterile and look downmarket), redo its shop windows, revisit its advertising strategy, sharpen its product line and “tell the Lacoste story again”. Duran meant, I think, that unlike many luxury brands with an invented past (Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Thomas Pink), Lacoste has a genuine heritage as the brand that popularised the first polo shirts and as the traditional favourite of old-money sporting types.
What does that mean for the Lacoste designers? How can you refashion a brand whose entire presence is associated with a single product: the men’s polo shirt?
The irony is that design has actually been one of Lacoste’s strengths. Christophe Lemaire, who was the company’s creative director for many years, was one of Paris’s hidden gems. Two years ago, Hermès lured him away to replace Jean Paul Gaultier and since then Lemaire has flourished at the label. His successor, Felipe Oliveira Baptista is at least as talented as Lemaire and his creative work is outstanding. How he will fare in the brave new Lacoste which is set to go the Ralph-Tommy route is not clear (he was appointed before the new owners took over) but Baptista has given the brand the edge it lacked.
For the 80th anniversary, Baptista suggested to the management that the cutting-edge British commercial artist (famous for his record covers), Peter Saville should be charged with reinventing the crocodile in a series of limited-edition polo shirts. Saville’s variations on the logo have been so daring (sometimes the crocodile is just a doodle) that the experiment calls to mind the work that Takashi Murakami and Stephen Sprouse did for Louis Vuitton over a decade ago.
All of this augurs well. We now live in an era where nobody is as ignorant as I used to be. Everybody now knows what a polo shirt is. Lacoste just needs to remind us where the shirt came from and to tell us what they’ve done to update it – a route that Louis Vuitton took with such success in the 1990s.
But can the French really reclaim a shirt that has now become an American classic? Is there room for the original in a market that is dominated by Ralph Lauren and where polo shirts are no more than billboards for screaming logos? Go to any upmarket Indian mall and you will find that the merchandise that moves the fastest – at Tommy, Hackett, and other brands – is the logo-driven polo shirt. Is the subtle crocodile logo up to the loud competition?
I guess we will find out in a couple of years.
MARK OF A BRAND The symbol of the crocodile was one of the world’s best-known logos, turning up on T-shirts, shoes, colognes and sports equipment