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?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - INDULGE - Vir Sanghvi

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

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