Maybe I’ve been unfair to Lacoste. I’ve called their clothes perfect for hanging around the family tennis court half-drunk and waiting for your rich parents to die, or for adding an ironic touch to an axe murder, and I tend to see them as the fashion equivalent of a watercress sandwich with the crusts cut off. Of course, another way of looking at Lacoste is as the sort of clothes that F. Scott Fitzgerald and the smart set would have worn in the 1930s, particularly while they were committing an ironic axe murder.
René Lacoste’s father would have preferred that his son attend the Polytechnique, but René loved tennis. His fragile health prevented him from a full sporting career, but the young man had determination bolstering his body, especially after he saw the “impregnable” Davis Cup carried away by the Americans at age 23. He was hooked; having inherited the perfectionism of his industrialist father, René spent hours perfecting his game and even invented a machine to launch tennis balls. After winning Wimbledon twice and the Davis Cup once between 1927 and 1928, Lacoste dominated world tennis.
Lacoste remained an inventor; he contributed to the Concorde tennis racket and created his famous polo shirt to wear on the court. In 1933, he retired from the sport for health reasons and decided to market his shirts. To these ends, he enlisted the help of André Gillier, a major actor in French knitwear. If his polo jacket was a bit heavy for playing tennis in, his lighter short jersey was unanimously popular with players. But, their real inspiration was adding the Lacoste crocodile to the exterior, making this the first branded clothing. The public was won over by the idea of wearing a legend on their chest.
When his son Bernard Lacoste took over the family business, he made it an international brand. Patricia Kapferer and Tristan Gaston-Breton describe Bernard as, “un visionnaire avec une culture international,” in their book Le style René Lacoste. Educated at Princeton and married to an Asian woman, when Bernad became company President in 1963, the first thing he did was to take the brand to Japan, followed by Brazil, Australia, South Korea, etc. By the early 90s, he was interested in the emerging countries and had opened a boutique in Shanghai. After his death in 2005, his brother Michel took over the company and notably rolled out the new collection for the first time in Brazil.
Lacoste is now sold in 112 countries. The company stagnated a bit in the 90s and lost ground in the sporting market. They responded by reworking their circuit of distribution and remaking the boutiques to give them a “purer” look. And they set up new shops in Manhattan, where elegance and street wear are not at odds like in Paris. Apparently, it worked: in the last five years, their sales have tripled, reaching 1.6 billion euros last year.
Not that I’ll ever wear Lacoste; there’s just something too Gloria Vanderbilt about the clothing with its WASPish combination of elegance and dullness. I think to wear it you have to be on the Harvard rowing team and have a nickname like Cappy or Chas, and be right now wearing deck shoes. Your idea of a light snack is quail. You worry at night that Sotheby’s is no longer solidly top drawer. Among your relatives, “safe sex” means getting the pool boy fired afterwards. All of your friends’ jokes start with: “Listen up, everyone: Thaddeus is about to do his impression of those hip hop fellows. It’s a real stitch!” Okay, tip your waitresses, ladies and germs!
But, I do get it- Lacoste makes nice clothes, and not just for axe murderers.