How the Lacoste Polo Shirt Modernized Tennis and Helped Shape Fashion

The classic L.12.12 remains a basic part of the summer uniform

The Lacoste polo shirt is still in play (and wardrobes) after 85 years. Raquel Beauchamp

It was September 1926, and an unforgettable piece of history was about to be made at the U.S. Open. French team player René Lacoste was the No. 1 player in the world, sure to command attention as he stepped onto the grass court of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. But while Lacoste would win in mixed doubles that year, it was another play that would have the most lasting impact: When the 22-year-old Lacoste appeared at the service line, he was wearing a polo shirt.

That was a big deal. Until this time, players wore “tennis whites”—slacks and long-sleeve shirts (with neckties, no less). But Lacoste insisted on being stylish as well as comfortable. Whatever fuss ensued was over before long. “Soon,” Lacoste would later remember, “everybody was wearing them.”

The Logo: Interchangeably known as the alligator and the crocodile (it’s really a crocodile), Lacoste’s logo was a pioneer of exterior labeling. Plus, it’s just cool. The Fabric: Lacoste polo shirts, which come in over 40 colors, are woven in piqué, a soft, lightweight cotton whose raised pattern allows it to breathe. The Collar: In 1961, Lacoste made its “polo collar” out of thicker fabric so it could be turned up. Some did to protect their necks from sun, others just to look, like, totally bitchin’.
Fabric and collar: Raquel Beauchamp

Little did the wiry Frenchman know that his statement would apply to the world beyond tennis, and unto the present day. The Lacoste polo shirt remains one of the most durable, versatile and timeless fashion staples in modern history.

But it would take a stroke of branding genius to make that happen.

A year after the U.S. Open, Lacoste was preparing for the Davis Cup when he made a wager with his team captain, who promised him an alligator-skin suitcase if he won a key match. The story got out, and American journalists began calling Lacoste “the alligator”—a nickname that unaccountably changed to “the crocodile” once he got back to France. Regardless of the reptile, Lacoste loved the moniker, and began referring to his opponents as “my prey.” (When his friend Robert George drew an alligator logo, Lacoste had it embroidered onto his tennis blazer—probably the first time a brand logo appeared on the outside of a garment.)

When reporters nicknamed French tennis star René Lacoste “The Crocodile,” he ran with it—first by wearing a crocodile logo on his blazer (above, right), then using the logo to found his own shirt brand (above, left). In time, Lacoste began to call himself The Crocodile, thus transforming his personality into a living brand decades before anyone else would do it. While the “alligator shirt” had its postwar fans, its popularity exploded in the 1980s, thanks to the rise of the preppy look and films like 1983’s Class, in which Skip (played by a 19-year-old Rob Lowe, top right) embodied the polo’s rich-boy aesthetic. Almost overnight, American high school kids (like the girls at bottom right) imitated the look by buying Lacoste shirts.
Ads: Courtesy of Lacoste; Lacoste and girls: Getty Images; Lowe: Class

In 1933, retired from tennis, Lacoste started La Chemise Lacoste and began selling his polo shirts, complete with the crocodile logo. These made it to the U.S. market via a licensing deal with London brand Izod (hence, the Izod Lacoste brand), which began appearing on the backs of Bing Crosby and, later, JFK. But it wasn’t until the 1980 publication of The Official Preppy Handbook that the “alligator shirt” (“the sport shirt of choice,” it said) was anointed as an essential of the prep uniform—a distinction it has never lost.

Building on the tradition of René Lacoste’s nickname, the company anointed tennis great Novak Djokovic as the new “Crocodile” in May. The world’s No. 2 player could have signed with any brand, but “he liked Lacoste,” Boury said. “With Lacoste, you stand for something different.”
Djokovic: Getty Images

Today, plenty of brands make polo shirts, but Lacoste is the authentic original. And, according to Lacoste CMO Laurent Boury, the reason why goes back to Lacoste himself. “He cut off the sleeves, and [while] that sounds ridiculous now, he broke the code,” Boury said. As Lacoste developed it, the polo shirt was a blend of function and style—with a cool logo to set it off. It’s why, Boury said, “85 years later, people are still wearing it.”

This story first appeared in the June 26, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.