René Lacoste, "Le Crocodile"
Tennis legend and fashion baron
by Borgna Brunner
Grand Slam Wins
Jean René Lacoste (1904–1996) was famous for his considerable achievements in two very different arenas. Not only was he once ranked the world's top tennis player, but he designed a novel new tennis shirt that became the cornerstone of a world famous fashion empire. Lacoste, nicknamed "le Crocodile" on the courts, is remembered today primarily for the reptilian logo on his ubiquitous sportswear. Fashion historians believe the crocodile emblem (widely referred to as an alligator) was the first instance of a designer logo to appear on a garment.
1920s Tennis Star
Born into a wealthy Parisian family on July 2, 1904, Lacoste did not play his first game of tennis until he was 15 years old. According to the Tennis Hall of Fame, he was not a natural at tennis—it was his drive, discipline, and strategic intelligence that turned him into a tennis phenomenon. No doubt his father's ultimatum also had something to do with his success: Pere Lacoste agreed to let René to pursue his chosen career path—provided he became a world champion player within five years!
Crocodile and Musketeer
Which is exactly what happened. In 1926 and 1927, Lacoste was ranked the world's top tennis player. He won seven major singles titles in his career: the French Open in 1925, 1927, and 1929, Wimbledon in 1925 and 1928, and the U.S. Open in 1926 and 1927. As a member of the Four Musketeers (along with Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, and Jacques Brugnon), the formidable French team won the Davis Cup in 1927 and 1928.
Lacoste later explained the origin of his nickname, "le Crocodile:"
The American press nicknamed me 'the Crocodile' after a bet that I made with the Captain of the French Davis Cup team. He had promised me a crocodile-skin suitcase if I won a match that was important for our team. The American public stuck to this nickname, which highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey! So my friend Robert George drew me a crocodile which was embroidered on the blazer that I wore on the courts.
Beating Bill Tilden
No doubt his most important victory was defeating the legendary Bill Tilden in 1927, which paved the way for France's very first victory in the Davis Cup (France would hold on to the title for the next five years). Looking back, Tilden remarked about Lacoste's superb 1927 performance, "This was one of the finest tennis players and tennis brains I ever encountered, and I underestimated him. I saw too late that Lacoste had figured out a way to beat me . . . that he had developed a slice serve just for the purpose of using it against me."
The following year, however, he lost to Tilden in the opener of the Davis Cup. It would be his last international match. His health and tennis game waned, and respiratory disease finally caused him to give up tennis at a youthful 25. He retired in 1929, after winning the French Open.
Revolutionary Sports Clothing
He then went on to his second, and more widely known career as producer of high quality sports clothes. In 1933, he founded La Societe Chemise Lacoste, which began producing a revolutionary new tennis shirt that Lacoste had been sporting on the courts himself: instead of the long-sleeved, stiff-collared shirt that made up the typical tennis outfit, Lacoste introduced a short-sleeved cotton pique polo shirt. According to Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute of New York, "Lacoste created performance clothing long before the word was out."
The Ultimate Preppy Symbol
Lacoste tennis wear gradually influenced what the debonair layman was wearing. His son, Bernard Lacoste, said the company really began to expand when in 1951 it branched out from "tennis white" and introduced a line of color shirts. The Lacoste shirt reached the height of its popularity in the U.S. during the 1970s, when it became the essential preppy accoutrement. Lacoste himself was mystified by the wide appeal of the alligator/crocodile emblem. "There are kinds of things that just don't have any good explanation," he said. "I suppose you could say that if it had been a really nice animal, something sympathetic, then maybe nothing would have happened. Suppose I had picked a rooster. Well, that's French, but it doesn't have the same impact." This famous first logo has spawned dozens of imitators.
The Alligator Becomes Haute Couture
Lacoste's son, Bernard, took over the company in 1964. Today it is a nearly $1 billion international business, selling everything from watches to lingerie. In 2000, French designer Chriisophe Lemaire was hired to give Lacoste a more upscale look, and its popularity has once again surged. Lemaire contends that nowadays "a Lacoste polo assumes different meanings in different contexts. It's a transversal product that is worn at the country club, by a truck driver, or a rap star."
Lacoste ingenuity and creativity led him into other areas as well. In 1960s he designed the first steel tennis racket that became popular with Jimmy Connors and other tennis stars.
Later in life, he enjoyed playing golf. His wife, Simone Thion de la Chaume, was a French amateur golf champion, and his daughter, Catherine Lacoste, won the U.S. Open golf in the 1960s. In 1996, René Lacoste died at the age of 92 in St.-Jean-de-Luz, France, but his famous alligator logo is alive and well, gracing approximately 25 million new items of apparel each year.