Last week saw the end of the tennis season, as Novak Djokovic retained his ATP World Tour Finals title with a convincing win over world number one Rafael Nada at the O2 in London, so I thought I would share a tennis themed brand story.
The alligator bag and the polo shirt
Frenchman René Lacoste was a tennis player, a very good tennis player. He won seven Grand Slam titles and was for two consecutive years, in the late nineteen twenties, ranked as the number one player in the world,
He wasn’t however a fan of the tennis clothes of the time. He found the traditional ‘tennis whites’, which comprised long-sleeved button-down shirts, long trousers and a tie, very restrictive. It was a lot of clothing to be wearing when racing to the net to reach for a drop shot or when stretching up for an overhead smash.
In a 1979 article in People magazine, he remembered how he found a solution; “One day I noticed my friend the Marquis of Cholmondeley, wearing his polo shirt on the court, ‘A practical idea,’ I thought to myself.”
It seemed so senible, in fact, that René immediately commissioned an English tailor to whip up a few shirts in both cotton and wool for him. And it was at the U.S. Open in New York City in 1926 that Lacoste made his first appearance in his new shirt. “Soon everyone was wearing them,” he recalled
Coincidentally it was around this same time that Lacoste was to acquire a nickname.
While there is no question over the nickname itself, there is still some debate as to why and how he acquired the particular name. The least polite and indeed the least favoured was that it was a reference to his slightly long and pointy nose. Other say the name came from his athletic dynamism and boldness on court.
However the most oft quoted reason was that it was the result of a bet. The bet was with the captain of the French Davis Cup who wagered him an alligator suitcase on the result of the match in 1927.
Unfortunately Rene lost the match and went back to France empty-handed but with the tale of the “alligator” proceeding him. “Alligator” somehow became “crocodile” whilst he was back in France.
Whatever the source of the nickname, Lacoste embraced his new moniker and when his friend, Robert George, sketched a crocodile for him, he had it embroidered onto all of his shirts. It became his personal brand… before he had the products to go with it.
That however was to change once he retired from tennis in the early 1930s. He set up a company called La Chemise Lacoste in 1933 with another friend, André Gillier, who had been president of the largest French knitwear company and together they started to produce and sell crocodile-emblazoned shirts.
Lacoste are still making and selling shirts with the distinctive green crocodile on them today, though they are worn for much more than just tennis today.