French tennis player René Lacoste (1904–1996) revolutionized modern-day sportswear by winning major tournaments in the 1920s clad in his signature short-sleeved polo shirt. A seven-time Grand Slam winner, Lacoste had a tenacious playing style that invited comparisons to the alligator. A small embroidered badge of that reptile became the logo for the enormously successful apparel company he founded after retiring from the sport in 1929. “I cannot explain it,” Lacoste commented with Gallic aplomb in a 1967 interview with Jack Olsen for Sports Illustrated magazine. “It just caught on. People wanted to wear that little alligator.”
Born Jean René Lacoste on July 2, 1904, in Paris, Lacoste's growth was stunted by a series of childhood illnesses. By adolescence, his health had improved considerably, however, and he began playing tennis at age 15 while visiting England with his businessman father. The elder Lacoste had been a top rower in his youth and had even placed in the 1890 French national sculling championships. Lacoste later recalled that, although his father viewed tennis with some skepticism, he agreed to support his son's attempt to master the game for an agreed-upon five-year period.
Tennis was an ideal fit for Lacoste's athletic prowess and keenly focused intellect. He practiced for hours but also devoted equal time to the study of the game itself, taking copious notes about each win and loss, his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and observations gleaned from watching the sport's most celebrated players. Foremost among them was Bill Tilden, a decade Lacoste's senior and in 1920 the first American to win the men's singles title at Wimbledon; he then played at the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club near London.
Lacoste made his Wimbledon debut in June of 1922 but was ousted early in competition by Australian player Pat O'Hara-Wood. Later that year, however, he vanquished a fellow French upstart at the Coupe de Noël, a December event held in Paris. The loser of that match, Jean Borotra, would become one of the decade's fabled “Four Musketeers” of French tennis, along with Lacoste, Jacques Brugnon, and Henri Cochet. With the collective name inspired by a recent Hollywood film, The Three Musketeers—itself based on the beloved 19th-century novel by Alexandre Dumas—the four Frenchmen quickly dominated men's tennis during the mid-1920s and often raced one another to finals’ titles in Wimbledon and other major tournaments. Like his fellow “Mousquetaires,” Lacoste set new benchmarks for the game, attained historic firsts, and was considered a player of formidable talent and athleticism.
The Wimbledon tournament of 1924 was the contest that turned Lacoste and fellow Mousquetaire Borotra into overnight celebrities: they advanced all the way to the men's singles finals, where Borotra ultimately prevailed over Lacoste. This match marked the first time in Wimbledon history that two male players from non-English-speaking countries played one another in the finals, and Borotra was the first Frenchman to win the men's singles title at the All-England Club event. The two reprised their showdown a year later, with Lacoste seizing the title from Borotra in what would be his second Grand Slam title; just weeks earlier he won the men's singles title at the French Open. After Wimbledon, Lacoste went on to play Tilden in a storied Davis Cup final that sparked a ferocious rivalry between the U.S. and French teams. Tilden had been the top-ranked men's player for years and Lacoste presented a serious challenge to America's hegemony. “I had studied his game carefully,” Lacoste recalled to Olsen in Sports Illustrated. “I decided that by using a very short swing against him I could return the ball with his own spin on it. That's all there was to it. I retrieved and hit with the short swing. I did this every time and it annoyed Tilden from the beginning.”
Lacoste won his first U.S. Open title in 1926, becoming the first European-origin player since 1903 to capture the men's singles prize purse at the Forest Hills, New York, court. That same year he began wearing custom-made cotton piquépolo-styled shirts at his tournament appearances. He did not invent the polo shirt, which was an open-necked, flat-collared man's shirt with a three-button placket opening. U.S. retailer Brooks Brothers made a similar shirt, and both were based on those originally worn by polo players in the subtropical climate of British colonial India. Lacoste later revealed that it was his friend the Marquess of Cholmondeley, an avid polo and tennis player, who inspired him to ask his tailor to stitch up a few custom-made shirts, which were plain white and logoless. For pre- and post-match appearances, the tennis star favored another custom item: a dark blazer with an embroidered alligator badge sewn over one of its pockets. The emblem's origins were twofold: Lacoste earned the nickname “The Alligator” after once making abet with a Davis Cup teammate over a set of luxurious alligator-skin luggage. Sportswriters of the day called him “The Crocodile” because his style of play resembled that of the tenacious reptile, which can lie in wait for hours, quickly pounce on larger and faster prey, and clamp its jaw into a lock, ensuring that its victims either asphyxiate or bleed to death.
Lacoste was in prime form during the 1927 tennis season. He won the men's singles title at both the French Open and the U.S. Open while also playing a pivotal Mousquetaire role in securing France's first-ever Davis Cup victory that September. This latter triumph was so exciting for French racquet-sport fans that a new stadium was built near Paris in time for the 1928 showdown between the U.S. men, who up until now had dominated Davis Cup play, and the superb French newcomers. Named Stade Roland Garros in honor of a fabled World War I aviator, the venue would become the regular host court for the French Open. Its inaugural event, however, was the successful Davis Cup defense, in late July of 1928, that was mounted by Lacoste, Borotra, and Cochet. Lacoste beat the legendary Tilden for the final 4-1 win, marking a French victory over the U.S. national team.
Lacoste took his second Wimbledon title in 1928, rallying against Cochet in the final match. His seventh and final Grand Slam win came at the 1929 French Open, after which he retired from the sport. In June of 1930 he married top-ranked golfer Simone Thion de la Chaume, whom he had met on the return transatlantic voyage after the jubilant 1927 Davis Cup win in Pennsylvania. His father was president of Spanish luxury automaker Hispano-Suiza and Lacoste joined the business, setting up an arrangement with U.S. automotive-manufacturing supplier Bendix to produce engine parts and aviation equipment for the European market.
The Lacoste alligator shirt morphed into the Izod Lacoste line of apparel after the company entered into a licensing arrangement with New York City–based manufacturer David Crystal Inc., which produced a sportswear line created by designer Jack Izod. In the 1950s and early ’60s several celebrities were photographed wearing the Izod Lacoste polo shirt, among them jazz singer Mel Torme, who wore a spiffy dark-blue version for a 1956 album cover, and ex-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sported one during a 1966 birthday visit with champion golfer Arnold Palmer. The Izod Lacoste shirt became a sports-fashion standard after 7th Avenue manufacturer David Crystal was sold to conglomerate General Mills in the late 1960s. The designs were updated, and sales of men's, women's, and children's signature-alligator shirts skyrocketed during the late 1970s, boosted in part by the availability of a rainbow array of colors. A 1980 New York Times article rated the Izod Lacoste-brand shirt as the top-selling men's apparel item in the United States that year. An array of competitors rushed in with their own versions of the logo shirt, among them U.S. designer Ralph Lauren, whose miniature polo-player emblem was the only one to approach the success of the Izod Lacoste polo.
A gifted visionary throughout his life, Lacoste developed a hand-cranked tennis-ball-lobbing machine and demonstrated it in front of newsreel cameras in 1925. He continued to be an avid tennis player after his retirement from professional sports, and he perfected a new stringing method for the durable, lightweight steel alloy racquets that eventually replaced wooden tennis racquets. With de la Chaume, he raised three sons and a daughter, Catherine de Prado, who under her birth name had a successful career in golf and won the 1967 U.S. Women's Open. His son Bernard took over the Izod Lacoste apparel business in 1964. Although the company ceased manufacturing the iconic shirt after widespread counterfeit versions diluted its cachet, it reinvented itself as a French luxury-fashion and accessories purveyor during the 1990s.
Lacoste spent his final years in one of the most scenic corners of the European continent: Saint-Jean-de-Luz, in France's Pyrénées-Atlantiques region. Wedged between the Pyrénées mountains and the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border, Saint-Jean-de-Luz was also home to the Chantaco Golf Club, founded by de la Chaume's father in the 1920s. Lacoste died there on October 12, 1996, at age 92.
Baltzell, E. Digby, Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar, The Free Press (New York, NY), 1995.
New York Times, June 13, 1980, p. D1.
New York Times Magazine, July 7, 2015.
People, October 15, 1979.
Sports Illustrated, December 18, 1967, Jack Olsen, “The Dynasty Lacoste.”
Times (London, England), October 14, 1996.❑