Rene Lacoste

D. October 12, 1996

Birthplace: France

Awards: Design Award, 1984

Innovation Award, 1988

Global Recognition Trophy by the American Cotton Institute, 1995 Meryl Award in Sportswear, 1997

After seeing what tennis players wear today, it is hard to believe they once wore button-down shirts and white flannel pants. One tennis player with a knack for innovation transformed the clothing of the sport as well as men's sportswear. Rene Lacoste had a notable tennis career. As the number-one ranked player in the world in 1926 and 1927, he won three French Opens, two Wimbledons, and two U.S. Opens. His tenacious playing style earned him the nickname "Le Crocodile." His drive for success on the courts developed into a passion to refine and improve the sport.

Teaming up with the owner of France's largest knitwear company, Andre Gillier, Lacoste established a clothing manufacturing company in 1933. The company produced Lacoste's design for a tennis shirt with a crocodile logo. Radically different from the typical starched, long-sleeved tennis shirt, La-coste's design was far more functional. It was crafted from a lightweight, knit fabric, which was cooler and allowed more freedom of movement. The shirt featured other innovations such as short sleeves, a ribbed collar, and longer shirttails. These many advantages made it one of the first pieces of performance sportswear. The crocodile emblem over the left breast made it the first sportswear with the logo on the outside of the garment.

Lacoste's popularity propelled the early sales of the shirt. During World War II the company halted production, but by the early 1950s, it had begun exporting to Italy and the United States. David Crystal, Inc., imported the shirts in the United States and sold them under the Jack Izod label. During the next decade, Lacoste's shirt remained a specialty product. Its $8 price tag, expensive for a sport shirt at the time, limited the number of retailers willing to sell the product. By the early 1970s, only Bloomingdale's, Brooks Brothers, and pro shops were carrying the line in the United States. This exclusivity lent to the shirt's reputation and prestige.

The shirt achieved its ultimate popularity during the preppy look of the 1970s. General Mills acquired the U.S. manufacturing license in 1970, and by the 1980s it began manufacturing the shirts in the Far East to increase profits. Also, it began making the shirts from a synthetic fabric instead of the traditional cotton. These changes eroded brand loyalty.

Other marketing decisions impacted Lacoste's reputation as well. Between 1978 and 1990, the company signed manufacturing and distribution licenses in more than seven countries including Brazil, Thailand, and Mexico. This move reduced the company's control of product quality. During the same period, dozens of other companies, including Ralph Lauren, Sears, Roebuck and Company, and L.L. Bean, began producing their own versions of the shirt. By the early 1990s, the Lacoste brand was being sold in discount stores, and it had lost its prestige.

During the 1990s, the company worked to rebuild its reputation. In 1992 Lacoste regained control of its U.S., Canadian, and Caribbean licenses and consolidated them under Denvanlay. This allowed the company to ensure production of quality products. Also, it revised its marketing plan, using trunk shows, runway shows, and advertisements in fashion magazines to reestablish its reputation of prestige and exclusivity. By 1997 retailers such as Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Saks, and golf pro shops were carrying the product again.

As the company evolved, so did its products. After World War II it added a women's line, and in 1959 it offered a range for children. In 1951 the company began to produce the shirt in a variety of colors in addition to its standard white. The company added track suits in 1966, sport bags in 1981, and athletic and deck shoes starting in 1985. Rene Lacoste's other tennis innovations such as string dampers and the first steel racket led to the 1989 partnership of Dunlop France, Sumitomo Rubber Industries, and Lacoste to develop and distribute technical tennis and golf product lines.

In addition, the company licensed its name to several products. In 1968 it began its long relationship with Jean Patou when it licensed Lacoste Eau de Toilette. Jean Patou also produced the fragrances Land in 1991 and Sport and Booster in 1994. Other licensing agreements include L'AMY for optical frames signed in 1981, Pentland for leisure shoes in 1991, and Roventa-Henex and Vimont for watches in 1993.

Lacoste opened its first boutique in 1981 in Paris. During the 1990s it opened boutiques in Bombay, New Delhi, Madras, Mexico, Morocco, Palm Beach, Russia, and Madison Avenue in New York. In 1996 it unveiled its Internet site. Through Lacoste's nearly seventy-year history, it has evolved from one man's attempt to improve tennis, to a status symbol during the age of conspicuous consumption, to an overexposed and over-licensed logo in the late 1980s. Finally it has been reborn as a status symbol. See also: Ralph Lauren; Sears Roebuck and Company. Website: http://www.lacoste.fr

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100 Fashion Tips

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