See You Later, Alligator
If you played tennis in the 1920s alongside French superstar René Lacoste, you would have been required to wear “tennis whites” consisting of a white, long-sleeved button-down shirt, long pants, and a tie. That’s a far cry from the radical colors Andre Agassi sported in the ‘80s or Serena Willams’ infamous catsuit at the French Open in 2018. Lacoste won seven Grand Slams, was ranked #1 in the world, and is credited with inventing the automatic tennis ball machine during his tenure, but he also apparently had an eye for fashion.
Lacoste, so the story goes, saw a player wearing a polo-style shirt on the tennis court and immediately commissioned some of his own to be made. In 1926, he wore one as he played in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City. Around the same time, Lacoste’s fans gave him the moniker “The Crocodile.” Some say it was because of his tenacity on the court. Others say it was because of the shape of his nose. Still others insisted it was because he once wagered for an alligator-skin suitcase with the captain of the French Davis Cup team. Whatever the case, he embraced the nickname, had a crocodile embroidered on his tennis blazer, and the rest is branding history.
When he retired in the early ‘30s, Lacoste teamed up with a French knitwear company to create his crocodile-emblazoned polo shirts. With a little help from President Kennedy and Bing Crosby, the shirts’ popularity caught on in the U.S. in the ‘50s. The ‘70s and ‘80s solidified the polo as a necessity for preppy fashion. Although the company does not release its U.S. sales figures, in 2015 Lacoste saw sales rise to 1.95 billion euros ($2.15 billion) overseas and hinted that domestic sales were comparable.
While the Lacoste brand has struggled deciding whether it was an athletic or a luxury brand, one thing’s for certain—its commitment to conservation. Last March, Lacoste ran a limited “Save Our Species” campaign during Paris’ Fashion Week in which they replaced their iconic crocodile with embroidered images of 10 endangered species. Proceeds went to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The 1,775 polos produced corresponded with the remaining population sizes in the wild. Of the species included, the smallest was the Gulf of California porpoise, or Vaquita, of which only 30 remain. Others included the Sumatran tiger (350 remaining), the Burmese Roofed turtle (40 remaining), the Javan rhino (67 remaining), the eastern black crested gibbon (150 remaining), the Kakapo parrot (157 remaining), the California condor (231 remaining), the saola (just discovered in 1992 with 250 remaining), the Northern Sportive lemur (50 remaining), and the Anegada iguana (450 remaining).
The shirts retailed for $185 and sold out almost immediately. Lacoste put up a donation website to continue conservation and education awareness. Be it poaching, deforestation, overfishing, lead poisoning, or pollution, Lacoste has given us an easy way to begin the new year on the right foot, hoof, or fin.
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