Winding through the grounds of Roland Garros you’ll never stray far from a crocodile logo. The French know well the story behind the animal—a brand created by legendary French tennis star Rene Lacoste. But the Paris-based company wanted to expand the reach of the crocodile far beyond France and recently signed Novak Djokovic to an apparel contract, touting the Serbian as the next crocodile.
The 2017 French Open was the debut Grand Slam of Djokovic wearing the famed polo of Lacoste. The path, though, to Djokobic started nearly 85 years ago when Lacoste himself invented the polo.
Part of the famed French Four Musketeers that won the Davis Cup in 1926 and spurred on construction of Roland Garros in order to host the team in subsequent defenses of the title, Lacoste, the player, also won the French Open in 1929. But it was Lacoste the inventor that has lived on.
Inspired by polo players and their love of the short-sleeve shirt design, Lacoste partnered with Andre Gillier to give birth to the Lacoste polo in 1933, emblazoned with the crocodile logo that Rene wore for the first time on a blazer in 1926 after a Boston journalist bestowed the nickname. Dubbed the Lacoste L.12.12 Polo—the L for Lacoste, the first 1 for it being the first, the first 2 for the factory code for short-sleeves and the second 12 for the final prototype chosen—the shirt was made with a breathable, lightweight cotton blend that allowed for lightweight movement, a novel concept in sports in the 1930s.
Joëlle Grünberg, president and CEO Lacoste North America, tells Tennis that the timing was right to now call Djokovic the new crocodile. “It’s very rare that one of the top tennis players in the world would be available, since they are usually locked into very long contracts,” she says. “Djokovic is also fully committed to our brand values and tenacity, elegance and fair play.”
With the original polo handmade in Gillier’s Troyes, France, factory—Lacoste still hand makes polo shirts in the same factory, but also uses the factory to knit and dye all fabric for every polo creation, whether in Troyes or one of its other five factories in France.
As the interest in sport design grew over the decades, technology started to match and in 1951 Lacoste infused the polo with color for the first time. It wasn’t until 1961 that Rene patented his collar, one with enough thickness so it would stay upturned to protect the neck from sun.
Rene didn’t stop with the polo. He also was the first with a steel racket, the first to develop the anti-vibration dampener and the mastermind behind the first ball machine. But of all products, it was the polo and the ensuing lines of fashion that remained steadfast for Lacoste.
Apparel started to expand in 1969 with a cardigan, a polo dress and the addition of leather goods. By 1981, Lacoste had opened a boutique in Paris and added licensed goods, such as sunglasses and fragrances.
The history of Lacoste’s “authentic sports heritage” combines with the fact that the polo has evolved into a staple of men’s everyday wardrobes, Grünberg says, giving Lacoste a unique sports-fashion position. “Today our sport collection has developed and includes more technical and performance fabrics and details, but our sports DNA still inspires all of our collections,” she says.
With all the growth of the brand, the crocodile logo underwent its first update in 2002. The cotton textile—a longer cotton thread than an average fabric—created by Lacoste for the polo, includes finely woven mesh, requiring a three-step manufacturing process. First, the pique fabric requires weaving. Lacoste claims the cotton fiber used to make the polo comes in as one of the most flexible and resistant in the world. The threads weave together—it requires 25 kilometers of thread for one polo—to create thousands of small cells in the fabric.
Once color was introduced in 1951, Lacoste hasn’t looked back, now with over 40 different shades available and a light pink “princess” coming to the brand as the flagship summer 2018 color. The dyes require a nine-hour mixing process in Troyes. The polo’s final color also dictates the amount of dye used in each fabric, with 100 grams of colorant per 1,000 kilos for a light blue, while black needs 10 kilos per 1,000 kilos to ensure it lasts. The differing amounts of dye can change the feel of each polo.
The finishing touch rests in the handcrafting of the shirt, which comes into the factory in three parts—main fabric, bands and collar fabric. Once complete, 27 different people have touched the polo, whether the 1,400 stitches of embroidery needed for the crocodile to the specially designed needle that removes stray thread.
The Djokovic line, which uses performance fabrics for the on-court play, merges the same style of the original L.12.12 polo with the modern fabrics needed for high-performance tennis.
The long-standing tennis heritage of Lacoste has allowed the brand to routinely tie history to on-court performance. The signing of Djokovic brings the story of the crocodile to the forefront. And not just at Roland Garros.
Tim Newcomb covers sneakers for Tennis Magazine and tennis.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.