French heritage brand Lacoste has always had enviable cultural currency. Consider the cotton-piqué polo shirt – emblazoned with the now iconic crocodile motif – with which champion tennis player and founder René Lacoste launched the brand in 1933. Worn first as tennis attire and then as off-duty dress for the elite, the style inspired a coterie of copycats and has since been adopted as a uniform for all walks of life. Lacoste sells a polo shirt every minute around the world. There is, perhaps, no other item of clothing more versatile (jeans, after all, don’t pass muster in members’ clubs).
Such a success story might present a challenge for Lacoste’s new creative director, the British import Louise Trotter, whose first collection has just arrived in stores. On a micro level, how do you find something new to say about such a cult item? And beyond that, how do you then distil your own singular vision, as fashion today demands, in the face of such a broad customer base?
“When I came, I didn’t want the first collection to be bourgeois or ‘street’, ” Trotter says one rainy Paris morning, huddled into a booth at a brasserie not far from the brand’s headquarters in the well-heeled 16th arrondissement. “Now I think it can be all these things because Lacoste is a brand of contrasts. We are a heritage brand, but we’re constantly looking forward. I find harmony in bringing ‘street’ and bourgeois together.”
René himself was an eternally future-facing man. He was a tennis champion who was on the French team that won the Davis Cup in both 1927 and 1928, but he was also an inventor – a term he preferred to designer, and rightly so: he filed more than 30 patents in his lifetime, including the first tennis-ball launcher and a shock-absorbing steel racquet. He filed his last patent – elastic fabric pieces on shirts that improved arm movement – at the age of 93. “The magnitude of his passion, drive, innovation and creativity and the fact that he was still thinking about how to improve the game...” Trotter shakes her head in disbelief.
Struck as she was by the founder, Trotter decided to hold him up as a muse for her debut. “I wanted to think about who René would be today and how he would live his life – what his uniform would be,” she says. Fastidious in every way, René took great pride in his appearance. He favoured dress shirts, polos, pleated tailored trousers (by Lanvin) and flamboyant layers of outerwear owing to a paranoia about ill health. He was renowned for his elegance and grace – sartorially speaking and beyond. “René believed in winning the right way, with style and integrity, and I believe he lived his life with those values,” Trotter says. “They are values I believe in personally.”
As such, Trotter’s collection for autumn/winter 2019 evolved into an elegant, off-duty athletic look, dominated by sporty silhouettes cut in sartorial fabrics and layered with luxurious chunky knits. The clothes – in particular the trench coats, flyaway pleated skirts and enveloping hoodies and parkas – convey a poetic sense of motion. A uniform for busy lives. “The older I get, the more intolerant I am of clothes that don’t perform,” Trotter says of her desire for functionality, dressed today in a knitted Lacoste hoodie and white trainers.
To push things further, she enlisted a military tailor in Paris to cut some of the jackets, to give maximum mobility around the armholes, and worked with Japanese technical wools, which are versatile and don’t wrinkle. There was also, of course, the polo shirt, which she has elegantly oversized with punchy striped knit collars or reimagined as twinsets, and even as a dress. Though Trotter says she is only just getting started. “I haven’t quite said this is my version… I feel the scope of the brand is so big that I can have a more playful approach.”
Chances are the polo will be popular in whatever iteration Trotter conjures up. She has built her career on creating desirable clothes, first at brands such as Calvin Klein and Gap, and most recently at the quietly cultish Joseph, where she was creative director for nine years. Historically, her collections have had the strength and appeal of a uniform – something to return to, season after season – an idea that has long fascinated Trotter, given she spent her youth in Sunderland customising her own school attire. “I was intrigued that you could set yourself apart or belong to something through the way you dress,” she says.
One of Trotter’s key missions at Lacoste is to ramp up accessories and the womenswear side of the business, which is currently smaller than the men’s. It’s fair to say that the girls will probably be influenced by the boys, given how Trotter’s signature has been the translation of menswear into womenswear. Her deftness for tailoring, in particular, can be traced back to her graduate collection at Newcastle Polytechnic. It’s a métier that has served her well. “Tailoring is an incredibly good discipline because it’s about construction and finish and precision,” she says. “It has given me the mental discipline to approach everything in that manner, with that same rigour.” It echoes something Lacoste once said: “One of the benefits of playing tennis, yesterday as today, is that it helps to build and maintain fitness while also forging character, so making it possible to succeed at just about everything.”
Now, a year into her new role, Trotter has begun to feel out her full remit: she is in charge of categories including fashion, children and shoes, and also oversees the brand’s licensing deals for watches and eyewear. This year, on top of her first two runway collections, she has designed the French uniforms for the 2020 Olympics in Japan, to be worn at the opening and closing medal ceremonies, around the Olympic village and at medal givings – a brief she relished. “The Olympics project was really interesting: it’s in July, it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s likely to rain. How do I ensure the garments are breathable and light?” she says. But then she probes further: “Performing as an athlete is also mental, so how can we build things into our clothes that can help them perform at their best?” Her team added small details such as the players’ initials embossed on their trainers. “I hope that is going to encourage them; they can own it,” she says.
In many ways, the crocodile – the logo first designed by Lacoste’s close friend Robert George – carries great meaning with it as well. René wore this proudly during his own matches. Its existence, Trotter says, is not only suggestive of his tenaciousness, but an unexpected playfulness: “He was so elegant, and then he took this identifier and wore it as a statement. There was a kick to the guy.”
So far, Trotter has been having her own fun with the crocodile, returning it to its original, larger scale and adorning her designs with a hand-embroidered version, with unfinished threads trailing off. “I wanted to look at that artisanal quality because in some ways the ‘croc’ has become quite ubiquitous,” she admits. The effect certainly makes you pause and take note of the logo more than before. “The croc is bigger than Lacoste: it’s iconic, like Coca-Cola,” Trotter adds. “It’s recognisable enough to appeal to people on different levels and in different ways, but the meaning behind it – elegance, sport, tenacity, fair play and joy – is what brings everyone together.”