When Beryl Lacoste Hamilton was a rising tennis player, she had an unusual advantage: personal, detailed critiques from her legendary grandfather, René Lacoste.
“He would watch me play and send me long letters [after matches] about the need to improve on this shot or the need to practice,” recalled Hamilton. “You didn’t just practice [hitting] balls with a friend. Everything was done with a purpose.”
It was the elder Lacoste’s same work ethic, coupled with his passion for the game, that turned his business from a simple shirt he’d give away to friends into a global brand that ranges from footwear and fragrance to polos and leather goods. “He was a savvy businessman, hard worker — meticulous and precise,” Hamilton said about her grandfather’s diverse interests, which also included engineering and product design. “He was someone who always tried to make the world a better place.”
For her part, Hamilton is also giving back — she works as president of the Lacoste Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sports as a way to help at-risk youth. Here, Hamilton serves up seven little known family stories.
1. René Lacoste met his wife golf champion Simone de la Chaume, while each was on tour in the U.S. “She had come to see him play, then [happened to] travel back to France by boat with him,” said Hamilton. The encounter led to marriage in 1930 and children, all of whom also became golfers. Their daughter Catherine is the only amateur to have ever won the U.S. Women’s Open, in 1967.
2. The Lacostes were committed to supporting up-and-coming athletes, opening their private golf club in France, Chantaco, to locals and caddies unable to afford membership. “Caddies were allowed to play off-hours, which was unheard of,” said Hamilton. “If my grandfather saw potential in one of them, he made sure they had the funds to play tournaments and had proper clubs and shoes. A whole generation of French champions comes from Chantaco.”
3. Lacoste’s mind was never at rest, recalled Hamilton. “He had a purpose in life and sometimes [seemed] to be on another planet,” she said. However, he came down to earth in order to enjoy simple pleasures. “He liked a good glass of wine and had a fun sense of humor.” In fact, when a reporter asked Lacoste about colorful tennis apparel, Hamilton said he replied, “I don’t like it but would take advantage and [wear] green on a grass court and ochre on clay to confuse my adversary.”
4. Improving a tennis player’s performance was an ongoing mission for Lacoste. “When he was young and starting out, he carved his own [wood] racket so he could have a better grip,” said Hamilton. Lacoste’s innovations also included the design of a tubular steel racket in 1961, eventually used by Jimmy Connors and Billie Jean King. “[My grandfather] was close to Jimmy,” said Hamilton. “He was well-respected, and people wanted to listen to what he had to say.”
5. The creation of the crocodile logo shirt was more about function than fashion. Having experienced the humid summers of the U.S. East Coast, Lacoste was challenged to find more comfortable tennis wear. In the mid-1920s, inspired by polo players in London, he adopted the short sleeved shirt. Working with a French textile manufacturer, he developed a knit version, launching it in 1933.
6. The iconic logo was inspired in part by Lacoste’s nickname, the crocodile, given to him by an American journalist. The reporter had heard the story about Lacoste betting with his coach over an alligator skin suitcase if he won the 1932 Davis Cup. Although he lost, Lacoste had a crocodile logo [alligator was translated into crocodile in French] embroidered on blazers he later wore to matches. “We got him a version of [the suitcase] for the 70th anniversary of the company,” said Hamilton.
7. Lacoste wasn’t certain about the success of his shirt business. In the early 1960s, he even tried discouraging his son Bernard, Beryl’s father, from leaving his job at General Motors to join the company. “It was a small business at the time, [producing] only a few hundred thousand shirts,” said Hamilton. “He said, ‘You know, Bernard, you have two young daughters [to support]. You should be careful. I don’t think the business will succeed.”
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