Cover Story: Sporting Revolution

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 7, 2017 - August 13, 2017.

Thierry Guibert (left) in Monte Carlo where tennis star Novak Djokovic (right) was unveiled as the new Lacoste brand ambassador

Showcasing the Lacoste collection for Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo

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CEO Thierry Guibert outlines what the future holds for Lacoste as a classic emblem of Frenchness, sport and elegance. Tan Siok Hoon reports from paris.

 

On a quintessential summer’s day replete with cornflower-blue skies and pristine puffs of clouds, long queues are seen snaking towards Stade Roland Garros. The intimidation of ultra-tight security checks to access the stadium — an everyday reality in a city embroiled in an extended state of emergency — does not seem to deter the hordes of spectators despite the underlying sense of peril. It seems tennis fans, galvanised by enthusiasm to catch an outstanding assemblage of world-class sport action, are determined to make their way into the inner sanctum of the Parisian sporting venue.

Torrential downpours had halted play the day before causing two quarter-final matches to be moved to the day’s line-up. Eight of the world’s top men players (sans Roger Federer) and the top two women players are headlining matches in a single day. Tennis rivals football as the national game of France and the immense popularity of the sport has seen the two-week French Open at Roland Garros attract an average of 428,000 visitors annually since 2010.

Power of heritage

Being in the City of Lights for a first-hand experience of Roland Garros, courtesy of Lacoste — an official sponsor of the world’s premier clay court tennis championship since 1971 — also makes for an opportune moment to speak with CEO Thierry Guibert. Dressed in a monochromatic off-duty ensemble — a light grey polo shirt and zip-front cardigan paired with fitted black trousers — the Lacoste head emanates a cool, insouciant air more akin to a creative personality than a corporate figure.

“It’s not easy to sum up 85 years,” Guibert says of Lacoste. “We have evolved but retained the DNA of a trans-generational brand from the beginning — a commitment to the values of fair play and tenacity built upon two pillars: sport and elegance. At the end of the day, the brand has remained very strong by staying close to what Mr René Lacoste originally developed in 1933.”

To tennis and sport buffs, the name René Lacoste is certainly a familiar one. A French sporting legend who won 10 Gram Slam titles between 1925 and 1929 and invented a slew of tennis paraphernalia — the tennis ball machine (1928), steel tennis racket (1963), anti-vibration dampener for the tennis racket (1964) and vibration-

absorbing damper located in the racket handle (1971) — Lacoste’s fame inevitably culminates as the inventor of the polo shirt.

Inspired by polo players in London, he designed a short-sleeved shirt to allow for greater freedom of movement and to liberate himself from restrictive long-sleeved button-up shirts tennis players used to wear to play the game. After appearing in the shirt at the US Open in 1926 (which he won), Lacoste unwittingly became an on-court trendsetter for a sartorial style infused with distinctive functional elegance.

Nicknamed the “Alligator” in 1923 by a journalist who heard of a bet (on Lacoste) over an alligator skin suitcase and also for his tenacious approach, the tennis great asked his friend, Robert George, to design him a crocodile symbol, which he then sported as an embroidered crocodile logo on his blazer in 1926. After winning his last match at Roland Garros in 1929, and subsequent to his retirement from professional tennis, Lacoste conceived the L.12.12 polo shirt featuring the crocodile logo in 1933, in collaboration with the then largest French knitwear manufacturer helmed by entrepreneur André Gillier. From the first advertising campaign to launch the polo shirt in 1933, a sportswear revolution was born, changing the entire sport and clothing industry forever.

Over the next few decades, the Lacoste universe expanded to include many iconic products like a colour range for the petit piqué polo shirt in 1951, a light and resilient tennis shoe in 1958, a children’s wear collection in 1959, fragrance in 1968 and leather goods or the first bag range in 1969. The 1980s and 1990s saw the French brand evolve to incorporate a more comprehensive lifestyle profile encapsulated by the cornerstones of innovation, performance and elegance in products like tennis shoes, footwear, eyewear and timepieces as well as sport equipment — the patented vibration-absorbing polyurethane golf club or driver (1980) and the Equijet tennis racket (1988).

Incidentally, René Lacoste married 13-time French golf champion Simone Thion de la Chaume in 1928, thus a golfing element also forms part of the brand’s sporting legacy. The rise of the Lacoste name in the cultural landscape hit its high-water mark in the 1980s when the classic crocodile-adorned polo shirt became a stalwart of the preppy upper-class wardrobe.

Positioned for success

“The positioning of the brand is unique because it is a mix between a casual brand and a sport brand,” Guibert says. “There is no other brand in the world with this positioning. It is where we will be heading to in the future because consumers are increasingly looking for an elegant and comfortable product that can be worn every day.”

Starting out in his career at KPMG, Guibert then joined the Kering group (formerly PPR), where he steadily rose through the ranks. Initially dealing with mergers and acquisitions in the conglomerate’s luxury division as it amassed the fashion brands of Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, he then moved to its retail arm as group chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Fnac and subsequently, as chairman and CEO of furniture-based Conforama, before landing the top job at Lacoste as CEO and president of the management board.

Having spent most of his two-decade career in diverse businesses, his working experience — managing design and merchandising teams at fashion companies and driving mass market and retail companies dealing with lower-margin consumer and technical products like books, television sets and furniture — equips him with a versatile skill set to fortify Lacoste’s business and design strategy and operations for its next phase.

Confessing to be a sport enthusiast who enjoys running and tennis, Guibert has a natural affinity with the sporting heritage of Lacoste. After his appointment, he directed the team back to the two pillars of sport elegance and Frenchness, and to leverage the brand’s specific savoir faire after strong attempts were made to project Lacoste onto the fashion stage in the preceding years. “It had became unclear what the brand could bring to consumers, so we worked to reinstate and reinforce its two original pillars,” Guibert says.

As he sets out to clarify the brand pillars in marketing campaigns, Guibert is also focused on enlarging the product categories of Lacoste. “I was convinced that the perception of Lacoste as a polo brand had to change. It should be seen as a lifestyle brand with a large eco-system beyond the polo shirt offering a large palette of products, including footwear, leather goods, underwear and eyewear. It is important to build Lacoste as a global brand beyond just a polo brand.”

The new crocodile

Meanwhile, the sartorial scene at Roland Garros offers plenty of visual cues to be distilled from the pillars of Lacoste’s DNA, both on and off court. Unveiled as the new Lacoste brand ambassador under a five-year contract on May 22 in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic’s embodiment as the “New Crocodile” is a pitch-perfect one for the brand.

In focusing the spotlight back onto sport elegance à la Lacoste, Guibert has much to say in praise of the Serbian tennis star and 12-time Grand Slam champion. “For an ambassador, we look for three things: performance, values and good looks. Nole (Djokovic’s nickname) represents these three things,” he says.

“He is a great champion yet has humility and proximity for a top tennis player. He is never arrogant with his fans and always makes himself available to people. He is a handsome guy and so the brand is well-represented with him. The fit is quite perfect between the brand and Nole and we are very happy with him.”

The variety of projects Lacoste has on the drawing board with Djokovic include a co-branded line that is created with Djokovic’s input and various appearances at global events. A vital factor that binds Djokovic with Lacoste is the area of philanthropy, Guibert enthuses.

“We have an interesting partnership between the Novak Djokovic Foundation, with its mission to secure quality preschool education for children in Serbia, and The Lacoste Foundation, which develops programmes and supports non-profit organisations that help youth find their path through sport, primarily tennis and golf. Hence, the partnership between us is a global one that involves many things like products, marketing, values and foundations.”

Seen as a role model in the arena of global sport, Djokovic is Unicef’s ambassador for Serbia and founder of the Novak Djokovic Foundation (formerly Novak Fund). He launched the charitable organisation with the aim of giving young children a better future having grown up in the previously war-torn country where the aftermath of the conflict continues to take a toll.

Significantly, Lacoste’s first marketing campaign with Djokovic delves straight into the brand’s heritage and roots in tennis. The debut Novak Djokovic collection, launched during the 2017 French Open, has emerged as a bestseller. It is eye-catching with a classic, minimalist aesthetic and is underscored by materials to optimise quality, performance and comfort. What resonates most about the advertising campaign is perhaps the Julien Pujol-directed clip — where founder René Lacoste enjoys equal billing alongside the former world No 1, hailed now as the “New Crocodile” — of black-and-white footage juxtaposing 1930s Lacoste with present-day Djokovic in the evolution of the L.12.12 polo shirt.

Guibert explains, “Our heritage is René Lacoste, who developed the polo because he was looking for a product comfortable for him to wear on court to play tennis. We have the same philosophy today to create a design that is elegant and finished with technical aspects for a great champ like Nole to play in. Heritage must always be part of a brand like ours, catering for the consumer who appreciates not just a well-designed product but also one with heritage and values behind it.”

Though Lacoste also has golf in its blood, tennis is the priority as it is a more accessible sport and better known in most countries, except the US and Asia, where golf has greater cachet. As such, the brand’s connection with Roland Garros is a long-standing one. It is uncanny that founder René Lacoste won his first and last Grand Slam at the French Open, and so Guibert extols the common history and destiny between the two brands, saying the relationship offers great opportunity for future development.

“Roland Garros and Wimbledon are not only tournaments but also heritage events and a tradition,” he explains. “The tradition of Roland Garros steers what the players wear, which inspires how we develop our annual Roland Garros collections as official partner. Lacoste players are comparatively more elegant, mirroring the heritage of the brand. If we succeed in keeping this point of difference, I think we’ll be all right.”

A renewed culture

To ensure Lacoste maintains its prime position among the world’s foremost clothing brands, Guibert has devised a strategy to rationalise the business of Lacoste in order for it to grow. In the last 30 to 40 years, the company entered into a number of licensing agreements in various countries to develop the brand, but since coming onboard, Guibert’s objective is to retract these licences over time. “It is very important to have control over distribution to ascertain the products are distributed in the right areas and right stores with qualitative measures for environment, pricing and so on,” he explains.

“What we’ve done now for some years is to consolidate the distribution network and reduce the scale of off-price retailing within the brand (usually at outlets and department stores) to ensure the majority of the brand is sold on a full-price basis with customary and routine end-of-season discounts. This is very important to protect the brand and preserve its premium status for the future,” he says, cautioning against the rampant discounting that is affecting some retail brands, especially in the US, today.

Coming across as casual yet direct and straightforward in his demeanour throughout the interview, Guibert reveals his management style is one that is based on trust. “I like to trust people. When you are working for a company, you need to have passion, transparency and fair play with behaviour that is honest. My style is to be very close to my team. I like to go inside the store, discuss with my team and feel what it is like on the retail floor to gauge customer dynamics at the store. It is key to be quick and agile with constant communication and a very direct style of management for me.

“The main thing I have tried to do since I joined Lacoste is to build a new team and new culture of humility and commitment. It is very important to grow fast and to grow far with the brand, so this is what we have done.”

With these solid values in place, the brand symbolised by the crocodile will continue to rock for a long time to come.

 

Things to know about the L.12.12 polo shirt

A symbol of casual elegance, the L.12.12 revolutionised the sportswear industry when it first appeared. Today, the iconic piece of clothing has become a chic, timeless essential and enjoys constant renewal by Lacoste. Find out what accounts for the many points of difference between a Lacoste L.12.12 and the ubiquity of the generic polo shirt seen in everyday clothing.

• The first cotton polo shirt was invented and worn by the legendary French tennis player René Lacoste. The revolutionary Lacoste L.12.12 polo shirt was conceived by René Lacoste and André Gillier in 1933 with its first advertising campaign launched that same year.

• The L.12.12 is a short-sleeved shirt in a new breathable fabric called petit piqué jersey and features the crocodile logo. It went into production in 1933.

• The unique, thicker polo collar, which can be upturned to protect the neck from the sun during play, was patented by René Lacoste in 1961.

• Decoding the L.12.12: L stands for Lacoste; 1 for the unique fabric — cotton petit piqué — 2 for the short-sleeved version; and 12 for the number of the version finally selected by René Lacoste.

• It takes 20 to 25km of pure cotton yarn and 25 control operations to create a single L.12.12 polo shirt.

• There are 1,400 embroidery points for each crocodile logo on the L.12.12 polo shirt.

• The L.12.12 is available in 40 colours, enriched every season with numerous new shades. It comes in classic, regular and slim fits for men, and classic and slim fits and slim fit chemise for women.

• The L.12.12 has been reinvented and redesigned countless times by renowned designers and personalities — including Jean-Paul Goude, Maison Lesage, Karl Lagerfeld and the Campana brothers.

• Now designed at the Lacoste studio in Paris, the L.12.12 has been manufactured in its historical workshops for almost 85 years in Troyes, the French capital of textile. It is manufactured using unique French savoir faire that includes a revolutionary knitting technique, the art of dyeing and meticulous handcrafting.