We recently launched our Surfside Pique Polo which, like anyone, got us thinking about pique, polos, and the history of them both. While a lot of what's in this article might feel like a history lesson (an interesting one, we think) we also made sure to sit down with our founder, John O’Donnell, to chat through the pageantry of this stylish shirt and why we designed it.
John grew up wearing what he and his family referred to as, “the alligator shirt”, or as everyone else knew it as, the Lacoste Polo. While he and his brothers usually rocked a crisp shirt because they were constantly growing out of them, he remembers always looking at his dad's alligator shirts and admiring the worn and weathered look - wanting his to look like that someday.
John's parents, Julie and Bill. Notice Bill rocking his alligator shirt.
So, let’s start with “pique” - if you’re a golfer, a tennis player, or just a guy with a sense of style - chances are you’ve heard this word before. But what does it mean and why is it important?
Really, it’s simple. Pique is a fabric used in garments knitted with a waffle style weave making it durable, flexible, and breathable.
Which brings us back to golf and tennis and why it’s one of the more popular fabrics used by brands making a polo shirt.
From 19th Century India to the 1930’s when Jean Rene Lacoste reimagined the tennis “all-whites” uniform all the way to 1972 when Ralph Lauren coined “the polo” shirt we know and love, we’ve broken down a timeline of how we got here…
19th Century, Manipur India
- British colonial soldiers were inspired both by a game played by locals and the striped, hip-length, thick, round-neck jerseys worn by Indian aristocrats
- In 1871, the game and a version of this uniform were brought back to the UK, taking storm in the world of the royals and upper class
Late 1800’s, UK
- John E. Brooks, the grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, founder of Brooks Brothers Company, noticed both the players’ collars flopping around during play or that they had either manually pinned down their collars or had buttons sewn in to manage the collar, sparking an idea
- In 1896, Brooks Brothers brought “The Original Button Down Polo Shirt” to market in the United States, which added buttons to the classic collared shirt
- Professional tennis player, Jean Rene Lacoste, went rogue on the traditional tennis uniform of trousers, long sleeve button down shirts, a sweater and even a tie (can we blame him) and replaces it with a pique fabric polo shirt, this time with short sleeves, a half placket, an unstarched ribbed collar to flip up and protect his neck from the sun, and a back tail to stay tucked in, for better mobility
- On this short sleeve polo worn by Lacoste was a crocodile embroidered on the chest, representative of the nickname fans had coined, for his persistence on the court
- * though there are other stories that it was due to his admiration for a crocodile suitcase he saw in a store window, and his Davis Cup captain promised if he won a match he would buy it for him
- By the early 1930’s, Lacoste’s popularity on the court - lead by both his style and performance - encouraged French manufacturer Andre Gillier to come to him with an idea… bring this polo shirt to market and add the “crocodile” to the chest
- In 1933, Lacoste was founded
1950’s, United States
- Izod partners with Lacoste, bringing the classic crocodile short sleeve polo shirt to the US
- By this time, golfers had also picked up the polo shirt as their new uniform
- In the 1960’s, Izod replaced the classic knitted pique cotton with polyester to avoid fading and wear & tear
1972, United States
- Up and coming fashion guru Ralph Lauren brings the classic pique fabric back to the polo shirt for the exact reason that Izod got rid of it - it’s nature of aging and giving the worn in look that is synonymous with much of the Ralph Lauren style we see today, or as he said “it gets better with age”
- The Polo logo was embroidered on the shirt giving way to the Polo shirt we all know today
Now, for the important part…
21st Century, Santa Monica
- John and the design team at johnnie-O spend 4+ years of living in different fabrics, figuring out how to get that perfect, pre-worn look he’d admired from his dads “alligator shirts” as a kid to create your new favorite shirt - The Surfside Pique Polo
- This time, we brought in an upgraded collar, a hint of spandex for some added stretch and because of the way pique falls and the shape of the shirt, it helps to hide those love handles you might not be so proud of (cue the dad bod). This shirt covers 200 years of history, in one incredible design