René Lacoste
René Lacoste at a tournament in London © Getty

As the end of the summer tennis season looms with the US Open later this month, and executives prepare for their August holidays, a man’s thoughts turn to the garment that links the two: René Lacoste’s polo shirt, the top that not only revolutionised tennis attire but became one of the foundations of the modern male wardrobe.

A perennial inventor, Lacoste patented new forms of tennis balls right up until the day he died in 1996. Back in 1933, he came up with a loose, soft-collared shirt for players made out of a piqué cotton, with a long tail that stayed tucked into the trousers. Today the polo shirt is enjoying something of a renaissance. However, these are not the polos of Lacoste’s time, which tended to be loose and baggy (the better to hit a tennis ball in). Rather, these are Polo 2.0, with a slimmer and smarter aesthetic.

John Smedley is modernising its traditional knit version; Trussardi and Canali are presenting the polo shirt as a summer staple (Trussardi); Ralph Lauren has re­launched its ubiquitous model; Brunello Cucinelli has slim-fitting polos that would dress up most men on dress-down Friday; and Topman has a new Lux line that includes slim knitted polo shirts.

And Lacoste itself has created a range of polos to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its founder’s invention, in white and navy with subtle detailing, along with 12 limited-edition shirts available live on Facebook on the first of every month.

“My wife never liked polo shirts, she always thought they were too shapeless,” says James Bronowski, a PR executive working in Mayfair. “But I bought two from Orlebar Brown last year to take on my honeymoon, and their smarter look made them perfect for the beach and the bar afterwards.”

Trussardi spring/ summer ’13
Trussardi spring/ summer ’13 © Catwalking

Adam Brown, founder of Orlebar Brown, comments: “Our first move was to smarten up men’s swimming shorts; more recently we’ve moved on to polo shirts.” The slimmer fit and lack of a long tail are the most obvious updates. But more important are the subtle improvements such as a two-piece collar – with the same construction as a dress shirt – which gives the polo a more formal look.

Some brands have gone further, exploring a knitted alternative to the polo’s traditional woven cotton fabric. In its spring/summer 2013 ranges, Trussardi is offering knitted polos in brown and mustard (£338) while Canali’s best is in steel grey (£270). The advantage of a knitted, fine-gauge polo, as opposed to cotton, is that it can hold its shape and incorporate formal tailoring elements, such as backward-sloping shoulder seams.

The material is what differentiates polo shirts from T-shirts; John Smedley, the company that pioneered knitted polos back in the 1930s, still sells one of its original models, Isis, which has the floppy, loose-fitting characteristics of the time. This season Smedley has also launched a new model, Adrian (£115), with a much neater fit, that has already become one of their bestsellers.

“I’ve always worn Smedley’s long-sleeved polo shirts, such as the Dorset, as the step-down from a shirt and jacket,” says Ali Jawad, a magazine publisher in London. “The summer cotton versions are just as smart – more like knitwear than sportswear.”


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