Two Sundays ago, at the start of the Paris Haute Couture Week Autumn/Winter 2015, Lacoste teamed up with Lesage to create what has been dubbed “couture polo shirts”. Are they really?
Left: actress/singer/model Emmanuelle Seigner wears ‘Without Style, Playing and Winning is Not Enough’ Lacoste X Lesage polo shirt. Right: model Constance Jablonski in a long-sleeved ‘René Graffiti’ Lacoste X Lesage polo shirt
Lacoste is so associated with tennis and polo shirts that few know it is also the name of a mountain village-commune in the south of France. It is here that one of the country’s most notorious literary mavericks resided for awhile—in a family castle named after the place where it was built. Chateau de Lacoste, destroyed during the French Revolution of 1789, was home to the Marquis de Sade, pornographer-in-residence of the Bastille, where he was later imprisoned for 10 years. Lacoste is where many believed the Marquis began his career of wicked debauchery involving an affair with his wife’s sister and orgies with nuns and teenaged servant girls, not mentioning the collective act associated with pain and shame that is named after him. This genesis may have been forgotten if not for a benefactor who has turned Chateau de Lacoste into a platform for art: Pierre Cardin.
The present-day Lacoste of the piqué cotton polo shirt fame, too, has met a giant of French fashion: the venerable embroidery house of Lesage. When Lacoste pairs with Lesage, you get embroidered or beaded polo shirts. That’s what we thought until reading the initial press reports: “couture polo shirts…” If you thought that sounds implausible, we’re on your side. Does a polo shirt, made in a mass-production factory (even if sewn in the sampling room), becomes a couture garment by virtue of surface embellishment from a couture embroiderer?
Industry bible WWD’s online report was a little more restrained, describing the limited-edition tops in the body text as couture only twice. The French press were ardent in their nationalistic fervour. Both online Paris Vogue and French Elle called the special-release Lacoste tennis wear “les polos couture”. Only Le Monde was more careful in their headline, announcing that Lacoste and Lesage “célèbrent la street-couture”. Most intriguing, however, was Glamour’s standfirst: “Les maisons françaises Lacoste et Lesage associent leurs savoir-faire pour créer huit polos haute couture” or “The French houses Lacoste and Lesage combine their expertise to create eight haute couture polos”.
Couture is already stretching it. Haute?
If the major titles believed what they were told, then maybe these are couture polos. Since we at SOTD have not seen them, we can’t entirely negate their couture value. If we go by so-called traditional practices, especially those among self-proclaimed couturiers in Asia (where the word ‘couture’ has a long history of abuse in designer branding), as long as a garment is embroidered, beaded, sequinned, it can be considered a couture garment. There is, after all, handwork involved, just as in the Lacoste polos, which are stitched by the brodeurs of Lesage, a storied atelier that is known for its embroidery used by couturiers as early as Charles Worth. Lesage is now owned by Chanel, but continues to supply to other couture houses, and now, sportswear producers.
To us, however, no matter how much of Lesage’s embroidery appears on a polo, even a Lacoste-branded one, the final garment is, at best, half-couture, and no way haute. There are perfectly good reasons why the haute couture business is regulated by the Chambre de Syndicale de la Haute Couture, based in Paris. The Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, founded in 1973, and under which the Chambre de Syndicale de la Haute Couture operates, stipulates that “Haute Couture is a legally protected and controlled label that can only be used by the fashion houses which have been granted the designation by the French Ministry of Industry”. And yes, we’re rather stitched-up about that too.
For a very long time, couture has been a craft about skills applied on garments, inside out. Craft is the operative word since couture clothes involve sewing by hand as much as crafting by hand. The foundation on which the clothes lay is as vital as what appears on the surface. In simpler term, construction is critical. Quality is stitched into seams as well as on sequins. True, what is considered beautiful surface embellishments changes with time, just as with the silhouettes of the couture clothes, but what constitutes a quality make has not changed. We can be seduced into believing that a polo shirt is couture-blessed, but does it bear all the hallmarks of the haute?
Le Monde was not wrong to discern Lacoste’s attempt as “street couture”, an oxymoron, and an aesthetic that can be traced to the Nineties, when a sweatshirt-and-track-pants maker had the gall to call their label Juicy Couture. For street fashion brands, nowhere is hallowed ground. Couture can include embroidered T-shirts associated with apparel at the lowest end of the market. Those mindful of semantics will point out that ‘couture’ really means ‘sewing’. There’s nothing wrong, therefore, to attach the word to a brand. Truth is, even sans the adjective haute, couture is always evocative of something higher, itself a branding not distanced from the ateliers where everything is done by hand and elevated to an art form. Couture always has a certain ring: costly, exquisite, uncommon.
Even though they’re termed “couture polos” by Lacoste, the marketing description is more humble: “Eight polos, eight inspiring French women, eight tributes to René Lacoste.” The octet of women are the usual mix of models and actresses, except the DJ, Clara 3000, who is the most likely lass to don the embroidered Lacoste outside the ad campaign, given that her wardrobe is, by her admission, home to T-shirts she has been collecting for years. In fact, these Lacoste polo shirts and tunics, designed by creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista (who, interesting to note, is a member of the Chambre de Syndicale de la Haute Couture), are in tune with what’s worn among the music-making set and are likely to score many likes. You’re not wrong if you think we have hip-hop stars in mind, going back to Missy Elliot and those blinked-out Adidas tops! Sometimes, it is cachet, more than couture, that sells a chemise.
Lacoste x Maison Lesage Couture polos will not be available in local stores. Photos: Lacoste