Even President Bush wears the classic shirts


August 22, 1991|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight-Ridder News Service qRB

The shirt of presidential preference is clearly a classic polo.

You expect to see George Bush wearing it when golfing in Kennebunkport. But there he was last month, chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev at their Moscow summit, wearing a blue and white Nike polo shirt.

Unlike some men who are faithful to a specific brand, Mr. Bush's selection of the knitted pullovers with collars and front-button plackets varies from the original polo designed by Rene Lacoste in the 1920s, with its crocodile logo, to others, such as the one with an embroidered fishing vessel and "Kennebunkport, Me." underneath.

President Bush isn't alone in his preference for the cotton-knit shirts when he's not wearing a tie. While total sales figures aren't available, Ralph Lauren alone annually sells more than 7 million of his shirts with their distinctive polo player logo at $52.50 each.

Polos appeal because they are "casual, comfortable and appropriate for different situations," says Catharine Hartnett of catalog giant L.L. Bean, which sells more than 200,000 a year of its $19.50 logo-less version.

The comfort factor is increasing, with the two major polo-shirt manufacturers making significant changes in shape this summer. Izod Lacoste, the originator of the polo shirt, now cuts its shirts fuller through the chest, longer in length and with longer, fuller sleeves. Ralph Lauren is expanding its polo offerings to include a new "Big Shirt" polo with oversize body and a patch pocket on the left chest in place of the embroidered polo player logo. Fans need not panic; the player has simply moved to the shirttail.

The two companies are estimated to hold about a third of the market for polo shirts, but are also among the most pricey, with Lacoste retailing at $42.50. Except for a small high-fashion niche, most of the rest of the market is in the $20 to $25 range.

"Price point is a major issue today," says Tom Julian, fashion director for the New York-based Men's Fashion Association. "Why pay $50 for a cotton knit polo when we know we can get it for $19.99 and the quality differences may be very subtle?"

While designer logos were a key status symbol, making the polo shirt a must-have item in the early 1980s, consumers are moving away from them in the 1990s. Lauren and Lacoste still hold a certain cachet; but note that Burt Reynolds wears logo-less polo shirts on his "Evening Shade" television series.

"The polo shirt has lived its course as a designer statement and fashion item," Mr. Julian says. Still, the shirt style itself is far from dead.

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