Lacoste bites back

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2004, 12:00am

ALMOST EVERYONE has memories of wearing a Lacoste shirt. And until recently, it was just that, a memory. The short-sleeved, knitted polo shirt originally designed by French tennis champion Rene Lacoste in 1933 was popular on and off the tennis court, even making it into The Official Preppy Handbook in the early 1980s as standard-issue attire.

Yet suddenly, Lacoste disappeared from the fashion radar as the popularity of preppy fashion dimmed and the likes of Polo Ralph Lauren muscled their way onto the scene with their own brand of polo shirts and marketing savvy.

But renewed interest in athletic and casual fashion has marked a rebound for Lacoste. In the past two years, sales of its shirts and accessories in the US have doubled and numerous new stores are planned around the world. The revival of the brand is likely also to be connected with the appointment in 2000 of Christophe Lemaire as the first chief designer for Lacoste. Following in the tradition of brand overhauls that began with Tom Ford for Gucci, Lemaire has been charged with refreshing the label.

Frenchman Lemaire trained under Christian Lacroix and it is hoped that with his high-fashion background, he will be able to bring style to a sportswear brand. As he is also known for his skills as a DJ, he was seen as 'someone who is very modern, who knows what is happening and will keep us in touch with the modern world, which is very good for the brand', according to Philippe Lacoste, grandson of Rene Lacoste and the company's director of external relations.

The designer, a thoughtful and soft-spoken 39-year-old, whose personal style is more subtle than overtly fashionable, says his appointment is good timing. 'I hope my coming and my work has helped,' says Lemaire during a visit to New York. 'But I think people were expecting this brand to make a comeback because it's sportswear, which is one of the biggest and deepest fashion revolutions of the century. People's lifestyles have changed, high fashion and luxury still exist, but, increasingly, people want a more casual relationship with fashion. People are taking sports elements into everyday life. This idea of functionality and comfort is very powerful today and I think sports brands are very strong now because of that.'

Philippe Lacoste agrees. 'At the beginning, people used to wear Lacoste shirts just to play tennis or golf,' he says. 'Now it is a fashion item.'

Lemaire concedes that until recently the brand's image had been declining. 'My mission was to refresh the brand and attract younger customers, but at the same time I had to balance this against the fact that Lacoste is a timeless brand and is above trends,' he says.

'As a designer, I have always been uncomfortable with this need for change, and of trends, every season. In the world today, street fashion rules and the fashion shows try to follow this, which is good. Today, style is more about wearing what fits in with your personality, and expressing your own personality through style. The idea of predicting trends for each season is passe. I always believe in this mix of timelessness and style, and of creativity that is connected to reality.

'For the spring/summer 2005 show, I wanted it to reflect the different aspects of the brand. I always have two images of Lacoste. The first is the roots of the brand, which is all about leisure and elegant sports; the second is more street and pop culture. Also, we have this relationship with colours which I wanted to emphasise as well. The use of naive, fresh colours was also a tribute to 60s French musicals.

'Fashion today is very open to colours. Maybe we have had too much black, and too many neutral colours in the past, and now people want colours that convey positive energy. We also used a lot of white in the collection because this is really the roots and spirit of Lacoste, which is tennis.'

Part of the reason for Lacoste's slippage, Lemaire says, is that Lacoste was not as strong as other sportswear brands in terms of marketing and image building. 'We still have a challenge with the advertising, which is a little too conventional, so we are looking to appoint a stronger advertising company,' he says.

Another important challenge is the fact that the other Lacoste lines, such as shoes and bags, do not come under Lemaire's control. 'I would like to make the brand more unified and coherent; the bag collection, for example, should complement the clothes collection. This is something we still need to work on. Now I act more like a co-ordinator. Officially, I don't have any control, but we are working together more and more.'

Lemaire also says the winter collections should be strengthened, so Lacoste is not perceived to be solely a summer brand - Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger seem to move seamlessly from summer to winter.

Before Lacoste's invention of the 'jersey petit pique' shirt, as it was called, the shirts commonly worn on tennis courts were made of classic woven fabric, long-sleeved and starched. Lacoste's shirt differed in that it was made slightly shorter with short sleeves, given a ribbed collar, and made of a light-knitted fabric. The classic polo made by Lacoste today are the same, except that there are more than 60 colours. The company also made a decision a few years ago to introduce a new line of shirts called the 'pique stretch', a blend of cotton and lycra, in response to the growing culture of body consciousness and the demand for more fitted clothing.

Today, Lacoste remains a family business, owned and managed by the same founding family for the past 70 years, which is rare in a time when even established independent brands such as Fendi or Givenchy are increasingly choosing to sell to conglomerates such as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.

'We have a long continuity,' says Philippe Lacoste, 'and when the family and the brand have such a close relationship, the values of the family are reflected in the company and the brand, because both of my grandparents were exceptional athletes.'

Rene Lacoste, nicknamed 'The Alligator' by the sporting press, won numerous tennis championships during the 20s including Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open, and the Davis Cup. His wife, Simone Lacoste, was a champion golfer who lifted various titles, including the 1927 British Open.

The company now plans to focus on the US and China markets, aiming to add to the 30 stores it already has in the US. It also took an important decision to stage the 2005 spring/summer fashion show in New York.

'We are a French brand, but we are also an international brand. And New York being a city of the world with mixed cultures suits our image,' says Philippe Lacoste. 'Also, the US is our biggest market, so the decision to show there was also, in part, to acknowledge this.'

Lemaire also says the decision to show in New York is connected with the positioning of the brand.

'Lacoste is a sports brand, even if I have a vision to mix sports with style, it is not really a fashion brand, and in Paris people might be expecting something more experimental or provocative.'

The company has 25 boutiques on the mainland and six in Hong Kong, with another opening by the end of the year. While it is yet to reach its potential in the China market, says Philippe Lacoste, it is one of its 'key priorities'. 'China is not big in terms of sales today, but it is big in terms of the resources we put into it, both financial and human resources,' he says.

As part of its brand-building efforts, Lacoste has been a partner in various tennis competitions on the mainland, including the China Open, the HP Open, and the Masters Tennis Cup. 'Transmission of tennis on TV is very big and has attracted a lot of attention,' says Philippe Lacoste. 'With the China women's team winning the doubles gold at the Athens Olympics, tennis is probably going to be an increasingly popular sport in China.'

A significant challenge for Lacoste, and every other brand in China, is counterfeiting. Lacoste says that 'it will get better, because when China joined the WTO, it agreed to comply with its rules. The problem today remains that while the laws exist, no one is actually enforcing it.'

Philippe Lacoste says there are no new lines planned for the immediate future. But apart from the famous polo shirts, Lacoste has three lines of clothing: sportswear or casual wear; club, which is its fashionable and hip line; and sports, which is golf wear. It also has an accessories line with bags, shoes, watches and eyewear, fragrances for men and women, as well as bed linens and towels. Plenty to keep the scion busy.