By  on February 19, 2009

Robert Siegel is back from what might rank as the shortest retirement in fashion history — and he has no plans to retire again any time soon.

The 72-year-old returned earlier this month as chief executive officer of Lacoste USA, just five weeks after passing the reins to former Kellwood Co. head Robert C. Skinner Jr.

Skinner resigned two weeks ago, with Lacoste’s French parent company Devanlay U.S. Inc. citing “differences with the board” as the reason for the quick split. Skinner could not be reached for comment.

Siegel, who served as ceo of the company for seven years, growing it 10-fold during that time period to a $320 million brand, declined to comment on why Skinner resigned, or what the differences between the Lacoste board and former Kellwood ceo were.

But Siegel said the three goals for 2009 that Skinner shared with WWD last month — growing women’s, deepening wholesale penetration within existing doors, and further distinguishing Lacoste’s four subbrands (the core sportswear line; the pricier and more exclusive black label relaunching for fall at better specialty stores; the new contemporary red label that debuted for spring at Nordstrom and Jeffrey, and the active collection, which will add golf to its traditional tennis offerings this year) — were all goals both men shared.

Siegel’s plan does add emphasis to direct sales, particularly e-commerce. During his previous tenure, he added 64 boutiques, 13 outlets and e-commerce to the former purely wholesale business. “We think e-commerce is the way America is shopping today,” Siegel said, adding January e-commerce sales were up 40 percent over last year. (Outlet business was also up 24 percent, full-price retail was flat, and wholesale was down for January.)

Siegel is projecting flat sales for 2009, after finishing 2008 slightly up. “We’re not a luxury brand — we’re a premium brand,” said Siegel, adding the average retail price was less than $100. “We should be more successful than most people in the market.”

Siegel said a senior executive from Lacoste in Paris called him about two weeks ago, asking if he would fly to Paris in two days, and he did, indefinitely cancelling a vacation with his wife. There, he was told Skinner had resigned, and the company asked Siegel to return.

“I got five weeks off — I feel like the French now,” said Siegel, who was formerly managing director at Kurt Salmon Associates Inc., chairman and ceo at Stride Rite Corp. and ceo of Levi Strauss & Co., where he launched Dockers in 1986. “I realized I probably shouldn’t have retired. Unfortunately, it took a retirement, a party and five weeks off to realize it. No one saw what happened coming, but it was fortuitous. The change for me was that they sincerely wanted and needed me, which means a lot. I wouldn’t have gone back to work for anyone else — I love this brand.”

Siegel will continue to work from his office in Charleston, S.C., on most Mondays and Fridays, commuting to work in New York on Tuesdays through Thursdays. “The commute part wasn’t my first choice, but I did it for seven years and can do it for a few more,” Siegel said. “This isn’t a temporary return — this is my encore.”

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