NEW YORK — That green crocodile has crept onto Fifth Avenue and it means business.

Lacoste on Thursday officially opened a 3,400-square-foot store on the southwest corner Fifth and 49th Street, catercorner to Saks Fifth Avenue, as part of strategy to increase the label’s U.S. presence. With its colorful classic polos, sweeping curved white walls, and the neighorhood’s heavy traffic, Fifth Avenue could be the chain’s most productive unit. It’s replacing the smaller Lacoste shop on Madison Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets, which will close in a few months when its lease expires.

“We expect our Fifth Avenue store to have the same level of productivity, if not better,” said Robert Siegel, chairman of Lacoste USA. He said the Madison Avenue shop does $2,500 in sales per square foot. At that rate, the new Fifth Avenue store should hit $8.5 million in sales, at least. Lacoste stores are generally small, around 1,500 square feet each, yet highly productive, averaging $900 in sales per square foot.

Currently, the U.S. accounts for under 10 percent of Lacoste’s $900 million in total volume. But Lacoste, based in Paris, is expanding at a rate of about five stores a year in the U.S. Remaining openings this year will be in Chicago in early October, and San Francisco’s Union Square in late October. Units in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Scottsdale, Arizona already opened this year.

Next year, units are planned for Boston, the Americana Manhasset shopping center on Long Island, and three other locations to be determined. By the end of 2004, Lacoste expects to be operating 23 stores in the U.S.

According to Siegel, comp-store sales in the U.S. are tracking 23 percent ahead, driven by the brand’s younger, sexier appeal cultivated in the last couple of years, its array of vivid colors, superior quality, and a tightly-controlled distribution that gives the label an aura of exclusivity and keeps it in demand. Lacoste has been busy placing its products on Hollywood celebrities, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, the Hilton sisters and Matt Damon. Tighter fits of late add sex appeal, with Lycra providing some stretch. In addition, for warm months, the shirts are cut shorter to reveal midriff.Women’s has grown to 50 percent of the business, from 15 to 20 percent two years ago, and to show off the progress, Lacoste plans to stage its first fashion show Sept. 14 in Bryant Park during fashion week. It’s also sign that the Paris-based brand is taking the U.S. market more seriously.

Though generally the distribution is narrow, in New York the label is widely available, selling at Scoop, Searle, Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel. Siegel contended that the Fifth Avenue store won’t cannibalize wholesale accounts, and will actually help them by providing increased exposure for the label.

The classic Lacoste polo is widely knocked off, though the real Lacoste remains distinctive with its craftsmanship. The collection is manufactured at Lacoste-owned factories in France and Peru, with shirt collars that lay flat, colors that don’t run, and with minimal shrinkage. The shirts are resin-dipped to seal in the color, reduce fading and reduce shrinking.

Lacoste also sets itself apart with its pricing. The label isn’t cheap. The opening price for women’s fitted polo shirts is $72; men’s, $69.Knit shirts go up to $90. Women’s knits represents the biggest volume classification, with about 10 styles in tops accounting for 55 to 60 percent of the business. Lacoste gets 11 deliveries to the stores each year. Women's crew sweaters are priced $145; cable turtleneck sweaters are priced at $185; quilted jackets and coats are priced $195, while down jackets retail for $295; corduroy pants $128, and denim jeans, $118. While the pique construction is the most popular and believed to have been invented by Lacoste, the brand also offers ribs, interlocks and wovens.

The classic polo is offered in 35 colors, with the most popular in men’s being white, black, navy, light blue and pink. In women’s, pink, black, white and light blue are the most popular.

All the colors appear all the more vivid against the Fifth Avenue’s store’s white walls and white laminate fixturing. Architecturally, the most dramatic elements of the store are the long, sweeping curved wall on the left, a suspended ceiling that looks like an island, and the cove lighting which perpetually changes to seven different colors. As a corner site, at 608 Fifth Avenue, formerly occupied by the Swiss Trade Commission, the new shop will have high visibility, with 35 feet of frontage on Fifth Avenue and 50 feet on 49th Street. The neighborhood could get even busier, with next year’s opening of American Girl on the southeast corner of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue.The Lacoste store concept was created in a collaboration between the Paris-based architect Patrick Rubin, of Canal Associates; Christophe Pillet, a furniture and interior designer; Lacoste creative director Christophe Lemaire, and New York-based store architect James D’Auria. Only the Dallas, Orlando, Scottsdale and San Juan stores incorporate the look, though future stores will have it, and existing stores will be remodeled.

Siegel characterized the store design as “bold, futuristic, pure white, with wall fixtures lit from the back that bring alive the colors that Lacoste stands for.

“Lacoste is all about color, so everything in our new store design really stands out.”

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