DALLAS — The crocodile is moving into new territory.

Lacoste, which considers the little green reptile its premier identifier, plans to open 22 stores in the U.S. over the next five years, for a total of 35.

"We think our brand has emerged as a trendy, want-to-be-seen brand in the past 12 months," said Bob Siegel, chairman of Devanlay USA, the American arm of the French company that holds the Lacoste license. "We have started to attract a new, younger consumer — 18-to-35-year-old men and women. For them, it’s a new brand."

Siegel said the stores allow the firm "to show the line in a proper way and give customers an opportunity to buy more than just a polo shirt."

Siegel, a veteran of Levi Strauss & Co. where he oversaw the introduction of Dockers, was in Dallas for the opening of the prototype store at NorthPark Center mall. He joined the company in January 2002 to steer the brand to greater visibility and establish its own identity.

But the well-known crocodile trademark — introduced in 1933 by tennis star René Lacoste — is still often mistakenly associated with Izod because the two brands were marketed together by Crystal Brands for more than a decade. Siegel noted. In 1993, Devanlay acquired the licensing rights to the brand, which is still owned by the Lacoste family.

"There is still confusion and it will take time," Siegel said. "For 15 years, Izod and Lacoste were one company, and it was over $300 million, and it was massive. Even retailers get confused, and there is an education process. But the crocodile is our most important trademark and that’s the real key."

Make no mistake: there is no relation today. Izod, which is also ramping up its brand, is moderately priced, whereas Lacoste is at the high end of better. Phillips-Van Heusen is Izod’s parent company since it acquired the brand in 1995 from Crystal Brands, a transaction that divorced Lacoste from Izod. Kellwood Co. is also in the process of producing a women’s Izod lifestyle collection through a deal signed in November.Siegel said Lacoste’s own stores will go a long way toward establishing its own identity.

The prototype store design featured in Dallas and at the Mall at Millenia in Orlando is based on a design introduced in Tokyo, where the stores are brightly lit with a changing rainbow of colored light projected onto the curved drop ceiling. Lacoste’s tops, rendered in 35 colors each season, including such vivid hues as tennis-ball green, are stacked in cube shelves inset in the white walls.

"Dallas is a market that is well positioned for Lacoste because it has a fashion customer who is very into new and trendy things," Siegel said.

No new locations have been set yet, but Siegel is investigating street sites and upscale malls in major markets and resort communities, including the Hamptons in New York, La Jolla, Calif., Miami’s South Beach and Scottsdale, Ariz.

"We obviously do well in warm-weather markets," he said. "But our biggest volume store is Madison Avenue [in New York], which does almost $2,000 a square foot."

Lacoste’s U.S. stores typically are 1,400 square feet and produce $900 a square foot in sales, which would put its 13-store volume at about $17 million. In 2002, comparable-store sales grew 22 percent, Siegel said.

Women’s sportswear is the fastest growing element of Lacoste’s collection, accounting for more than 30 percent of U.S. sales. Men’s still makes up the lion’s share of business, while children’s accounts for less than 10 percent.

Polo shirts are still the collection’s bestseller, but Lacoste is also doing well with fitted woven shirts and has expanded into sweaters, pants, dresses and outerwear.

The company sells to many units of Federated Department Stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Burdine’s, as well as other department and specialty stores for a total of 500 doors in the U.S. Lacoste also has more than 500 licensed or franchise stores worldwide, Siegel noted.

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