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The little green crocodile is flaunting its feminine side, and nowhere more conspicuously than on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Lacoste has doubled the size of its four-and-half-year-old flagship to slightly over 4,000 square feet by adding a second level just for women’s apparel and accessories and kids.

The clean, white-lacquered, sporty image is intact, enabling the kaleidoscope of polos to project. However, compared with the men’s floor, the palette upstairs is lighter and feminine, marked by three off-white, mosaic tile floor pads that help segment the categories, and the soft glow of large, oval-shaped ceiling fluorescents and color-changing LED lighting along the perimeter.

While the merchandising seems restrained compared with before, when all the goods were displayed on one floor, the enhanced women’s presentation sends a clear message. “Women’s is a very, very important part of our growth, even though the roots of the brand are masculine,” said Robert Siegel, chairman and chief executive officer of Lacoste USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Paris-based Devanlay SA, which is owned by the Maus Group, a large retailer in Switzerland. “There is no reason that, with our casual sport lifestyle approach, women’s can’t be as large as men’s,” which currently generates double the women’s volume, he noted.

At the flagship, “there’s probably 50 to 60 percent more women’s product,” Siegel said during a tour of the store, which is situated on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 49th Street. “More importantly, it allows us to show it without getting cluttered.”

The addition was a project of the architectural and interior design firm James D’Auria Associates. “There were two challenges: making the second floor more feminine and warmer, and then how to tie the two floors together,” explained Douglas McClure, partner at James D’Auria Associates. One way was to create an elevator with a green shaft and two levels of green glass that is mirrored and frosted. The firm also tempered the big second-floor windows, potentially a distraction from the products, with a frosted vinyl pattern of intertwining circles that partially screens out the view, and soft translucent curtains with advertising images.

McClure characterized the overall fixturing as “a very white program to showcase the clothes.”

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Lacoste, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year, hopes to achieve gender equilibrium through store expansions where possible, and new stores. Shops in Dallas’ NorthPark Center, Bal Harbour Shops in Florida, Houston Galleria and Prudential Center in Boston were recently enlarged, though Siegel noted it’s often not easy to get the extra space for enlarging the boutiques, which are generally in the 1,600- to 2,000-square-foot range.

In the case of the Fifth Avenue flagship, upstairs office space became available, enabling Lacoste to give greater expression to women’s and support stepped-up product development. For spring, a new women’s sport tennis and golf line was launched, including tennis dresses for $145; classic shorts with a panty inside, $95; a halter top with a tie in the back, $65, and a pique golf skirt, priced at $72, that’s paired with a racer-back halter, $55.

“We will continue to get organic growth from our own stores, strengthen our non-polo classifications and continue to strengthen woven shirts, pants, jeans and sweaters,” Siegel said.

He also wants to grow the brand through a limited number of store openings. Seventy-seven stores are expected to be operating by the end of the year, following 10 planned openings. Siegel sees the U.S. as having a maximum of 90 to 100 stores in the next four to five years.

“We really insist on being in very select locations,” Siegel said. Next year, the pace of openings will slow to four to five. Coming up next month, there will be openings in Bellevue, Wash.; Corte Madeira, Calif., and the Americana at Brand in Glendale, Calif., as well as one or two more, possibly in the second half of this year.

Siegel has no desire to create separate women’s and men’s shops, which some brands do. “In terms of cost efficiency, it’s better to have all the product in one store,” Siegel said. “We have lots of boy-girl shopping.”

For the 75th anniversary, special product featuring an enlarged crocodile logo was introduced on men’s V-neck sweater vests, priced at $125, and a limited edition white cotton blazer, priced at $425, just like the one René Lacoste, the tennis champion, would wear after he won a tournament. Lacoste created the Lacoste brand in 1933 and the piqued stitch shirt that has been the signature product. Known as Le Crocodile because of the tenacious way he covered the court, Lacoste is considered the first to put a product logo on the outside of a garment.

Lacoste’s core customer, which falls within the 18- to 35-year-old age bracket, often opts for the Lacoste essentials, namely the five- or three-button placket polos in cotton Lycra. They’re each offered in 20 colors and, outside the commemorative items, keep the logo discreet. “It’s not in your face,” Siegel said, noting how it comes in three sizes: the “vintage” at 3 centimeters, “midsize” at 2 centimeters and women’s, at 1.5 centimeters.

More than 75 percent of the overall assortment is in tops, with polos priced at $75 to $100, and T-shirts and tanks in the $45 to $65 range. Direct-to-consumer, which includes stores and the Web site, accounts for 60 percent of the business; wholesale is 40 percent. Lacoste wholesales to Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus.

When Siegel joined the brand in January 2002, there were just 12 Lacoste stores in the U.S. Besides stepping up the expansion, Siegel has been broadening the offerings and infusing the label with a modern, hip aura. E-commerce was launched in the middle of last year.

Lacoste’s U.S. business has grown more than tenfold in six years, Siegel said, adding that the three-year business plan, which gets revised annually, projects $350 million in U.S. sales for this year, compared with $305 million last year.

“The challenge is the economy. We are all fighting it, but we had a good March,” Siegel said, adding that the business trend could pick up considering spring and summer represent the strong seasons for the sports-inspired brand.

Lacoste’s upscale aura, pricing and popular crocodile logo give the brand an edge. “Lacoste has solid positioning in the better-to-bridge zone. It’s fashionable, wearable and affordable,” observed Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates. Moreover, “young people have [of late] been attracted to certain venerable names,” Aronson added, citing Polo and Burberry, as well as Lacoste.

“Lacoste has been in Bloomingdale’s for a long time, but a few years ago, there was an enormous spike. It became hip among the young folks,” said Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s.

“During tougher times, really important brands tend to do better,” Siegel said. “We are all about the classics. We don’t look at ourselves as a fashion brand. Updated classics, with a sport twist: That’s really who we are.”

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