PARIS — The weather might not cooperate, but Lacoste designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista has a backup plan: He’ll leave the rain cover in place.
But if the sun shines, then the lid will be off and the label’s first Paris ready-to-wear show in 13 years will be in a stadium-like setting surrounded by trees.
“I really wanted to do it outdoors, somewhere iconic and close to Lacoste. It was difficult to find a place that seats a thousand people,” explained Baptista.
That spot turned out to be a corner of the Tuileries Garden, bang in the middle of Paris and just a stone’s throw from the Jeu de Paume museum — a historic site where Parisians played a popular indoor game considered the predecessor to tennis.
The venue signals a wish for the brand to return to its sports roots and French heritage.
“Sport-inspired and French elegance, these are the two pillars we are leaning on,” noted Thierry Guibert, chief executive officer of Lacoste, which belongs to the Swiss retail group Maus Frères SA.
He found the label unfocused when he took the helm of the company around three years ago.
“One of the main tasks when I arrived was to give the brand a clear direction,” he said, noting it had turned too much toward fashion and away from sports.
So Guibert focused marketing efforts on brand ambassadors, notably tennis star Novak Djokovic and sponsoring new tennis tournaments as well as creating capsule collections carrying a “made in France” label.
“We have our place in the middle of Paris Fashion Week. It’s very haute couture here, that’s the difference with New York, New York is much more casual,” said Guibert.
“We are not at all an haute couture brand, but given we’re a French brand with a strong historical anchoring, it’s legitimate for us to be in Paris — I think it’s the right time,” he added. He expects the label to keep its show in Paris for at least one collection a year in the future.
Under Guibert’s direction, the company has been refining its products, launching collections of shirts with Italian fabric, embroidering the crocodile onto shirts of the same color, for example, and thus straying from the classic green crocodile motif and checked shirts the brand has become known for over the years.
The label has also turned increasingly toward outerwear, added Guibert, defining them as “sports clothes that one can wear in the city.”
Mixing everyday clothing with sports outfits is the main theme of the spring collection, noted Baptista. “Technical fabrics, blending day-to-day clothes with sports clothes, this is the core story of the show.”
Baptista recalled sending a tracksuit down the runway four years ago, in a move considered by some as a precursor to mixing athletic and leisure styles that has an increasing number of brands elbowing in on the territory.
“We were definitely on to something at the beginning of it, pushing toward the future, but now we have to look at how to write the next page and challenge the next point of view,” said Baptista.
Two years ago, he designed a top emblazoned with the words “René Did It First,” in a nod to the legacy of the label’s founder, tennis man Jean René Lacoste.
Nowadays, slogan T-shirts abound.
“It’s nice to have things picked up and be moving things forward,” said Baptista.
But when the field starts getting crowded, it’s time to move on to something else, he added, even for labels like Lacoste that may be under less pressure for constant renewal than pure fashion brands.
For Baptista, who was a self-described niche designer when he arrived at Lacoste in 2010, it changed the way he worked.
“Being a big, global mainstream brand on a larger scale, Lacoste evolves more slowly,” than pure fashion labels, he noted. Baptista suspended his own label, which happened to show during the same slot that Lacoste is filling this year, in order to concentrate on Lacoste.
“When I arrived, it was rooted in sports leisure for the weekend,” added Baptista, who wants the brand to become a daily staple in wardrobes and move further into “urban territories, so it can be worn all week long.”
Meanwhile, on the business side, Guibert has been busy overhauling the distribution network around the world, particularly in the U.S., Lacoste’s largest market, where it generates 15 percent of group sales.
He closed around 250 sales points in stores across the country. In Europe, the brand pulled out of some department stores in Germany that the executive said resembled grocery stores more than the higher-end range it targets. In countries where the distribution channels belonged to another business, like in Spain, the company bought the distributor outright.
The idea was to gain control of pricing and assortment.
Such moves are costly, but Guibert said they are paying off.
“It took some time, but when we put it all together, end-to-end, we get to where we are today, with a solid performance. And a brand with more coherence with the consumer than these past few years,” he said. The first 18 months were painful, he added, citing a loss in volumes and sales.
High levels of discounting in the U.S. were particularly damaging to the brand, according to Guibert, who estimates the label now sells seven out of 10 items at full price compared to around one out of 10 for competitors.
The brand reduced its presence in outlet malls, from around 60 to 40, he said, noting that outlets remain important to apparel companies operating in the U.S.
The label has around 50 of its own stores, several of which were closed in favor of more prime locations, and with an emphasis on California, Florida and Texas, as well as New York.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I think it’s the right decision, in such a competitive market. If the brand doesn’t set itself apart, you find yourself a mass-market brand,” said Guibert of the overhaul.
In the digital sphere, the brand generates around 10 percent of annual sales online, with in-store tablets the fastest-growing distribution channel.
“For labels like us with small stores, it’s a useful tool,” he said.
Over the summer, Lacoste announced plans to buy the tennis and squash equipment company Tecnifibre after muscling past a few private equity firms that had also expressed interest. Established nearly 40 years ago, the French company created a new kind of polyurethane racket strings, and had branched out into making tennis balls with Bridgestone.
“There are quite a few synergies between the two brands,” noted Guibert, who plans on reviving Lacoste’s tennis racket business that once existed around 20 years ago.
“The idea is to redevelop a very premium Lacoste racket with the Tecnifibre technique” for the beginning of 2019, said Guibert, who didn’t rule out a future foray into tennis balls one day.
While the brand is focusing on tennis, as well as squash, badminton and a racket sport played in Spain with a wooden paddle, Lacoste has been an official sponsor of the French Olympic team, equipping team members off the court.
The challenge of dressing such a wide range of body types was “a very interesting process, a fun exercise,” noted Baptista. “I love the technical and the functional — my father was an airline pilot, I’ve always been attached to uniforms.”
For spring, Baptista reached back to the early Thirties, looking at the double-breasted blazers that founder Lacoste wore off the court, as well as polos from the Seventies and tracksuits from the Eighties and Nineties.
“I will be combining the past, present and future. It’s a popular democratic brand, both for the bourgeois and the kid on the street,” he said, noting he enjoys “social mashups of codes — like posh and chav.’”
Baptista describes the brand’s history as reflecting a “democratization” — an elite tennis label that was later worn by “kids on the street.”
Rather than a shift from one to the other, Baptista sees the trajectory as leading to the label’s appeal from a more diverse audience.
“With so many closing in on themselves, social and cultural diversity are important,” he remarked.