PARIS — Bernard Lacoste, the energetic and colorful executive who for more than four decades stewarded the Lacoste brand, died Tuesday after a battle with “serious illness,” the French sportswear house said. He was 74.

Lacoste died late Tuesday morning after several months in the hospital, a spokeswoman said.

He stepped down as chairman and chief executive officer for health reasons last Sept­ember, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Michel Lacoste, who continues to helm the family’s namesake business.

Lacoste was the son of tennis legend Rene Lacoste, who founded the company and created its famous crocodile insignia. Bernard Lacoste was instrumental in building the family firm into one of the world’s most-recognized sports brands. He leveraged its patrimony by extending into new products and founding a retail network, starting with the opening of the first Lacoste boutique, here, in 1981.

Lacoste saw opportunities in women’s and children’s clothes, and also branched into scents and shoes, while imbuing the brand with a modern, fashionable image.

It was at his direction, for example, that the company introduced an array of colors in its traditional piqué polo shirts.

Gregarious and friendly, Lacoste will be remembered as one of the last in a generation of French executives in the fashion and luxury industry here who brought as much poetry as finance to their business. He stayed true to the vision of French elegance and sophistication that he believed his father embodied, while operating as an astute businessman.

In 1999, he consolidated the brand’s licensing structure by inking a worldwide agreement with Devanlay for all Lacoste clothing. That deal led to the arrival as artistic director of French designer Christophe Lemaire, who in recent years has amplified the brand’s hip factor and helped it resonate with a younger crowd.

Last year, 48 million Lacoste-branded articles were sold worldwide, representing wholesale sales of 1.29 billion euros, or $1.55 billion at current exchange, the spokeswoman said. By comparison, in 1963, the year Lacoste took command, the firm sold 300,000 Lacoste-branded items.

Lacoste is survived by his wife, Sachiko, and three children from a previous marriage, Jacques, Camille and Beryl. Services have not been set, the spokeswoman said.

This story first appeared in the March 22, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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