Sure, Andy Roddick and his splashy American Express "Mojo" ad campaign got bounced out of the u.s. open. but his clothing sponsor, Lacoste, had a great tournament. The little green crocodile not only showed up on tennis togs of French pros like Richard Gasquet and Natalie Dechy but was also worn by celebs and many upmarket fans who descended on Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
Lacoste's popularity at the Open--the elegant croc outcooled the oversized pony of official sponsor Polo in straight sets--was emblematic of the brand's astonishing turnaround over the past three years under the tutelage of Robert Siegel, who took over the company as a project for his retirement--or perhaps to avoid it. A self-proclaimed clotheshorse, Siegel had made a name for himself during his 29-year career at Levi Strauss, where he launched the hugely successful Dockers brand in 1986. Siegel left Levi's to run Stride Rite, then headed south to Charleston, S.C., to contemplate retirement. But, he says, "those thoughts lasted like two minutes." He took on a few consulting jobs. Among them was Devanlay, the global apparel licensor of Lacoste, a brand that had been so badly managed in America that it was eventually withdrawn from the U.S. market, even though it had ruled fashion for a while.
Like many other Americans, Siegel remembered a time when the ubiquitous French amphibian adorned the chests of the country-club set. Now, by developing hipper clothes and raising quality, he launched a Stateside comeback for a brand that was considered to be dead in the Atlantic. "To head Lacoste was a dream come true," Siegel says. "The brand is so powerful because of its heritage."
With a look that's classic, colorful and once again hip, its polos are go-to shirts for almost anyone. Since Siegel became CEO of Lacoste USA in January 2002, sales have grown 800%, and Lacoste worldwide has developed into a $1.8 billion brand globally. In 2004, U.S. sales increased a whopping 125% over the previous year, and by 2005 the U.S. had become Lacoste's top market. According to Siegel, 2005 is set to be Lacoste USA's most profitable year yet. "I credit the whole company for this success," says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD group. "They did a good job in Europe of keeping it a premium brand, and the U.S. followed suit. That drove this phenomenon."
The sponsorship deals Lacoste is making reflect its sporty heritage and retooled popularity. In April the company signed a rumored six-year, $30 million--plus contract with top U.S. tennis player Roddick. Lacoste has cleverly made itself a Hollywood favorite too. To add to the buzz, Siegel and his team have seeded the shirts with celebrities: Natalie Portman, Katie Couric and the cast of The O.C. are just a few who have donned the clothes on television and at high-profile events.
The story of a little French crocodile smashing its way onto the U.S. apparel scene is a fashion legend. René Lacoste, a famous French tennis champion nicknamed the Alligator (le Crocodile in French) by the American press because he "never let go of his prey," grew tired of the starched, long-sleeved shirts that players wore during the 1920s. He designed a breathable, short-sleeved polo for himself, and soon for his tennis friends too, creating what was to become one of the most famous sportswear companies in France.