Inside French Heritage Brand Lacoste’s Big Plans for US Expansion

Novak Djokovic, one of the best professional tennis players of the last decade, has been dogged by injuries for most of the season. That’s led the affable Serbian to an unusual spot: a slide in the rankings.

In many ways, the 12-time Grand Slam singles champion’s career trajectory is much like the Lacoste brand he represents: There are ups, downs and major comebacks.

“His visibility and popularity are amazing,” Lacoste’s president and CEO of North and Central America, Jöelle Grünberg, said about the athlete, who represents the brand for apparel and eyewear. “The story of what is happening to him, of trying to overcome his difficulties, is very similar to the situation we found ourselves in a few years ago. But most people, especially in the U.S., love a comeback story.”

Indeed, the French brand, founded by René Lacoste in 1933, has had its share of challenges. In the 1990s, the public turned away from the preppy popped-collar shirts in favor of lesser-known names. What’s more, the brand had lowered its distribution to outlets and lacked fashion direction.

But with the help of its current owner, Swiss holding company Maus Frères SA, and new leadership in the U.S., the crocodile logo has found a fashion following — and sizable sales to boot.

“Footwear is enjoying huge momentum for the brand, as is apparel,” said Grünberg, who was named CEO of Lacoste’s French business in 2013 before being tapped to lead the U.S. in 2015. “Thanks to many marketing investments, capsule collections we’ve been launching and strong innovation in product, we’ve been able to completely turn around the situation and gain more attraction around the brand.”

With the label turning 85 — and the French Open starting May 21 — Grünberg weighs in on why the Lacoste revival is real and where the crocodile will go next.

In January, Lacoste entered a joint venture with Pentland, giving you control of U.S. sales and distribution. Why was this important?

“It was important to merge the two distributions — footwear and apparel — in the U.S. because it enables us to be more consistent and aligned on what we do. We were working together before, but it was different because everything was coming from [headquarters in] Paris. It was like two different organizations. Now, being all together in the same location, on the same team, makes doing business so much easier.”

With the new structure in place, where is the U.S. business headed?

“Fortunately, the business is very strong right now. For the U.S., the retail environment has been difficult for the past four or five years. When I arrived a few years ago, our situation was not an easy one — even though our brand and its awareness have always been strong in this market, the business was starting to decrease. Like many other brands, we had gone into too many distribution points. We had too much promotionality, which is an easy way to dilute the business. There was clearly a need to come back to what we wanted to do — to have a premium distribution channel in wholesale with our department store partners, with specialty doors, with the sports doors. We needed to reduce distribution to better control the presentation of our brand, control our prices and be sure the promotionality was not going to kill the brand. We led that transformation. We started it three years ago. Since last summer, we are starting to see things pay off significantly.”

What areas will you focus on for growth?

“A lot of growth will be focused on footwear. Although it’s a big category for us today, we can grow it much more. We are going to reinforce our innovation in product and developing new footwear. We are continuing to push the sport piece of our business — in the past few years, it has developed for footwear and apparel. It is technically performance product meant for sport, but a lot of our customers buy them for nonperformance situations. Our sport business has grown from a couple of percentage points three years ago to nearly 25 percent of our total today, and it has much more potential.”

What other categories will Lacoste more aggressively pursue?

“We are going to push on leather goods, which we haven’t developed enough in the past for various reasons. Now we have a strong collection of men’s leather goods, bags, wallets. It’s a market that’s also less saturated.”

With 85 years of history, how will you evolve Lacoste’s heritage?

“Being true to a brand through its history is important for the customer here. We are very lucky that we have a strong history. We have 85 years of true story, true product and heritage, and a history of the brand through René Lacoste, who had strong ties with the U.S. — the brand has been here since the 1950s. We are able to pull from that heritage, to develop innovative products that are built on it. It’s why we just launched the René collection for the 85th anniversary. We took key styles that were strong in the previous decades and proposed them to the customer again. Americans love when brands come back with styles that were strong at some point. For us, when people look at Lacoste, they remember what their father was wearing, sometimes their grandfather — it speaks to them.”

Tell us about the celebration plans.

“There is a big focus in terms of communication. We will have events in Paris during the French Open, with a major exhibition at Roland-Garros, and of course on our new products. We also did a fashion show in Paris in February. That was very focused on the 85th.”

How else will you get the message out?

“We are doing a lot of things digitally. We are focusing on New York, Miami and Los Angeles; those are the three key cities for us. We’ll increase our presence through social media, influencers and the press more generally to get visibility for our anniversary and to push the 85th collection.”

What is Lacoste’s online strategy?

“Our website is a huge chunk of our business, and it is growing more than double digits. We’re also working on pushing the dotcom businesses of our key partners: Macys, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Amazon. We are doing that because there is huge untapped potential there. We are already there, obviously, but we are focusing the efforts of our teams to work in better coordination with the digital teams of these partners and developing that side of the business.”

How concerned are you about all the competition in the athleisure space?

“I don’t worry about the competition because it’s always exciting to see what the others are doing. If the environment is good, it is usually good for everyone, and some brands will perform better than others. It is always better to have strong competition than weak. In the U.S., everybody is here. [There are] sports brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma. And then in a more casual type of environment, it’s the traditional big American brands — Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and others that are strong with innovation. If the environment is strong, customers will go to stores to look for new things.”

Let’s focus on collaborations. Why have they been so integral to Lacoste?

“We’ve always been strong at doing these types of collaborations. In fact, we were doing them before they were trendy. It’s important in the American market to have four or five collaborations a year. Some of ours are marketing-oriented, where we can be a bit more edgy in the type of partnership we look for because they are meant to create buzz and differentiation. And then we have ones that can be a bit more mainstream, more commercially oriented, whether it’s with artists or well-known designers that can address a wider audience. Our plan in the next year is to have these with American artists, designers or singers — people who are very well-known in the U.S.”

Why is it important to sponsor events like the French or Miami opens?

“It is a big investment for us, but it is important. The brand is deeply rooted in sports, specifically tennis and golf. For us, it wouldn’t make sense to not be partners with the key events of a given country. France is a historical country; that is where the brand was born. Being a partner to the French Open is very obvious. And here in the U.S., it’s important for us to be in key events in our major markets. Florida is our biggest market in the country, so being a partner of the Miami Open was and is a priority.”

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