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Corporate Comebacks: Lacoste


When alligators attack, again.

Abercrombie & Fitch
Dunkin Donuts
Johnny Walker
As of the year 2000, the Lacoste polo shirt -- with its iconic alligator logo and popped collar -- seemed to have gone the way of Alex P. Keaton, Rick Astley and other bad 80s ideas. Any man caught wearing that pique-cotton symbol of snobbery prompted both mocking laughter and the inevitable question: "Are you insufferably preppy, or just gay?"

A sad state of affairs, particularly given the brand's venerable history. The alligator was born in 1933, after French tennis champion Rene Lacoste struck a deal with his manager: For every match his team won, he would receive a brand-new alligator suitcase. As the tool from which all other polo-wearing tools are rightfully descended, Lacoste's next step was clear: He immediately had an alligator embroidered on both his tennis blazer and his extensive collection of polo shirts.

For 40 years, the company thrived. But in the mid-1970s, it began licensing itself to an increasing number of manufacturers. While this greatly increased Lacoste's market share, it also had an unintended consequence: The brand -- quelle dommage! -- began losing its high-society cachet, which allowed upstarts like Ralph Lauren (RL) and Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) to begin making off with Lacoste's once-loyal customers.

Enter Christian Lemaire, a high-fashion wunderkind who reinvented the brand as a must-have for PWA -- Preppies With Attitude. According to Lemaire, his mission was "to attract younger customers, but at the same time.. balance this against the fact that Lacoste is timeless and is above trends."

It was not, however, above mining urban street styles: Lemaire's line for Lacoste featured eye-watering ultrabright colors, schoolgirl knee socks, Day-Glo elbow pads, and that godforsaken alligator logo supersized on Scarface-style gangsta robes.

Within 5 years, the company's sales had doubled; in 2005, nearly 50 million Lacoste products were sold in over 100 countries worldwide. Lacoste also began enlisting gorgeously surly young tennis stars -- including Andy Roddick -- to endorse the brand, greatly increasing its visibility.

And, perhaps most importantly, the company rediscovered the value of exclusivity. In 2002, Lacoste radically cut back its distribution; unwashed proletarians, like Macy's (M) and JC Penney (JCP), were no longer permitted to carry the alligator in their stores.

Whether Lacoste will find a way to parlay its highfalutin heritage into recession-era success is not yet clear. Of course, it can always follow the example of Burberry, another great comeback story, whose eponymous founder was a lifelong crusader for temperance.

According to his 1926 obituary, "Mr. Burberry cared for little outside his business except temperance, religion and agriculture, and he never read novels." (Novels, of course, are the devil's workshop.) He died at the age of 91, after catching a chill while haranguing the crowd at a Salvation Army meeting.

One imagines that Ja Rule - who wore a Burberry plaid bucket hat to nearly every show he performed in 2002 -- is unaware of the existence of Mr. Burberry.

Given America's new allergy to conspicuous consumption, Lacoste might do well to keep old Rene similarly in the closet.

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