Lacoste Saves the Animal Behind its Logo
by laurie brookins
Right around the moment Michel Lacoste is describing his forthcoming trip to the Philippines, it becomes clear whom he might remind you of: “So, basically,” I offer, “you’re Indiana Jones.”
In a conference room at the Park Hyatt in DC’s West End, Lacoste laughs at the comparison. Is he envisioning himself wearing a fedora, using his whip to swing through jungle trees? “I like Indiana Jones,” he adds with a smile. Of course, Lacoste’s upcoming adventure is no quest for the Ark of the Covenant, though it is a search for something he likely considers just as precious: Crocodylus mindorensis. Endangered largely because of a poverty-stricken community that has overused the wetlands in this Pacific region, the Philippine crocodile has become the latest focus for Lacoste, both the man and the company. “Fifty years ago, [speaking] of conservation, you said, ‘That animal is endangered; we must find a new way to breed that animal,’” notes Lacoste, who has served as chairman of the board of his family’s clothing label since 2005. “Today we must talk about how we human beings can live together with nature; the purpose is to make the local population understand that it’s in their economic interest— that it will help them if the crocodile population is healthier.”
As one of the participants in the global Save Your Logo program, Lacoste’s devotion to saving the Philippine crocodile is one of five preservation initiatives the company is spearheading around the planet, each one centered around the animal that, for almost eight decades, has adorned the polo shirts created by Michel’s father, the celebrated tennis player René Lacoste. “A journalist gave my father this nickname, the Crocodile, because his play was very tough and resilient,” Michel explains. “He enjoyed this name very much, and asked a friend to design a crocodile as an embroidery that could be worn on his blazer.” That first logo was an oversize, in-your-face statement of sorts that, as the brand approaches its 80th anniversary in 2013, has become hot once again: For his Fall/Winter collection, Creative Director Felipe Oliveira Baptista employed the larger logo in his ski-themed collection, which also boasts an undeniably retro, 1930s-driven appeal.
Michel Lacoste found himself in DC earlier this year because the notion of “Save Your Logo” also happens to carry a dual meaning for his company. That embroidered crocodile, which his father ultimately turned into the clothing line he launched in 1933, became the very first logo to be visible on ready-to-wear apparel—and instantly was in danger of being counterfeited (indeed, the first documented conversation about trademark infringement of the Lacoste crocodile took place in the ’30s). It’s therefore no surprise that the label has been at the forefront of fighting trademark infringement for decades; Michel addressed the subject at this summer’s International Trademark Association Annual Meeting, which took place at the convention center. During that same trip, Lacoste also met with Victoria Espinel, the White House’s United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. Espinel is the first person to hold the position, which carries its own nickname, the IP Czar. “I was able to tell her how much we agreed on the work she’s doing in proper protection between intellectual property and economic development,” Lacoste says. “I’m hoping we can find ways of extending her approach to this subject in the direction of Europe.”
With his label’s products available in roughly 120 countries, Lacoste has reason to be passionate on the subject: The company holds trademark protections in more than 100 countries, yet even with such restrictions in place and amid diligent policing, more than 8 million items bearing counterfeit Lacoste logos were seized in 2011. While Michel Lacoste holds tremendous faith in his team’s ability to combat counterfeiting, he acknowledges that it may never be completely eradicated. I mention that other designers compare counterfeiters to cockroaches: You can destroy a nest, but be sure to look for a new one behind another wall. “I agree with this description,” Lacoste says somewhat ruefully. “Ultimately, I think the day you say, ‘I’ve solved all my problems,’ you can be quite sure the following morning a major catastrophe is going to [befall] you.”
Lacoste is equally pragmatic when asked about the role he plays both in the brand’s counterfeiting efforts and in any thought that he might be the face of his family’s company. While he may fleetingly enjoy the thought of swinging from the trees Raiders-style, Lacoste knows the treasure he seeks at the end of his quest is the true star. “The crocodile is such a strong brand, and the boss of the company truly is the brand,” he says. “We’re really just giving back what he’s given by lending himself to us all these years.” 3146 M St. NW, 202-965-1893
photography by elodie grégoire; GETTY IMAGES (LACOSTE, RUNWAY)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.