Founded by a boisterous French tennis player, Lacoste’s reputation as a purveyor of vintage chic and modern styling has seen it resolutely pegged as an old fogies brand. That is, until the arrival of their heritage driven ‘Stealth’ collection. From literally nowhere, the famous Croc bagged startlingly original colabs with Alife, Kid Robot, Colette, Solebox and this very magazine, which saw them leapfrog competitors and carve their own niche in a crowded market. Mark Godwin heads the International Stealth Category, and we tracked him down in Tokyo to ask him how he went from selling Mars bars to travelling the world talking about shoes for a living.
I saw Justin Timberlake has been rocking the Missouri 85 recently. I should think your bosses must be happy with the way things are going at lacoste these days...
Yep, I hope so, they pay my wages!
What does your business card say?
My card says ‘International Category Manager Stealth’. Basically I am responsible for putting together our Stealth collection along with other special projects or collaborations. The exciting part of my job involves travelling the world conducting market research at stores, museums and exhibitions, and meeting retailers, media etc. The mundane would be the desk work including sales analysis, pricing and margins. Each season we sit down as a team and decide on the direction, and have many meetings along the way to finalise the range colours, materials, themes and pricing, before the specs are sent to the factory. Some shoes we get right the first time, others take a lot of tweaking. I then get involved in launching the product to our sales teams, putting catalogues together and maybe getting involved with some key retailers. We are usually juggling three ranges at various stages of development at any one time.
Lacoste has been around for a long time, but it’s only recently with Stealth that you’ve created this cool/street edge to the brand. Why do you need a category like this?
I think it’s really important for a few reasons. Firstly, it enables us to communicate the brand’s heritage. When I first arrived at Lacoste, the brand was in danger of becoming too commercial in markets such as the UK, and in others we were perceived as being an ‘old man’ brand. I think many people were unaware of the achievements of Rene Lacoste in the world of tennis. Communicating this to a more educated consumer enabled us to start a top tier trend strategy, giving us a presence in cool stores and media, and in theory putting our shoes on more stylish feet. Stealth is also responsible for seeding new styles, letting them ferment for a while before releasing them on a wider scale.
Colette, Kid Robot, Solebox, Alife... you’ve racked up a pretty impressive collection of collaborations, starting of course with the Missouri 85 project that we did together. Why do they work so well?
None of them were intentional, they all just kind of happened, and I think that is the best way to do things. For example, one of our designers had the idea to make a vinyl toy croc to sit with our shoes at retail. We flew Paul Budnitz from Kid Robot over to the UK and the rest is history. We got the toy, they got the shoes, we both had fun and both parties got great media. Similarly with Solebox and Alife. Both of my original meetings with them were for other purposes, but we struck up good relationships and both projects felt natural and mutually beneficial. At the end of the day, we look to gain recognition and visibility for our shoes, as well as distribution in the best stores globally. The associated media coverage is great for the Lacoste brand as a whole and I hope that our partners also get similar benefits.
Will they always have such a positive effect?
There are too many, and for the industry’s sake, I hope it all slows down a bit. I think both consumers and retailers are getting fed up, and it is no longer a guaranteed success. I have had a few retailers recently say no to projects as they are offered too much and are being stung by product not selling.
It sounds pretty glamorous travelling the world, talking about shoes all day...
It is, but it is also gutting to leave your family behind and experience all these places without them. But it’s a job, so you get on with it. I travel by identifying the markets where I believe we need to focus. I’m spending a lot of time in Japan and the US, two markets where we don’t have a great presence. The rest of my time is spent around Europe trying to hit the key cities and identify future trends, as well as build relationships with key retailers.
Sneaker lovers are often critical of the lack of precision in the way that classic models are remanufactured, how difficult have you found this process?
Most have been ok, however there have been one or two that have been harder. It all depends how many original shoes we have to work with. The more you have enables the factory to cut them up and really study them to replicate them accurately. The shoe that has pleased me most has been the Ardeur, as we never even had a sample, only catalogue images, but the end result has been authentic. I have since been given an original from one of our distributors and the resemblance is really good. I need to thank our design team, especially Ryan for his work on this.
Lacoste is just one of the brands that are owned by the Pentland Group. Can you give our readers an overview of how the company is organised and the variety of footwear jobs that exist?
Well... we have four design teams who look after their own category, each of which is headed up by a manager like me. But we also have graphic designers, colour and material experts, as well as fit and production experts, all on the development side. Then there is the sales side – logistics, customer service and financial support, all are indirectly linked to the shoes, some have more impact than others on the actual footwear. So if you are training as an accountant, you can still get your foot in the door of the footwear industry. It’s the passion and commitment you show that will get you places! Within Pentland there are so many brands, and it is a great place to work. But of interest to Sneaker Freaker readers will be our design pool, where each year we take students straight from college and they sit in this team for 11 months working across all the Pentland brands gaining different levels of experience. I think we currently have four or five designers who have joined us this way.
How did you get into footwear?
I was stumbling along at the age of 24, not really knowing what do to. At the time I was merchandising chocolate bars. I’m sure the South West of London sold more MARS bars then than ever before because of my work, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I then got a job at adidas UK, despite forgetting my shoes for my final interview and wearing trainers with my suit! I started off working as a ‘tech rep’ and spent the next few years going to sport stores training the retail staff on how a shoe is made. I was taught all about shoe and apparel construction by the best adidas boffins, and my love affair with sneakers began. adidas decided to move into fashion, re-launched their originals division and I was given the opportunity to open the best fashion independents in the UK. I was working with like-minded people, the product was great and all was good. However after a while I began to get frustrated, so after eight years I made the call, and I was given the opportunity to set up a UK trend division for Fila. Things didn’t work out there, but I believe you have to learn from your failures, and luckily I was approached by Lacoste to join their UK team. One thing led to another and within a year I was working with product and had the craziest job title of International Stealth Manager.
Did changing brands after such a long stint affect you emotionally? Is it hard to switch sides like that?
Yes. I hope it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this that I still have a great affinity for the three stripes. Although that does not affect me in my current role, as the challenge of seeing the Croc in as many stores and outselling adidas drives me on.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time at Lacoste so far?
I guess the whole thing with you guys, deciding to do the Sneaker Freaker x Missouri shoe (I was dead nervous asking!), and then seeing it come together so quickly from artwork, to shoe, to the launch party at Alife in New York. Then watching it all kick-off on the blogs and the reports of crazy sell out. Ask Hikmet at Solebox who didn’t know why people were queuing outside his store when he got to work one morning! It was this project that gave us the credibility to really move forward.
Great answer Mark, you know which side your toast is buttered. What sneakers are you wearing now?
The Lacoste Cabestan Cup.
This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here