March 22, 2006 02:55 PM

Bernard Lacoste, the French clothing manufacturer who for more than four decades put crocodiles on the chests of people around the world, died Tuesday in a Paris hospital of a lengthy, undisclosed illness, said his company. He was 74.

Lacoste, widely credited with turning the family sportswear business into a major apparel company (especially when it came to those crocodile-adorned polo shirts), succeeded his father, tennis player Rene “Le Crocodile” Lacoste, as president of the clothing company in 1963, 30 years after the company had been founded.

The elder Lacoste’s nickname apparently originated when he admired a crocodile suitcase in a store window, and his Davis Cup captain promised to buy it for him if he won an important upcoming match. He never got the bag, but U.S. sports writers took up the name because it described his style on the court, according to the Associated Press.

Bernard Lacoste handed over the reins of the company to his younger brother Michel in September but remained with the firm as “honorary president.”

In the 1990s, Lacoste bought back its name from the Izod company in America, which had taken the crocodile-shirt brand down market in the 1980s. Re-launching the label a few years later, Lacoste is now sold at premium prices in upscale department stores and Lacoste boutiques.

Lacoste is survived by his wife, Sachiko, and three children from his first marriage.

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