There are two Lacoste items sold every second worldwide. Hence, assuming a leadership position at the French apparel company, with its voluminous sales and iconic status, could be daunting, to say the least. More so, perhaps, if you happen to be Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who assumed the title of Lacoste’s creative director (replacing Christophe Lemaire, who moved to Hermès) two years ago, at the tender age of 35. “Lacoste is a brand built on heritage, and we have maintained success over the years by relying on the quality of our classic offerings,” says Steve Birkhold, president and CEO of Lacoste USA. “Felipe Oliveira Baptista’s youth and energy continue to renew the brand season after season, bringing a unique aesthetic when it comes to utilization of color and graphics. His talent has truly projected brand codes into the future.”

Now, coming up on Lacoste’s 80th anniversary, taking place in 2013, Baptista has firmly put his creative imprint on a legacy brand that traces back to 1933, when tennis champion René Lacoste embroidered his on-court moniker, the Crocodile, onto a piqué cotton polo. “Working on such a big scale with big teams presented an exciting challenge,” admits Baptista. “The concept of learning was something that really motivated me to join the brand.”

Indeed, it’s Baptista’s entrepreneurial spirit that first drew the company’s attention. While the Portuguese designer wasn’t a household name even among the front-row set when Lacoste first started interviewing for the creative director position, Baptista—whose eponymous line has won such industry prizes as the Hyères Festival and the prestigious ANDAM Fashion Awards (France’s equivalent of the CFDA that includes Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon on its list of past recipients)—was always one of the cool kids of style, a consistent one to watch. Beloved by indie glossies and avant-garde websites, Baptista had stints at Max Mara and Cerruti before going his own way in 2003, landing a coveted place on the official haute couture schedule of Paris Fashion Week two years later.

As a solo act, he became known for his staggering outpouring of color, androgynous silhouettes, and imaginative construction, not to mention an outgoing personality—all traits Lacoste was looking for in an attempt to mine a brand renaissance. “I grew up with Lacoste, and, apart from my own brand, I worked for other companies representing very different places in fashion—from couture to sportswear, from France and Italy to Tokyo and China,” recalls Baptista. “When they first approached me, I was asked to do a project that reflected my vision for the brand in terms of product, segmentation, communication, and design.”

Baptista relied on his diverse background for the “strength” to approach such a global project. And although the review process lasted several months, ultimately his disparate background convinced Lacoste they’d found the je ne sais quoi needed to inject a sartorial shake-up into the collection and provide ‡a new interpretation of the Lacoste values.

Several seasons into Baptista’s tenure, the gambit seems to be paying off in spades, as recent collections have delicately and deftly maneuvered the fine line between staying true to Lacoste’s heritage while making sure the relevancy quotient is on full tilt. It’s the “incarnation of the sportswear à la Française,” says Baptista, who recently referenced “swagga” as an inspiration in his own Spring 2012 collection’s runway notes. “But, saying that, Lacoste has always been about keeping up with the times. My job is to maintain the balance between the two.”

Sending pieces down the runway that appeal to fashion editors and style setters without losing the brand’s storied roots and iconic logo is not an easy ace, but Baptista is consistently hitting the mark. Take, for example, the latest runway show, where he mined Lacoste’s archives to deliver some ’80s-inspired pieces (appropriate, given the anniversary) that incorporated the decade’s in-your-face color blocking and tracksuit phenomenon, but avoided overindulgence. The sportswear managed to eschew the country club set but not alienate it: plastic tennis shirts or a navy leather minidress, likewise tribal prints that, up close, consisted of tiny tennis balls and rackets. “I continue to explore the brand’s archives for collections that are relevant today,” Baptista says. “It’s not about retro; it’s about understanding where we come from and how we can keep pushing it forward.”

The same philosophy, he enthuses, will be put in high gear when it comes to fêting Lacoste’s eighth-decade anniversary. “For almost a century, the crocodile has adorned Lacoste’s classic polo shirts, making the trademark—and the apparel—recognized worldwide,” says Birkhold. “For the 80th anniversary, we will continue to push and expose the brand in new and different ways, ultimately building brand image and equality.”

As part of the celebrations, the company is releasing everything from exclusive offerings to artist and limited- edition collaborations with major luxury brands. First up is Edition, launching in February, which consists of polos, tennis dresses, and accessories that illustrate what Baptista identifies as Lacoste’s brand values: ‡energy, movement, innovation, and chic.

While specifics for further rollouts are being kept under wraps, connoisseurs are eagerly awaiting Baptista’‡s next reinterpretation of the Lacoste vault. “‡It’s all about the twist,” he says. “I believe I have to surprise and challenge people.” 575 Madison Ave., 212-750-8115; 608 Fifth Ave., 212-459-2300; 134 Prince St., 212-226-5019; 541 Broadway, 212-219-9203; 420 Park Ave. South, 646-380- 5224

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