Bernard Lacoste, who turned a small family sportswear firm best known for its crocodile logo into a global clothing empire, died Tuesday in Paris at age 74.

Lacoste passed away peacefully in a hospital after battling an undisclosed illness, according to a statement posted Wednesday on the company's website.

As a result of that illness, which struck early last year, Lacoste had passed the business on to his brother and longtime collaborator, Michel Lacoste, in September 2005.

Lacoste himself had taken over the company 40 years earlier from his father, tennis great Rene Lacoste -- dubbed "Le Crocodile" by U.S. sports writers. The company was founded in 1933.

Under Bernard Lacoste's leadership, the Paris-based company went from selling 300,000 crocodile-embossed polo shirts per year in the mid-1960s to well over 50 million, with shops and boutiques in 110 countries around the world, the company said.

Today, the Lacoste logo also adorns shoes, perfumes, leather goods, watches, eyewear, belts, and other products.

"Bernard Lacoste personified the elegance, the sense of fair play, and team spirit that are so important to the crocodile," the company said.

Lacoste was born in Paris in 1931, and is survived by wife, Sachiko, and three children from a previous marriage.