By  on December 6, 2005

Flagships as grand — and as frequented — as a Guggenheim museum. Handbags that cost as much as a Hummer — and purchased on a whim.

Those were among the signs of a banner year for luxury, when most players posted double-digit sales and profit gains, thanks to a booming stock market and a strong consumer tendency to trade up to the best.

As Michele Norsa, chief executive of Valentino Fashion Group, put it last September: "Tourism has picked up, new markets are opening up and there is a lot of cash around."

And how. Ultraexpensive items, from $30,000 crocodile handbags to $58,000 diamond-studded watches, were such brisk sellers at designer boutiques and specialty stores that buyers wished they had ordered more. Janet Brown, who operates a namesake fashion boutique in Port Washington, N.Y., said of the $3,000 gowns and $7,000 fur coats from Lanvin she carries, "Their shelf life is usually a day."

Gucci Group was among luxury players to seize on this upscaling phenomenon, which propelled its sales in the third quarter by 11.6 percent. Leather goods led the increase, with nine out its 10 best-selling bags from the pricy La Pelle Guccissima line.

"When a product becomes a must-have piece, its price does not matter anymore," said Gucci Group president and ceo Robert Polet. "There has been a strong trend toward individuality and a desire for product made with superior quality, precious materials and outstanding craftsmanship."

Chanel said robust sales of luxury ready-to-wear in its boutiques, at prices approaching the opening ranges of couture, proved that a ceiling has yet to be reached for today's elite shopper. "I don't see price resistance at all at the highest prices," said Chanel SA president Françoise Montenay, citing sellouts of $41,300 coats and $30,500 knit ensembles for fall.

The good times rolled around the globe, with the U.S., Asia and the Middle East — awash in oil money — among the standout markets. Even Europe, with its long-anemic economies and atrophied image, showed some vigor, boosting the fortunes of firms like Hermès International, which saw its sales there advance 5.7 percent in the third quarter. Japan, also crucial to the luxury sector, rebounded nicely.

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