PARIS — Much-hyped wearable technology and the “Internet of things” have nothing on haute couture, which continues to ride high above economic turbulence.
“People are appreciating the savoir faire, even the new generation of high-tech people,” said Christian Dior chief executive officer Sidney Toledano, citing a surge of clients in their 30s and 40s, many from the entertainment and digital industries in the U.S. and Asia. “They want the best of the best.”
Echoing other couture executives, he cited “excellent” high-fashion business in 2013 and an atelier running at full capacity ahead of the spring couture shows, which kick off Monday in the French capital.
Novelties of the week include:
• The first Schiaparelli runway show by its new creative director Marco Zanini;
• The debut of Vionnet demi-couture by Hussein Chalayan;
• The first Paris showing of London-based house Ralph & Russo, and
Also, Dior is flying in more than 80 fashion students from around the world to take in Raf Simons’ fourth couture collection for the house, tour the atelier and learn about the history of Dior. The French company has added a third runway show for the students and is also inviting all of its tailors and seamstresses.
Toledano said the initiative is about “sharing, transmitting and motivating” young people by exposing them to the painstaking, hand-wrought creations at the pinnacle of the luxury industry — and attracting them to a small yet vibrant enterprise that needs skilled and passionate artisans.
Unveiling what’s behind “the dream” of couture is a hot topic among couture executives, who said catwalk
shows, exhibitions and craftsmanship demonstrations in emerging markets are nourishing the rare enterprise.
For the second season, the Chambre Syndicale has invited a range of specialty ateliers to open their doors on Thursday and Friday, closing out couture week. Participants include silversmith Goossens, milliner Maison Michel and Hermès, showcasing its textile know-how.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, cited growing interest from press and clients to the intricacies of couture’s rarefied materials and hand skills.
“It’s about understanding what’s behind the dress. It brings a lot of value to what we’re doing,” Pavlovsky said.
Likewise, Chanel’s strategic priority is to “ensure we have all the various know-hows needed to develop the collection,” he said, characterizing each of Karl Lagerfeld’s couture outings as “an exploration” of exceptional materials, techniques and details.
Last year, Chanel acquired Lognon, a small Paris atelier specializing in hand pleating via steam and cardboard molds.
For his Schiaparelli debut, Zanini is said to have tapped a range of top artisans and ateliers in Paris; Lyon, France, and London, including Lemarié for feathers, Gripoix for ivy-leaf jewelry, Stephen Jones for hats and Bucol for exclusive prints.
Executives expressed a positive outlook for couture, scoffing at the suggestion the marked luxury slowdown in China could dent the craft’s momentum.
Toledano noted that couture “has nothing to do with the gift business,” alluding to the steep declines in watch sales, particularly as the Chinese government clamps down on corruption. “Couture clients are not that affected by the economic situation,” Pavlovsky agreed.
Indeed, Asian cities have now become — like New York — regular stops for couture houses to bring their collections for client fittings.
Dior reprised its spring 2013 couture show in Shanghai last year, and welcomed some 120,000 visitors to its “Esprit Dior” exhibition there, fanning interest in high fashion. “Hong Kong and China [are] significant now,” Toledano said.
Citing strong client reaction to Simons’ designs, Toledano said runway ensembles are now the core of the business, with dresses and coats in fur among the bestsellers of the fall 2013 collection, particularly in China, Russia and South Korea.
Valentino also staged a major fashion show in Shanghai last year, parading a special Collection Shanghai 2013 collection, exposing the brand to an array of wealthy Chinese and attracting several new clients.
Including its retail operations and ready-to-wear, Valentino’s total business in China vaulted 80 percent last year, underlining the potential for future market share gains, according to ceo Stefano Sassi.
He noted that Valentino’s traditional markets for couture remain strong — the Middle East, America, Europe and Russia —with China and Brazil new frontiers for growth.
Couture telegraphs “the level of the brand” via elite craftsmanship and details that can only be realized by skilled artisans, Sassi stressed.
“You have to put energy, creativity and research to guarantee that every couture collection is a step forward,” he said. “We’re really putting a lot of love and effort to try and outdo ourselves every season.”
He hinted that a couture showcase could be part of opening events around new flagships slated for this year in Rome and on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
“Extreme luxury is very much in demand, and it is the right time to make couture more visible,” agreed Christine Chapellu, general manager of Jean Paul Gaultier, citing a “high-double-digit” bump in couture sales last year.
Chapellu noted Gaultier is planning events in China for later this year to bulk up a clientele now mainly centered in the Middle East, the U.S., Europe and Russia. “We also have plans for South America, which is a market with a great potential for us, as well as the rest of Asia, notably Singapore and Indonesia,” she added.
Chapellu credited couture for the success of its traveling exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” soon to welcome its millionth visitor to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. In April, it heads to the Barbican in London.
The privileged women who can afford to buy couture, meanwhile, often expect at-the-door service.
“Our traditional clients demand private presentations, an even more intimate and exclusive atmosphere to see the couture in. It means that the team needs to travel even more than before,” Chapellu said.
In a quest to anoint couture with greater exclusivity, Givenchy stopped staging couture presentations more than a year ago, servicing private clients according to their calendar of occasions, which ceo Sebastian Suhl said has been a boon to a business he describes as “a communion between a designer, a client and the house.”
He noted media attention has not suffered without high fashion shows, and Givenchy and its couturier Riccardo Tisci have made waves by dressing almost 50 celebrities in couture last year, including Rihanna and Beyoncé on concert tours.
“Couture is very much alive with us,” he said, noting Givenchy has made investments in its ateliers to support a global clientele.
Versace also dubs couture its “preferred tool” for the red carpet, according to ceo Gian Giacomo Ferraris.
“We are positive about Atelier Versace for 2014,” he said. “Couture is not substantially affected by market volatility, and we believe there are ongoing opportunities to attract new clients and open new markets, such as Brazil and Southeast Asia, for example.”
He added that media interest remains high, in print and online, especially where celebrities are concerned. “There is strong interest in luxury, and I see excellent opportunities for increased coverage,” he said.
Newcomers to Paris also describe vibrant business potential.
Founded six years ago by an Australian couple in their early 30s, Ralph & Russo characterized itself as the first British couture brand since 1915 to be invited to show on the official couture calendar. The house cited annual growth of 400 percent.
“Tailoring a product and service that is akin to the lifestyle a client leads is one of the key factors behind an increase in demand,” said president and ceo Michael Russo.
Creative director Tamara Ralph cited strong growth in China, the Middle East and Russia, with South America and Africa among emerging markets.
“Buyers are increasingly on the lookout for products that have exceptional quality that are not widely accessible,” she noted. “We are seeing an increasingly younger audience.”