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Younger Clients Drive Growth of Couture

An influx of clients, including a new wave from China, is helping to pad couture’s coffers, fueling double-digit growth for the most expensive clothes on earth.

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Karl Lagerfeld’s sketch of his fall couture collection for Chanel featuring the inscription “Le Corbusier goes to Versailles.”

Courtesy Photo

PARIS — The pinnacle of the luxury pyramid remains in fine fettle.

An influx of younger clients, including a new wave from China, is helping to pad couture’s coffers, fueling double-digit growth for the most expensive clothes on earth.

Chanel cited record sales for its spring 2014 collection, hinged on couture sneakers by specialty atelier Massaro, and Schiaparelli — having returned in January to the fashion scene after a 60-year absence — received its first confirmed order the day after the show.

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“Even though you can read or hear every now and then that ‘couture is dead,’ our first experience proves that haute couture is very alive,” said Camilla Schiavone, managing director of Schiaparelli.

The storied newcomer has added a second show for clients only in order to accommodate the number of requests. Couture week, which opened Sunday night, winds up on Friday with a slew of high-jewelry presentations and by-appointment visits to specialty ateliers.

Sidney Toledano, chief executive officer at Christian Dior, credits the “new economy” — high-tech businesses and burgeoning wealth in emerging markets — for bringing down the average age of clients by almost a decade, to early 30s from 40s.

An influx of young clients from varied geographies — Asia, the U.S., South America and even Western Europe — and couturier Raf Simon’s modernist, arty approach underlie Dior’s double-digit gains, according to Toledano.

“Germany is also a country that is picking up for luxury,” he said, adding that Dior plans to soon open boutiques in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, adding to its locations in Berlin and Munich.

Toledano noted that couture clients of yore were rarely seen outside of private events, whereas today’s thirtysomething devotee is likely to wear high fashion to art fairs and gallery openings — in addition to fashion shows and exhibitions organized by global brands.

“These people, they’re always in the plane, and many of them are encountering the brand whether they are in New York or Hong Kong,” Toledano said, mentioning the two cities where Dior staged resort and couture shows in recent months. “It’s a permanent encounter with our clients. This is why couture is a fantastic moment for them to see the creativity up close.”

Dior is also hosting a client event to introduce its latest high-jewelry collection on Tuesday night, with a dinner for 120 people at the Palace of Versailles.

Giorgio Armani, who is slated to parade his Privé line on Tuesday, also cited a sea change in the end user of couture.

“In recent years, we have witnessed an interesting phenomenon of generational change where couture is concerned, especially in established markets,” he told WWD. “At one time couture was, so to speak, exclusively reserved for mothers. Today, their daughters are starting to appreciate this particularly exclusive and high-level form of fashion. It is a cosmopolitan audience that is demanding and informed, that doesn’t see itself in the old mold of haute couture, which was static and rigid.”

While recent data point to flagging luxury purchases by Russian and Chinese tourists, couture executives shrugged off concerns about those two linchpin nationalities.

“The clientele for haute couture is extremely varied,” said Armani, citing “steady growth” for Privé in 2014.

“The collection caters to an exclusive group of big buyers that is not affected by the global economic situation,” he said. “On the contrary, a group of elite women worldwide continues to grow, mainly due to the opening of new markets, where there is a large demand for exclusivity. ”

Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are now regular stops for most couture houses — which take their collections on the road after the Paris shows — with Chanel planning to add Moscow and Dubai legs in 2015 or 2016, said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion.

Sales of Chanel’s spring couture collection by Karl Lagerfeld — paraded amidst a futuristic nightclub set — jumped 20 percent, reflecting the appeal of his designs and a heightened interest in couture in mature and emerging markets.

“Our atelier is fully, fully, fully booked,” Pavlovsky said. “We feel we still have potential in developing haute couture.”

Pavlovsky stressed that couture increasingly demands high service levels and a “very targeted” approach.

While many devotees still travel to Paris for the shows and to place orders, Chanel’s team is at the ready to travel to them. “We need to be more or less everywhere,” he said.

Stefano Sassi, ceo of Rome-based Valentino, said he’s projecting growth of 30 to 35 percent for couture this year, thanks largely to an influx of Chinese customers following a Shanghai showing in November. Their “behavior is changing quite dramatically, and in their search for exclusivity, they are appreciative of Valentino couture pieces,” he said.

The executive said couture would likely play an important role in a major event Valentino is planning for the opening of its new flagship on New York’s Fifth Avenue toward the end of the year.

“Haute couture is definitely in very good health,” he said, noting Valentino would enlarge its capacity to face rising demand.

Sophie Waintraub, general manager at Jean Paul Gaultier, said the house’s youngest clients are often independent businesswomen of extremely high means, and budding collectors of couture. She noted American and European clients tend to order more daywear, while those from the Middle East, Russia and China are more interested in eveningwear.

Schiaparelli’s Schiavone said the fall collection, by creative director Marco Zanini, would reflect a broader choice of day and eveningwear. Exclusive prints include a hand-painted butterfly motif, a nod to founder Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous butterfly dress from 1937, currently on display at the Dries Van Noten retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs.

Schiavone characterized Schiaparelli’s first season as a “great start” as its atelier just finished the “many orders” the company received.

“The interesting phenomenon is that they are transgenerational. A mother may buy one thing while her daughter will buy something else,” she said. “Haute couture embodies unique values for women who understand them and look for them.”

She noted Schiaparelli would focus on developing the couture business before layering on “prêt-à-couture,” or high-end ready-to-wear, to sell out of its headquarters on the Place Vendôme.

“In a market that is so dense, launching a real couture house takes time and we want to take that time to do everything the proper way,” she said.

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