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PARIS — Economic turbulence be damned: High fashion enters 2012 in ruddy health.
As couture week gets under way here today, the few remaining practitioners of the rare, exacting enterprise said they expect flush emerging markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and South America to continue yielding new clients, which allowed them to achieve sales growth of anywhere from 5 percent to 80 percent last year.
“We feel more and more interest from these customers for something unique,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, characterizing 2011 as a record year for the house, with gains fueled by Asia, the Middle East and former Soviet Bloc countries, on top of its regulars in Europe and the U.S. “It’s a small business, but quite an active one.”
Indeed, Chanel plans to reprise its spring show in Tokyo on March 22, as reported. It will also take the winter collection to Beijing and Hong Kong, in addition to its regular stops in New York and Los Angeles.
“We are trying to propose couture to customers that we know and want to upgrade to this unique service,” Pavlovsky said.
Calling 2011 a “really good year,” Sidney Toledano, chief executive at Christian Dior, said high fashion’s buoyancy echoes a general trend among elite consumers toward exceptional products. “People are looking for top quality,” he said. “That’s the case for jewelry, it’s true for watches, and it’s true for bags.”
Dior was among companies controlled by luxury titan Bernard Arnault to open its doors to the public last October as part of an event titled Les Journées Particulières, designed to showcase French heritage, patrimony and craftsmanship.
Toledano said heightened public interest in such savoir faire is reflected among clients, who are keen to know about how high-fashion dresses are realized. “It’s the backbone of the company, and people know this is based on a real atelier,” he said. “For us, couture is always at the forefront.”
Toledano noted that couture dresses figure prominently in exhibitions such as the one at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow last year, and in Dior’s latest tome, “Dior Couture,” featuring photography by Patrick Demarchelier.
“In those years of crisis, couture has been a key vector for the company,” Toledano said. “This is the real expression of the brand, where you see our savoir faire with all the creativity, values and spirit of Dior.”
Dior plans to stage its show today at its couture salons above the Avenue Montaigne flagship boutique, which is decorated to evoke that salon ambience with bespoke furniture, Lesage-embroidered curtains and period moldings.
Armani Privé also had a good 2011, with sales rising 50 percent versus the prior year. “It appears that couture customers are better equipped to face economic uncertainty compared with others. We are cautious but have faith in 2012 and I believe our business will continue to grow,” said Fabio Mancone, head of communications and licensing at Giorgio Armani Group.
Valentino credits the quality of its couture collections for an 80 percent bump in couture sales last year, bringing the business back to the levels of 2006/2007, before the global financial crisis.
“There is a renewed interest that can be attributed to the attention to the work done at Valentino by our creative directors,” said Stefano Sassi, ceo of Valentino, referring to Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Sassi acknowledged a general trend toward a younger customer and an influx from new markets, but in general “we sell to our long-standing core markets: Russia, Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and some Asia.”
Executives expressed concern but not alarm about the specter of yet more economic turbulence ahead.
“The year 2012 appears to be more difficult because of the general mood of consumers,” Sassi acknowledged. “However, the continuity of the Valentino brand and the consolidated quality of our designers’ work are an asset, elements that help us have a positive outlook for 2012.”
Chanel’s Pavlovsky noted he is “cautious” about 2012, given little visibility on the impact of the sluggish economies and the euro zone debt crisis. However, he cited no specific indicators of a shift in business vitality, pointing to a full appointment roster and confirmed attendance for its shows on Tuesday.
“Even though the world economy has been going through difficult times since a few years, our haute couture orders have been up every season,” noted Susan Whiteley, chief executive at Givenchy. “Therefore, we are confident with the year to come. We have also noticed that a younger clientele is being attracted by Riccardo’s [Tisci] latest collections.”
Versace’s return to the couture schedule — with mini presentations scheduled for today at Ecole des Beaux-Arts — is seen as a positive signal. The Milan-based house pulled couture off the runway in 2004 and in recent years invited only sittings editors to see the clothes on racks.
Gian Giacomo Ferraris, ceo of Versace, noted that its atelier, which counts 25 to 30 seamstresses, escaped restructuring cuts he instituted when he joined the company in 2009, believing it to be the nucleus of the house.
“This was a big effort, made in accordance with Donatella Versace. She protected and maintained it, she believes in it. It’s what makes us different and a fashion luxury brand,” Ferraris said of couture. “Her office is adjacent to the atelier, she has a true passion for the red carpet, she maintains the relationship with celebrities, and they ask for her. It’s a natural process and it’s a passion she shared with Gianni.”
Showing the collection by appointment only was a cost-cutting measure that has now been eased after a “good” 2011 for couture, “in line with the general business of Versace. We saw a double-digit increase. We recovered the Middle East, which is an important area, and we are very satisfied,” Ferraris said.
Couture executives agreed emerging markets are fanning the craft’s fortunes.
Ferraris said Versace’s couture “road shows” in Asia helped underscore that “the atelier is our DNA and it has made us very distinctive. This differentiation also contributed to the progress we made in China, for example.
“Customers in China and Asia want a very high level of service, and Asia is a motor of development. There are more road shows scheduled for 2012 in Asia and the U.S.,” Ferraris continued. “The outlook for 2012 is positive and I expect a boost from the show.”
Toledano said Asia represents a very “high potential” for couture, citing an enthusiastic reaction when Dior paraded couture outfits along with its cruise collection in Shanghai in 2010. “China is going to be for couture what the U.S. was after the war — and faster, and at a different scale,” Toledano said.
Givenchy’s Whiteley credited a “very loyal clientele from the Middle East and Russia,” for its 5 percent sales bump last year. “But, lately, we have recorded a surge of European and French clients,” she noted. “Riccardo Tisci’s collections are strong, and the way we present them allows clients to see the collection in a more intimate way, which is what they really appreciate.”
Executives agreed high fashion continues to be a compelling subject for fashion magazines. Chanel, for example, pointed to multipage well features in an array of international titles, including Korean Marie Claire, Chinese L’Officiel, China Modern Weekly, Singapore Icon, Singapore Female, Singapore Harper’s Bazaar and Elle and Spur in Japan. According to Chanel’s initial tallies, the number of magazines covering its couture collection increased by about 15 percent in 2011.