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Couture’s New Wave: Faces, Shows, Markets

Expect a of variety of fashion comebacks — from double Dutch to major league, plus a mystery one — along with enough parties to empty a wine cellar.

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PARIS — Couture Week, which kicked off Sunday, looks as fizzy as a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

The shows over the next four days will feature a variety of fashion comebacks — from double Dutch to major league, plus a mystery one — along with enough parties to empty a wine cellar.

Meanwhile, couture’s biggest names cite sustained demand, as clients from Brazil and Asia discover the rare and exclusive hand-wrought clothes and accessories.

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“It is good to see couture attracting a newfound attention,” declared Giorgio Armani, who joined the high-fashion calendar in 2005. “The more designers who aspire to couture status, the better for fashion in general. For this reason, I applaud anything that maintains couture in good health.”

Novelties this week are headlined by a onetime tribute collection for Schiaparelli by Christian Lacroix, whose couture house was shuttered in 2009, and the return of Viktor & Rolf to the high fashion stage after a 13-year absence.

At his show today, French designer Eric Tibusch is promising “an exclusive collaboration with a famous fashion designer, who signs his comeback.…We will call him C.M.” Could it be Claude Montana? (Tibusch won’t spill.)

Designers from China, the Middle East and Russia are gravitating to the French capital as a platform to burnish their brand image, and to capture the hordes of high-end tourists who make fashion and cultural pilgrimages here. New on the schedule, with shows running through Thursday, is Shandong-born, Paris-based Lawrence Xu. And there are more to come: Beijing-based organization Fashion Inlife has drawn up a five-year plan to promote Chinese couturiers on the international stage.

Couture workrooms are also ready for their close-up. The Chambre Syndicale, French fashion’s organizing body, has added 10 specialty ateliers to the official calendar. They are to invite editors to discover the craftsmanship behind the world’s most labor-intensive and expensive clothes.

Participants for the inaugural session are embroiderers Lesage and Montex, shoemaker Massaro, leather finisher Idées de Marc, silk finisher Holding Textile Hermès, glove maker Causse, milliner Maison Michel, goldsmith Goossens, feather house Lemarié and saddler Maïté Wustner.

According to Armani, such behind-the-scenes exposure reinforces the value of the rich patrimony in Europe.

“I think people need to know what couture is really about,” the Italian designer said. “What this industry needs is perhaps greater exposure. The more the better, to show that behind the dream, there is a lot of hard work. It is important to remember that the wonderful items of couture are produced through meticulous craftsmanship, which needs to be promoted and safeguarded.”

Ralph Toledano, president of fashion at Puig, the Spanish parent of the fashion houses Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne, Carolina Herrera and Jean Paul Gaultier, said the traveling exhibition devoted to Gaultier’s couture, currently on in Stockholm and destined for New York City and London next, has already attracted close to one million visitors — some 300,000 during the San Francisco leg alone.

“People want to dream: Of course, there’s interest,” he said, also citing robust sales for Gaultier’s Indian-themed spring collection, with Russian and Middle Eastern clients gravitating toward grand evening gowns; Americans and Europeans to suits and cocktail dresses.

“We are confident. We have reinforced the teams, we have reinforced the atelier,” he said, also confirming last week’s WWD story that Christine Chapellu will assume the management helm of Gaultier starting today.

For Chanel, which began acquiring specialty ateliers more than a decade ago and now controls a total of nine, from an elite knitwear factory in Scotland to a button specialist in Paris, opening its doors “is part of the couture story,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at the privately held company. “The work done there is so impressive.”

The garments are mostly realized at its Rue Cambon headquarters, where Chanel just added a fourth atelier to meet rising demand. The company now has two ateliers for tailored garments and two for unstructured ones, known in French as “flou.”

Pavlovsky cited a double-digit gain for Karl Lagerfeld’s spring couture collection, but stressed that rapid growth is not the goal. “We want to maintain a very exclusive service,” he said.

At Dior, chief executive officer Sidney Toledano cited a “strong double-digit” pace for couture, crediting the modernist designs of Raf Simons for attracting new and younger clients from almost all geographies, including the Middle East, Russia and the U.S. “Couture also has to be creative and innovative,” he said. “It has to bring a new vision.”

Toledano praised the addition of high jewelry to the couture-week cocktail and said Dior would host a dinner for about 100 clients in Versailles to present the latest collection by its fine jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane. The women will also get a chance to visit rooms rarely open to the public, he added.

Valentino’s Rome atelier, located in a 16th-century palazzo, is operating at “full capacity” and still fulfilling two or three outstanding spring orders, according to ceo Stefano Sassi.

“Some American customers are coming back and Brazilians are paying more and more attention to haute couture,” he said.

Answering requests from clients, Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli plan to increase the offering of daywear versus last season, Sassi said, also singling out growing interest in couture shoes “to give a total look.”

Armani recently started selling some couture accessories in his new Avenue Montaigne store in Paris and the Via Condotti location in Rome.

Armani said emerging markets continue to drive “very positive” results.

“The key markets for growth have been China and India. The UAE is still a strong market, too,” he said. “I anticipate modest growth across the globe, but expect the emerging markets to continue to outperform the traditional ones in terms of percentage growth. South America and India are interesting new territories.”

Executives agreed that elite customers can be seduced by high fashion.

“The key is presenting the work to them in an environment that allows them to fully appreciate how special it is,” said Armani.

The designer said celebrities are also doing their part to wave the flag for one-of-a-kind clothes.

“In my experience, where the red carpet goes, customers and press follow,” Armani said. “It happened with ready-to-wear, and now it seems to be happening with couture.”

Dior’s Toledano agreed, citing “a big demand in Hollywood, as well as in Cannes, [France],” where a bevy of stars — from Nicole Kidman to Julianne Moore — donned Raf Simons’ designs to mount the famous red steps. “This is a very positive sign,” he said.

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