By  on January 18, 2008

PARIS — Never mind mounting economic woes: The possibility of rain soaking clients' heels ranks as a bigger worry than recession as couture houses here get ready for another high-fashion week.

"The trend of 'super luxury' is good," said Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, which posted "very strong double-digit growth" in couture sales last year. "It's been an excellent year for haute couture and I'm optimistic for the coming years."

Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel's president of fashion, concurred, calling 2007 Chanel's best year in couture ever in terms of sales, client growth and number of pieces produced, the latter up some 20 percent thanks to hit collections by Karl Lagerfeld with "the right mix between creativity and wearability."

"Couture is in quite good health for the moment," Pavlovsky said, waving off concerns about possible recession, the global credit crunch and unfavorable exchange rates. "I have the feeling [the customers] are above all these [economic] trends."

Indeed, the couture shows, which get under way here Monday, are expected to attract more potential buyers than ever, with bigger client contingents from emerging luxury markets like Russia, India, Japan and China — in addition to regulars from America, Europe and the Middle East.

Several houses, including Chanel, have opened up their tight invitation list to their best international fine jewelry and ready-to-wear customers, eager to tempt them with the world's most exclusive and expensive fashions.

And while executives allow that a euro trading near $1.50 represents a big challenge for luxury brands and a psychological barrier for some couture clients, most houses said their American clientele is still growing and attendance would likely be up next week. In fact, occasional couture clients remain one of the few question marks for executives, who nonetheless remain bullish about the pinnacle of the luxury universe.

Marco Gobbetti, chief executive officer at Givenchy, said gloomy economic data must be "taken seriously in terms of the general outlook for the business, especially in the U.S., but I doubt it will make a difference to haute couture because the clients are not really sensitive to such economic swings."Gobbetti credited growing wealth worldwide for helping Givenchy log a 30 percent jump in couture orders last year, adding, "I'm confident we can keep a very positive trend."

Robert Triefus, Giorgio Armani's executive vice president of worldwide communications, said the designer is expecting 300 clients for his Armani Privé show, a 15 percent increase from last season. These include new prospective clients from Australia, the Middle East, Russia, Spain and the U.K., he noted.

Toledano said robust sales of crocodile handbags and elaborate, expensive ready-to-wear in Dior's boutiques are emblematic of a healthy appetite among the highest customer echelons. "These people have high incomes and they want to differentiate," he said. "They want more exclusive products."

"The desire for customization and personalization among the most affluent clients continues and is perhaps the fundamental reason the couture business remains strong," Triefus agreed, citing a 10 percent increase "season-on-season" for couture and commensurate strength in Armani's men's made-to-measure products.

What's more, executives agreed couture allows the few remaining practitioners to differentiate themselves at a time when luxury is becoming commonplace.

"Over the last 10 years, luxury has spread out. The term has lost some of its meaning," said Nicolas Topiol, ceo of Christian Lacroix. "That's why haute couture is becoming more and more attractive. As wealth is growing, there's an interest in being more exclusive and not seeing products worn by a large number of people.

"Couture is very alive," he continued. "As a very high-end segment of the market, it is very legitimate today, probably even more than 10 years ago."

At Dior, Toledano characterized couture as being at "the core of our development, giving the whole direction for the house." For example, he noted the spirit of couture is reflected in the brand's revamped Avenue Montaigne boutique here, with luscious fabrics, intricate embroideries and bespoke furnishings at every turn.

Pavlovsky said Chanel's best customers headed to Paris next week are not only invited to the company's couture show under the soaring glass roof of the Grand Palais, but also to its revamped and expanded fine jewelry boutique in Place Vendôme. "It's a big honor for us and for them to be invited," he said. "It's more an introduction to the brand."Executives said their European couture clientele remains strong, particularly from France, Germany and Spain. The Middle East, flush with oil riches, is also generating a steady flow of new clients.

Givenchy's Gobbetti noted that prominent families from that region are now inviting daughters and nieces into the couture club. "It's bringing young clients, and they're very fashionable, very chic," he said.

Despite a slowing U.S. economy, the subprime mortgage crisis, lower or no Wall Street bonuses and the weakness of the dollar, many houses expect an increase in American attendees this season.

"The American customer of haute couture will continue to buy," Toledano said. "Even with America, we see more of the younger customers. It's a change in generation, but the same need for something exclusive."

Topiol noted that Lacroix quotes prices for American clients in U.S. dollars at the time the order is placed to allay any fears. "It's more psychological, that a euro is $1.50," he said.

But it's emerging markets that are fanning much of the optimism in couture ranks.

"You feel a lot of energy in these regions," Chanel's Pavlovsky said, noting the brand's Russian clients are particularly active, ordering both daywear and eveningwear on a steady basis, as opposed to only for special occasions.

Ditto for points further east. "The Chinese are trading up. They're not only looking for accessories, but ready-to-wear," added Toledano, who is also expecting an uptick in attendance from Eastern countries.

Topiol agreed: "[Emerging] markets are strong and growing fantastically. They're not at all in the mood of recession; quite the opposite."

Emblematic of the surging interest in high fashion is a glut of requests for designers to re-stage their couture shows in cities in the Middle East, America or elsewhere. Lacroix, for example, plans to stage couture shows in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in the coming months, and is evaluating requests to take the collection to U.S. locations beyond the regular stops of New York and Los Angeles.

"The interest is enormous around couture," said Gobbetti at Givenchy, which recently reprised high-fashion shows in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. "It's such a privileged environment in terms of creativity and craftsmanship. There are always requests."With Valentino set to retire after his swan song show next Wednesday, executives lamented that such an illustrious practitioner was hanging up his scissors after 45 years of creativity.

"Any decrease in the offer is not good for the business in general," Pavlovsky noted.

But executives stopped short of saying Valentino's exit would squelch the appetite of his couture faithful. "While it is undoubtedly sad to see Valentino leaving the stage, we see this as a significant opportunity for further growth in the Armani Privé client base," said Triefus at Armani.

"It's a fantastic end to his career, ending on a real high note. I think some of his clients will miss him a lot," said Gobbetti. "But I don't think they'll stop their habits and stop buying couture. In general, clients don't just buy from one house."

According to Lacroix's couture director Marie Martinez, affluent women find couture alluring — and even addictive. "They're interested in the quality and the workmanship. They really look at the fabrics and the embroidery. It's what couture is — very exclusive, and we really focus on that....When you start wearing such incredible clothes, it's difficult to stop," she said.

Topiol said the key challenge for couture in the future is recruiting and training new generations of highly skilled workers capable of realizing designers' fantastic creations.

But executives said it's encouraging high fashion continues to attract new names like Anne Valérie Hash and Alexis Mabille. "It's interesting to see young designers launching their own name and showing what their creativity can produce," Toledano said.

To be sure, couture has limited growth potential due to labor-intensive production and a rarefied customer base. But executives are also keen to safeguard high fashion's exclusive nature.

"We want to keep the creativity, service and product on a top level," said Pavlovsky. "We don't want the couture to be accessible."

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