By  on June 30, 2008

PARIS — One morning last January, a clutch of well-dressed women gathered outside the Christian Lacroix fashion house on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

But the occasion wasn't a sample sale. Rather it was the day after Lacroix's summer couture show, and some of the most privileged women in the world were anxious to get dibs on some of the most expensive clothes in the world.

"At 8:30, they're in front of the door," marveled Marie Martinez, the chic, silver-haired couture director at Lacroix. "They know that after it's sold, it's impossible to have. They want to be the first appointment."

Such impatience is a potent symbol that couture continues to flourish despite widespread economic turmoil. What's more, it's expanding international customer base — flush with wealth, and increasingly from destinations to the east — is demanding more exclusivity and service than ever. As Paris gears up for four days of high fashion shows starting today, couture bosses are bullish, citing high double-digit sales gains last year and predicting strong attendance this week from a widening swath of clients, many from emerging markets with explosive wealth like the Middle East, Russia and Asia.

And as further proof that couture is defying gravity, executives said they have yet to note any dip in U.S. business so far, despite the economic turmoil there.

"What is most important is that haute couture is the ultimate luxury. It's about design, exclusivity, custom-made refinement, and the most exclusive and unique service," said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of the fashion division at Chanel, which saw couture sales rise more than 20 percent last year.

He also noted that the fashion house's January collection, which had models strolling out of a giant Chanel jacket erected in the Grand Palais, was one of its most successful to date.

While the numbers in couture are small, in terms of clients and the production output, Pavlovsky sensed the comeback of sizeable orders. "The last one was eight dresses in one shot," he said.

"The demand for very, very high-end products continues to be very strong," agreed Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, citing an increase in couture sales of more than 35 percent last year and a "strong double-digit" growth so far this year. "Very rich people are not suffering from the crisis. The workshops have been very busy," he said.Only a few years ago, plenty in the industry were sounding the death knell for couture as a long list of houses discontinued the activity, including Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Balmain, Jean-Louis Scherrer and Hanae Mori.

Now, sales of the remaining players have been roaring ahead — so much so that many couture houses are expanding their ateliers and hiring more temporary workers to keep up with demand.

"We are globally on a good trend of steady growth," said Christophe Caillaud, president of Jean Paul Gaultier. "We sometimes prefer to refuse orders when we reach the limits of our production capabilities rather than trying to do the production with less-experienced hands."

Executives downplayed the impact of unfavorable currency exchange and the economic downturn in America and other regions.

"We saw a definite psychological barrier when the euro went over $1.50," acknowledged Nicolas Topiol, chief executive at Lacroix. "But at the end of the day, the orders from the U.S. were pretty good."

In fact, sales of Lacroix's summer collection jumped 40 percent versus a year ago, with emerging markets more than offsetting slower-growth regions, Topiol said.

"We cannot really say that our American clientele is affected by the American economy — not at that level of fortune," said Gaultier's Caillaud. "Our regular customers did not reduce their budget for the moment. We should have a better visibility at the end of the year 2008 and get a more tangible view."

Giorgio Armani, who entered the couture arena in 2005, is expecting more American clients this week, along with new potential clients from London and Madrid.

"We have not seen any real impact in the couture world from the generally negative economic climate," said Robert Triefus, Armani's executive vice president, worldwide communications. "This seems to underscore the widely held belief that at this level of the market, clients are impervious to economic downturns."

Indeed, couture directors and their staffs are increasingly jetting around the world to service a far-flung customer base.

Martinez said Lacroix's couture team is on the road at least one week a month, and the collection travels each season to New York and also Los Angeles, where some new Mexican clients come for fittings. At its show on Tuesday, Lacroix is awaiting new clients from Russia, Singapore, the Middle East and Asia.At Chanel, the team travels between two and three times a month to meet with clients for fittings or sales appointments, Pavlovsky said.

"We have to keep it totally exclusive, but there is no limit to the service in haute couture," said Pavlovsky. "We are ready to go anywhere to see a customer. We are traveling more and more. Now when a customer needs something, we have to go to her."

Over the past year, the Chanel team flew to Jamaica, Greece, Switzerland, the U.K., Russia, and several times to the Middle East for three major weddings.

"This clientele is very demanding and requires a lot of attention," Caillaud at Gaultier agreed. "We can be asked to go to a boat in Monte Carlo, as well as to a chalet in Gstaad or a palace in Riyadh for just a day."

Gaultier's team travels for fittings and presentations about 25 times a year and "quite often our destination is given to us at the last minute," he added.

Marco Gobbetti, chairman and chief executive officer at Givenchy, which saw its summer couture sales "almost double," said the generally "positive trend" in couture is due to growing wealth around the world and a multiplication of dressy occasions in those regions. But he also noted that designer ready-to-wear is becoming more and more "democratic," insofar as it is readily available on a worldwide basis.

"Not so long ago, fashion was for the elite. Now it's part of everyday life," he said. For women who wish to stand out, couture represents "the ultimate in dressing yourself....It's the search for the ultimate in refinement in luxury and services," he said.

Executives noted couture's newest recruits are younger, more active and more likely to wear high fashion in everyday life.

"New clients probably buy haute couture in a more spontaneous way than traditional ones. They don't have a special occasion to wear it in mind. They like the idea of something special and custom-made that makes them feel unique," Pavlovsky said. "They wear it in a more casual way: an haute couture jacket with jeans or an haute couture dress with a cardigan."Caillaud said Gaultier's European and American clients tend to order a minimum of four to five suits, short dresses, cocktail or evening dresses that they wear throughout the season.

Middle Eastern clients are famous for requesting evening dresses they wear on only one occasion and also special wedding dresses. Gaultier makes an average of four to five wedding gowns a year, each requiring between 200 and 500 hours of work, Caillaud said.

But he noted that more Middle Eastern clients are now ordering suits and European style dresses, adding yet another leg to the expanding couture business.

Executives also called couture a key point of differentiation for their brands, and a way of expressing their excellence. Dior, for example, displayed a suite of couture dresses at a recent boutique-opening gala in Istanbul, and has featured couture in exhibitions or window displays at its boutiques in Tokyo and Moscow.

"People are amazed everywhere when we show pieces of couture. It's the best ambassador for the image of the brand," Toledano said. "It's the best way of talking about our savoir faire."

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