By  on February 7, 2012

MILAN — Accessories, mainly bags and shoes, and men’s wear drove luxury goods spending last year, and industry executives predict more of the same in 2012.

In 2011, the U.S. remained the biggest market for personal luxury goods — which include fashion, beauty and watches and jewelry — or 30 percent of the sector’s total retail sales of 191 billion euros, or $250 billion at current exchange, said Armando Branchini, executive director of Italy’s luxury goods association Fondazione Altagamma, at the opening of international textile trade show Milano Unica on Tuesday.

According to Balbina Wong, chief executive officer of giant Hong Kong and China retailer Imaginex, “China, in a year or two, will overtake the U.S. as the biggest luxury goods market.”

In a video clip, one of a series shown at the meeting, Wong was upbeat as Imaginex posted “record sales” in 2011, and was “not dampened by volatilities in the market.” Through the opening of stores in second- and third-tier cities last year, Wong said the group expects 30 percent growth in 2012. China is the market of the future, she said, noting how “it has been shown that strong brand presence in China will boost business all over the world.” Describing Chinese customers, she explained that they are increasingly Internet-savvy and “knowledgeable about trends, mixing and matching more.”

Branchini said 2011 was “a record year for luxury consumption and, in 2012, we expect growth in the three main international macro-markets: the Americas, Europe and Asia,” although impacted by financial turbulence more in Western Europe, less so in North America, and hardly at all in South America and Asia. Italy will continue to be very dependent on tourist flows in 2012, he said.

Gian Giacomo Ferraris, ceo of Versace SpA, said the Italian luxury fashion house “did very well in 2011, thanks to the success of our core business, and not through an increase in royalties.” Year-end figures are to be released in March, and will show a return to profitability for the Milan-based fashion house. Ferraris forecast double-digit growth in 2012, 2013 and 2014, “barring traumatic events,” with plans to continue expanding in the Far East, in Europe and in the U.S., where a store will open in New York’s SoHo in June.

In a separate video, Saks Fifth Avenue president Ron Frasch said shoes, bags and accessories are the most popular products among the store’s customers. “Everyone wants to be a bag brand, but there is not enough territory,” said Frasch, noting that, in order to rationalize inventories, “we can’t meet all requests, particularly when it comes to brands for whom bags are not an historic core business.”

Frasch added that men’s wear is also “superstrong,” and men’s tailored pieces are “extraordinary, it’s difficult to keep up.” The executive said the contemporary category, previously known as bridge, is “strong,” while designer apparel is “the toughest, it’s either great or not. Customers want color and sexy, and cocktail dresses. We need to make brands sensitive to this, the old formula is not a new formula.”

Bags, shoes and other accessories are also the leading category in South America, said Richard Barczinski, chairman of Brazilian luxury shopping mall chain Cidade Jardim, predicting “a very promising 2012.” The same can be said for Thailand, where shoes and bags help drive business, according to Yuhwadee Chirathivat, chairman of Bangkok shopping mall Central. Chinese tourists also have “a major impact” in Thailand, she added.

Luis Sans, chairman of Barcelona luxury mall Sant’Eulalia, conceded 2012 will be “tough,” given the struggling Spanish economy, although the luxury goods segment is expected to grow thanks to purchases by Russian, Chinese and American tourists, who are mostly interested in bags and shoes.

Russia, on the other hand, is a market focused on ready-to-wear, said Khaled Jamil, chairman of retailer Jamilco, who expects a “stable” 2012. As the core high-spending Russians are traveling more and spending more abroad, a new upper-middle class is emerging. “Whereas the government has announced a tax on luxury goods, Russia’s entry into the WTO [World Trade Organization] should encourage purchases by tourists because of the possibility of reclaiming VAT [value added tax],” said Jamil.

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