By and  on October 8, 2007

PARIS — Azzedine Alaïa has a new financial backer — and it's none other than Compagnie Financière Richemont, a luxury group once considered standoffish about fashion, WWD has learned.

According to market sources, Richemont and Alaïa inked a deal last week, the cornerstone of which is the creation of an Alaïa foundation in Paris. The designer's exhaustive archive of more than three decades is to be housed in a five-story building abutting Alaïa's Marais headquarters.

Financial terms of the agreement could not immediately be learned.

"We have made an investment, a partnership," a Richemont spokesman told WWD on Sunday. "It was a small investment from our point of view. We're happy for the opportunity to build the business and take it forward with Alaïa."

One source suggested Richemont's investment was likely to be in the range of two to three times Alaïa's sales.

For the year ended Jan. 31, Azzedine Alaïa posted sales growth of about 30 percent to 13.2 million euros, or $16.6 million at current exchange.

Alaïa could not be reached for comment, but the designer has consistently said he was not prepared to lose majority control of his house, and would only accept a partner prepared to accept his way of working.

The designer made headlines last July when he bought back his namesake company from Prada SpA, which had been his partner since 2000. It is understood Prada will continue to develop and produce leather goods and footwear for Alaïa.

Considered one of fashion's underdeveloped masters, Alaïa is known for his sexy, exacting tailoring and for an at-my-own-pace ethos, which has meant sporadic collections and spotty deliveries in the past.

He is slated to unveil his spring 2008 collection to retailers starting on Tuesday, several days after the runway hoopla of Paris Fashion Week has ended. Needle and scissors in hand, the designer makes all his patterns from scratch and is said to be sleeping two hours a night preparing his latest collection.

That Richemont seized on Alaïa is sure to surprise some in the industry, given the Swiss group's long emphasis on hard luxury, with jeweler Cartier its main cash cow. Switzerland-based Richemont also owns brands such as Montblanc, Van Cleef & Arpels, IWC, Lancel, Baume & Mercier and Dunhill. It also holds stakes in companies including Net-a-porter and the new Atelier Fund Management, which invests in small fashion brands, including Adam Adam Lippes, the footwear firm Harrys of London and handbag maker Mary Norton.Recently, Richemont has seen spectacular growth at Chloé, once considered a secondary business within the conglomerate. Under chairman and chief executive officer Ralph Toledano, Chloé's sales have quadrupled over the last two years and the brand is now considered one of the stars of the group. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, Chloé sales rose more than 50 percent due to an expanded retail network.

Chloé's current designer, Paulo Melim Andersson, showed his second collection for the label on Saturday, and later the house unveiled a signature perfume with licensing partner Coty Prestige. A collection of watches and jewelry is also in the cards for Chloé.

Richemont's plans for Alaïa could not be learned, but it is understood the designer will continue to create his clothing collections. Given the small size of the Alaïa business, Richemont's investment is unlikely to materially affect its financials, sources said.

The designer is said to have been attracted to Richemont because of its commitment to fine art and design through such initiatives as the Cartier Foundation, a permanent contemporary art museum in a Jean Nouvel building in Paris. Alaïa has long harbored ambitions to create a museum for his enormous collection of his own designs, and other historically important clothing. To this day, he continues to mount exhibitions of photography and industrial design in his atrium-like showroom.

Born in Tunisia, Alaïa founded his Paris fashion house in 1979 and gained international fame in the Eighties, thanks to his sexy evening dresses, snug knits and sculpted leathers — not to mention a gaggle of model fans who would walk in his show for free.

He went under the radar in the late Nineties, but shot back to prominence when Prada struck its partnership. The deal was considered an unusual marriage between the hard-driving industrialist Patrizio Bertelli and the stubborn, slow-to-grow artisan.

After attempting to build a multibrand luxury empire via acquisitions, Prada has since sold off not only Alaïa, but also Helmut Lang and Jil Sander to concentrate on its core brands, Prada and Miu Miu, the latter of which showed its collection here Sunday.

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