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Couture’s Health Check: Will the Sector Survive Exits of Ungaro, Versace?

Two pillars of Paris couture, Emanuel Ungaro and Donatella Versace, are bidding farewell to the world of couture, or at least its runways.

PARIS — Just when the couture seems to lack buzz, it springs back to life — because of speculation that it’s dying.

Both Emanuel Ungaro and Donatella Versace told WWD exclusively Wednesday they are bidding farewell to the world of couture — or at least its runways — which is bound to fuel fresh debate over the future of ultraexpensive, handmade clothes as the number of their purveyors continues to dwindle.

The news from Ungaro and Versace follows the announcement by Givenchy that it would not show during Paris couture week July 6-9 as it seeks a replacement for Julien Macdonald, and rumors that Valentino also is considering dropping the couture. A spokesman for the house on Wednesday denied the speculation, however, and said the designer will show a couture collection in Paris couture week July 6-9 as it seeks a replacement for Julien Macdonald, and rumors that Valentino also is considering dropping the couture. A spokesman for the house on Wednesday denied the speculation, however, and said the designer will show a couture collection in Paris in July.

But the moves are bound to prompt further soul-searching among the remaining names on the couture roster. Chanel and Christian Dior, for example, while deeply committed to the couture business, have recently questioned the viability of a couture week in Paris as the number of participants continues to decrease. Karl Lagerfeld has even recently mulled the possibility of showing in New York.

Houses that have stopped making couture in recent years include Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler, Louis Feraud, Lanvin and Nina Ricci.

The couture has had its ups and downs, but seemed to find a new viability in the booming Nineties with the extravaganzas mounted by John Galliano at Dior and the entry into the craft of such houses as Jean Paul Gaultier. Even Alexander McQueen at one point voiced an ambition to produce a couture collection under his Gucci-backed label, but that never came to fruition.

But as the luxury goods sector was hammered by the global economic downturn after 9/11, it became increasingly difficult for some houses to justify the investment in their expensive couture operations. Ungaro’s departure from the couture removes another pillar of the craft, and one on which he founded his house 37 years ago.

When told Ungaro was leaving couture and Versace would possibly follow suit, Pierre Bergé said, “I’m sure others will follow. I’ve always said that the couture would die with Yves Saint Laurent. Now it’s a domino effect. The couture has lost its raison d’être. Couture isn’t art. It’s not meant to be hung in a closet like a painting. The women who wore couture no longer exist, the art de vivre that spawned couture has died.

“If houses such as Chanel and Dior one day get proof that they can sell as many bags and fragrances without a couture show, they’ll stop couture, too.”

Although Ungaro’s withdrawal from couture week is bound to carry historical importance — especially as it comes only three years after Yves Saint Laurent retired from the couture — the designer has been gradually withdrawing from the fashion scene in recent years. In January, he scaled back his couture show to two intimate presentations at Avenue Montaigne. That sparked speculation that it could be his last show.

Ungaro, 71, stopped short on Wednesday of saying he’s retiring, insisting he will continue as a creative guru and figurehead for the house, much as he has since 2001 when he passed the design reins for ready-to-wear to Giambattista Valli.

In fact, Ungaro said he hopes to continue servicing and attracting an upscale clientele with a new hybrid of couture and rtw delivered at the speed of modern times.

“If the house decides to not make couture collections any more, I regret it, of course. But it’s the law of the métier,” he said in an exclusive interview in his sun-drenched atelier on Avenue Montaigne. “I’m not nostalgic. I’m not sad. But we have to live faster and we are reflecting on a new way to do things.

“The modern way of living does not allow us to make a show, present the prototypes, order the fabrics, wait for the delivery and then have clients come for three fittings.”

Details of the hybrid line are still being finalized — including pricing and whether or not it will be shown to the press. The first is expected to be ready by fall.

Ungaro chief executive officer Paolo Di Spirt, who joined the designer for the interview, said the couture atelier was recently restructured, with headcount reduced by about 20 percent. But he said the skills and expertise of the remaining employees, numbering less than 30, would be applied to other Ungaro products, which range from diffusion and jeans collections to swimwear and accessories.

Wednesday’s announcement comes amid speculation of a rift in the house between Ungaro and Valli.

Italian-born Valli, 37, has been credited with modernizing the house and bringing new attention to the brand — dressing celebrities from Nicole Kidman to Lucy Liu. He initially joined the house in 1997 to run the design studio and was promoted to women’s fashion director two years later.

Asked about his relationship with Valli, described by some company insiders as estranged, Ungaro waved off the question by insisting that conflict is natural in creative and artistic matters. A Renaissance type prone to quoting writers, philosophers and artists, Ungaro mentioned Michelangelo quarreled with his assistants while painting the Sistine Chapel.

“I do not have a personal conflict with Giambattista Valli,” Ungaro said. “We may work in a different way….But if we work for a house, we all have to live together. We have to respect the ethic of the house.”

Valli had no comment on Wednesday’s announcement.

Ungaro insisted he still has plenty to do for the house. Last month, he traveled to Rome for the launch of a fragrance, Apparition, and he will soon travel to New York to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Pratt Institute.

“I love to work, in fact,” Ungaro said. “We are full of energy here. We’re not going to sleep.”

Indeed, Di Spirt spoke frankly about the amount of work that needs to be done at the company, which has been operating in the red since it was acquired by Salvatore Ferragamo in 1996. Di Spirt declined to quantify the losses, but market sources estimate them to be north of $10 million a year. The Ungaro brand generated wholesale volume of about $95.2 million, or 80 million euros, last year, Di Spirt noted.

Since the cost of making a couture collection and mounting a show can easily run into the millions, Wednesday’s announcement will amount to significant cost savings for the firm.

“We’re not saying ‘Let’s cut our roots to cut costs,’” Di Spirt stressed. “Rather, we’re acknowledging that our customers are asking for something else.”

Ungaro is believed to have a client base for couture of perhaps 200 women.

Although figures are never broken out, in January the house characterized couture sales as “fair.” Prices per item start at about $25,000. Ungaro and Di Spirt insisted prices were never the problem, but rather that younger clients do not plan their wardrobes months in advance.

“We don’t only want to maintain our older clients, but develop a new young clientele as well,” Di Spirt said. “There are a lot of young women out there who want special pieces, but aren’t prepared to go through the process of haute couture ordering.”

Ungaro himself grew up in couture. Although his first job in fashion was as an assistant to a Sicilian tailor in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence, his formative experience came working for the legendary Cristobal Balenciaga. There, Ungaro learned the importance of draping — as opposed to sketching — and the rigors of couture. After six years under Balenciaga’s tutelage, Ungaro struck out in 1967 with his own house in Paris, earning quick acclaim as an innovative tailor and bold colorist. Among his first couture clients were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and French high-society doyenne Marie-Helene de Rothschild, who helped catapult his seductive and colorful style into society.

Originally inspired by Carnaby Street, the Beats and the hippie movement, Ungaro has more lately been associated with lusty Mediterranean style — replete with shocking colors, cascades of ruffles and daring shapes. “Life changes, but what never changes is people’s desire to be beautiful,” he once said.

Meanwhile, De Spirt said among priorities for the Ungaro business is maximizing sales of its signature, Fuchsia and Fever lines, while expanding the accessories category to a target of 30 percent of sales in three to four years. At present, shoes and handbags, produced under license by Ferragamo, generate about 7 percent of sales.

De Spirt said brand sales rebounded about a year and a half ago and that the latest incarnation of the Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro bridge line, now licensed to G.A.V. in the U.S., has been meeting sales targets.

Other recent business developments include new franchise boutiques in Dubai, Beirut and Kuwait, along with three directly operated corners in Japan. Di Spirt also said he is close to signing new licenses for men’s wear.

— With contributions from Alessandra Ilari, Milan, and Robert Murphy, Paris

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