By  on January 23, 2006

PARIS — Albeit abbreviated, couture week, which kicks off here today, still has some legs. And those legs are moving.

The dwindling number of couture houses are recognizing that, if wealthy clients in the Middle East, Russia, the Far East and the U.S. can't or won't come to the shows, then the designers will take their collections on the road. The latest will be Chanel and Giorgio Armani, which, come March, will both reprise their Paris shows in Hong Kong in a bid to capture a new clientele.

"We want them to know all aspects of the brand," said Françoise Montenay, president of Chanel SA, which plans to invite its top ready-to-wear and fine jewelry clients from all over the region to its March 24 event. "The richest [Asian] people already gravitate to the most sophisticated part of our ready-to-wear. They are very near to the couture already."

Executives also expect an influx of Russian clients this season — and likely a few from India — to keep their couture ateliers busy, even as they acknowledge that high fashion needs more serious participants and an influx of skilled workers to ensure its long-term survival.

The new owner of Emanuel Ungaro is eyeing a return to the couture schedule in July, and many couture executives are crossing their fingers that Donatella Versace is doing the same — and why not such illustrious French names as Lanvin and Balenciaga?

"I think it's a very, very big mistake for all those very nice brands that were doing couture to stop for profit considerations," Montenay said. "The financial people should rethink their decisions, and remember what couture brings to the brand image, and what couture brings in terms of publicity."

Thanks partly to the dwindling number of players — with Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain, Scherrer and Hanae Mori among those exiting couture in recent years — some remaining houses have charted a sharp uptick in orders.

Michele Norsa, chief executive officer of Valentino Fashion Group, said the company's couture sales rose 75 percent last year, maxing out the production capacity of the 65 employees in its Rome atelier.

Still, "you are talking about small numbers," he said. "The customers of the haute couture represent about 200 to 300 people. The time involved and the way of buying is very special. It's akin to a man buying a yacht and having it manufactured."The Middle East remains Valentino's number-one market for couture. To wit: The house recently has dispatched its collection by plane to major clients in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Europe and the U.S. are also key, Norsa said, with Russia on the rise. "In the future, I see Russian customers becoming more important for the haute couture," he said, echoing the opinion of his peers.

Norsa described Asia as "not so important for the moment," even if the house recently has received inquiries from Hong Kong clients about ordering couture dresses for weddings.

That several couture houses are taking their shows east demonstrates confidence in a frontier with burgeoning wealth and established fashion sophistication.

Chanel, present in Hong Kong for 26 years, is encouraged by that city's booming economy and by nearby Macau's ambitious development as a casino and resort destination for Asia and beyond. Last month, the firm flew in artisans from its Paris ateliers to give demonstrations of embroidery and camellia-making — which won raves from its clients.

Christian Dior also has showcased its couture savoir faire several times in Asia, with an exhibition of recent and vintage couture dresses in Tokyo when it opened its Ginza flagship, and by broadcasting its couture show on massive screens in central Hong Kong in tandem with an opening at the Landmark.

"[Couture] is an excellent communication tool for Japan and Asia, a way to explain the culture and the DNA of the brand," Dior chairman and ceo Sidney Toledano said. "It's an important investment in image and know-how. This is how we differentiate."

Armani characterized his debut Asian couture showing as a special occasion for his large and extremely affluent base of rtw customers. Robert Triefus, Armani's executive vice president of worldwide communications, said a total of 1,500 attendees, some gleaned from HSBC's private banking client list, are expected to receive invitations. Although the company will not take orders on the spot, interested clients may be invited to Paris for Armani's July show.

"We are expanding the world of couture by bringing prêt-à-porter clients into it," Triefus said. "We feel that the dream of couture is about coming to Paris and seeing the show in Paris during couture week."To that end, Armani recently established a showroom at 2 Avenue Montaigne to receive clients for Privé fittings and orders. The collection travels to New York afterward, and it also has been taken once to Dubai.

Since Privé was launched one year ago, Armani was rewarded with "a very significant number of American clients, who had never been invited into the couture world before," Triefus said.

"We believe that the Russian client could play an increasingly important role in couture," Triefus added, noting that Russian rtw clients already have surpassed Japanese and Americans in many of its stores. "They are the ones who are traveling the most and spending the most."

Christian Lacroix took its couture collection to St. Petersburg last year, and this season, the house expects about a dozen Russian clients in its audience.

Montenay said the Arabian countries, flush with oil money, and the U.S. represent Chanel's fastest-growing clienteles for couture. At present, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan shelter only a "few customers," but the number is bound to grow once they discover the supreme workmanship, refinement and elite service, Montenay said. "We expect 10 to 20 new Asian [couture] customers in the next two years."

The audience at couture shows, which wind up here Wednesday, often gives a misleading picture of the client base and appetite. Most houses agreed that privacy and security needs are on the rise for many of their best customers, meaning many never appear in the front rows, or even the more discreet rear rungs.

That's why collections typically travel to New York twice a year, and occasionally to such destinations as Palm Beach, Fla., and Los Angeles to offer elite service to regular clients. Marie Martinez, Lacroix's couture director, said some clients consider the shows, the media attention and the social swirl an integral part of the couture-buying experience. However, an equally important client group wants only the clothes, no photos, please.

"They don't want to see the collection on the runway, and they don't have time to come to the fittings and so we have to go to them," she said. "I have a lot of American clients [who aren't in the public eye] who buy every season."Lacroix's collection travels to New York and Los Angeles each season, and occasionally to Qatar and other destinations in the Middle East, where weddings drive business. "When you go to a wedding there, it's like a fashion show," Martinez said.

"Some of the [Middle Eastern] families have a real culture of the haute couture," Dior's Toledano agreed. "Often, they have been coming here for couture for three generations."

While couture collections are being showcased more abroad, the vast majority of orders are still taken in Paris, with New York garnering perhaps 20 to 30 percent for some houses.

Executives readily acknowledge that couture sales alone could never recoup the enormous costs of creating collections and mounting shows, which runs into the millions of dollars. Dior and Chanel, in particular, are known for extraordinary production values and this season is said to be no exception.

However, executives said the payback in media coverage is enormous and that interest in couture is widening to new media outlets. For example, Chanel has been chaperoning television crews from the BBC through its ateliers this season.

Still, keeping couture alive long term means widening its brethren, and Giancarlo Giammetti, co-founder of Valentino, is among vocal advocates for Versace's return. "We are big fans. Her moments in couture were right. She was doing clothes that looked like couture," he said. "I don't see that all the time."

There are other challenges. Giammetti said one of the key threats to couture is an aging workforce and the dearth of skilled young men and women willing to learn the trade. The average age in the Valentino atelier is 45.

Another challenge is that "fabric suppliers are less willing to do exceptional fabrics that they can't sell as much as for ready-to-wear."

Giammetti said, "We sell maybe seven, eight, nine copies of the same dress — we cannot do more." That adds up to perhaps 36 meters of fabric, whereas luxury rtw quantities are easily 70 times that, he added.

Toledano said France's inflexible labor laws are also strangling couture, whose ateliers need flexibility during crunch periods. And the suppliers of trimmings and specialized manufacturers are struggling to stay afloat."Clients for sophisticated, high-priced creations will always be there," he asserted. "The danger of this business is not the clients disappearing, but the workers and the ateliers."

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