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."

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