By  on August 7, 2007

Can fashion be collected with the fervor of fine art? Judging from the ongoing success of the booming limited edition business, it would seem so.

Shoppers are showing an unabated appetite for rarity — at least the idea of it — as more and more brands, from Levi’s to Martin Margiela, roll out limited edition products.

“It’s exploding today,” said Milan Vukmirovic, the former Jil Sander designer who plans to open a luxury boutique in Miami later this year. “For a shop, it is a great way to offer something different from the competition.”

The phenomenon spans across categories and price points. Hermès, for example, created 10 $25,000 Cape Cod watches for the opening of its Wall Street store in New York. Prada hooked up with Rem Koolhaas on $160 limited edition white T-shirts. Wrangler has limited edition jeans; Puma has limited edition sneakers; J. Crew has limited edition clothes; Ralph Lauren did limited edition shirts for Net-a-Porter to raise funds for breast cancer. Marc Jacobs has limited edition home fragrances; John Galliano did a limited edition candle with Dyptique; Sean “Diddy” Combs did limited edition fragrances, as have others; Samsonite did a limited edition luggage collection with Alexander McQueen, and cheap-chic retailer Topshop even did limited edition $575 dresses by Kate Moss.

“It’s almost comical,” said Sarah Lerfel, who runs the hip Paris store Colette. “When you turn on the TV, you even see advertisements for limited edition cheese. But it still works. It proves people want something different. We have to get them in the store. If they can’t get it online or elsewhere, they will come in.”

And they arrive in droves. Lerfel said recent limited edition phenomena at the store include everything from Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” canvas carryall for 12 euros, or $16, to 3,000-euro ($4,100) watches from Bell & Ross. “[Hindmarch’s] bags are incredible,” said Lerfel. “We sold out of 200 in an hour.” (They weren’t the only ones: The bags sold out worldwide and have ended up on eBay selling for up to $300.)Lerfel added, “It’s not only happening in luxury and fashion. Limited edition is equally strong in T-shirts, sneakers and even toys.” She noted, for example, that the store had pre-sold out of 100 $2,500 statues by the artist Kaws before they were scheduled to arrive in stores this summer.

Though some see the ploy as a mere marketing stunt meant to increase a brand’s visibility while increasing its exclusive credibility, industry experts said limited edition can also serve as a viable business model. After all, luxury’s continued spiral upmarket seems to indicate consumers want products they aren’t as likely to see on an acquaintance.

Robert Burke of New York consultancy Robert Burke Associates said some brands, such as Libertine and France’s Lucien Pellat-Finet, have even been able to build an entire business from making products in small runs. The renaissance in made-to-measure, which many thought was bound to die a few years back, also underscores the market’s desire for uniqueness.

“You can make money with limited editions,” insisted Burke. “It’s not only about drawing in new customers or serving as a marketing tool to drive volume. Consumers today more than ever want exclusive products — look how couture is thriving.”

In some echelons of luxury, limited edition is nearly de rigueur. In couture, for example, the quantity of dresses any house can produce is limited by reserves of manpower. Ditto for the fine watch industry, where some firms only make a few thousand pieces a year. By stamping the limited edition moniker onto their timepieces, they nonetheless are appealing to the inner collector in their clientele — and sending prices creeping into the six- and even seven-figure range.

Executives liken the craze for limited editions to the boom in contemporary art. “People want something rare,” said Stanislas de Quercize, president of Van Cleef & Arpels. “When you see what’s happening with art at the auction houses, you know that. There is money, and people will pay to have a one-of-a-kind piece.”

Investment is another consideration, as people buy small-run pieces only to sell them later at a profit. “We’re seeing in the mechanical watch market that pieces can increase in value,” said Piaget president Philippe Leopold-Metzger, who added that jewelry and highly complicated watches had soared to historic highs at auction.That logic may have spilled over into the high jewelry trade, with houses from Boucheron to Cartier reporting record sales of their most extraordinary pieces thanks to new-wealth economies like Russia as well as robust economies in Asia and North America.

“These are incredible days for us,” said Boucheron president Jean-Christophe Bedos. “People are willing to pay for the extraordinary. In fact, they demand it.”

But as with every successful trend, there seems to be an innumerable host of firms trying to ride on the coattails of the limited edition boom. Severin Wunderman, the owner of luxury Swiss watchmaker Corum, said so many watch companies have started to offer limited editions over the last five years that the concept has been watered down.

“Every brand now makes limited series,” he said. “This has taken the limited market in a major down spiral.”

Nonetheless, Wunderman said the trend remains a strong one, with no signs of abating. “True collectors know the firms that are serious about their production limitations,” said Wunderman. “What interest can anyone have of owning a watch number 4,273 out of 5,000 produced?” Wunderman added that limited editions not only provide a company with a showcase to show off their expertise, but also to make plenty of money.

Two British entrepreneurs, Jolyon Fenwick and Marcus Husselby, believe in that reasoning. Earlier this year the two launched an Internet site, 20ltd.com, that exclusively sells expensive limited edition products, from snooker cues to fur hammocks. As the company’s name suggests, 20ltd.com only offers 20 products on its Web site at any given time, with limited numbered runs varying.

“Customers’ appetites are becoming more discerning,” explained Fenwick, who said early sales have been strong. “But at the same time, the limited edition concept has lost a lot of its integrity. I was at McDonald’s and saw a limited edition hamburger.”

By the same token, Fenwick said customers show no resistance to shell out big bucks for truly exceptional products. The Web site sold out of a Zaha Hadid silver tea set priced at 20,000 British pounds, or almost $40,000, for example, as well as a 10,000 British pound ($20,000) Pucci rug.“The landscape of luxury has altered,” said Fenwick. “Luxury went to the street. Consequently, luxury is moving more upscale. Limited editions appeal to the opinion-formers. It’s like listening to music that’s on the charts and music that’s for the cognoscenti. That’s the difference.”

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