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French Designers Deal With Down Economy

PARIS -- With the Continent mired in its worst recession in a generation, fashion houses here continue to face the soft demand for their wares.<BR><BR>To fight the economic malaise, some are trying to learn more about their customers and serve them...

PARIS — With the Continent mired in its worst recession in a generation, fashion houses here continue to face the soft demand for their wares.

To fight the economic malaise, some are trying to learn more about their customers and serve them better. More lower-price lines are making an appearance, and among more commercial firms there’s an attempt to give the product more of a lift, taking it out of the basic mode that has prevailed for several seasons.

And, in the absence of heartening economic news, industry leaders have turned to one of their favorite pastimes — attacking each other. In the top heavyweight contest, Pierre Berge, president of Yves Saint Laurent, has embarked on a vituperative campaign to oust Jacques Mouclier, president of the Chambre Syndicale. Berge’s offensive gained real impetus from the collapse of the $1 million Event Media deal brokered by Mouclier to broadcast the couture shows by satellite into the U.S.

The offensive against Mouclier began even before the opening of the brand new Carrousel du Louvre fashion center underneath the Tuileries Gardens, a project on which the Chambre Syndicale president had labored for years. Berge said Mouclier was incompetent as well as guilty of nepotism and — with a burst of American vernacular — added, “That dude is incapable of managing the Chambre.”

Bets are already being placed in Paris on whether Mouclier will survive into the summer. Berge is not without troubles himself. In January, the Commission des Operations des Bourses fined him $500,000 for alleged insider trading, though the penalty has not been imposed pending a decision of the Paris Court of Appeal.

The last year has been a difficult one for French fashion. France suffered a women’s apparel trade deficit of $54 million, the first in the country’s history, according to the Federation Francaise du Pret-a-Porter, the ready-to-wear association.

In an attempt to counteract this trend, the Federation has begun sponsoring emerging French design houses that want to show in fashion trade fairs outside of Europe. In the latest step, the Federation said, it spent about $500,000 to create a village-type space for about 20 French resources in New York’s Premier Collections, a trade show held there this week.

“It’s the right time for French ready-to-wear resources to come back in force into the American market,” said Gerard Roudine, the Federation’s managing director.

Despite the economic blues, the Federation’s Pret-a-Porter trade fair here this month saw the revival of a sexier and refined silhouette and the importance of innovative fabric mixes. Designers clearly feel the back-to-basics movement that has characterized much of this decade so far is over. It’s time for more adventurous fashion — for women who want clothes, not need them.

The drive by designer houses to reach younger customers with lower-price lines also continues.

In January, Christian Lacroix launched Bazar, a 164-piece collection aimed at a younger market. It will retail in the U.S. this fall.

Despite contraction in the French economy, not everyone did badly last year. At Hermes consolidated sales racked up a 16 percent rise to $479 million. Many in Paris interpret Hermes’s success as proof that in a recession consumers fly to brands that have a long-term quality reputation. Luxury goods giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton scored a 10 percent increase in group sales to $4.05 billion last year, led by a 20 percent rise in leather goods, mainly Louis Vuitton’s, another example of a strong brand riding out the downturn.

Other companies have not been as fortunate, but some are out to improve things. Guy Laroche and Jean-Louis Scherrer are losing money on flat or declining sales. Neither house, however, is sitting idle during “la crise.”

Laroche’s restructuring under the guidance of president Richard Hanckowiak has included: naming Michel Klein the new Laroche couturier; dividing the rtw into three distinct, more clearly marketable lines and initiating a new store concept for its international boutiques using the renovated and enlarged Faubourg St. Honore store as the model.

For the rtw, the house is working with Actys Etudes Audit Conseil, a Paris-based consulting group specializing in the fashion and cosmetics industries. Actys has organized study groups with current and potential Laroche clients, who are observed through a one-way glass by rtw designer Jean-Pierre Marty.

“The women were very tough critics,” said Marty, admitting that it was tough to listen to women pick apart his collection. But he found it helpful.

“We learned that the little suit is considered ‘old,’ and even our older clients don’t like that so much,” he added. “We also found that women prefer the new, lighter fabrics, like the viscose blends. The traditional gabardine is not so favored anymore.”

Actys is also working to evaluate the quality of Laroche stores in terms of service, merchandising and overall ambience. The saleswomen at Laroche’s 22 wholly owned European stores are all aware that fake clients are coming to the boutiques pretending to buy, while in fact they are taking notes on all aspects of the boutique.

“I told the salespeople that they are at the end of a very long chain, and that the verdict is in their hands,” said Hanckowiak.

Jean-Louis Scherrer SA, also working with a consulting firm, has taken another approach. This month, the house introduced its Jean-Louis Scherrer Club Femmes D’Affaires, or Businesswomen’s Club, to current and would-be clients. As a club member, a client is offered a personal shopper, free and fast alterations and home delivery for personal and business gift purchases.

The Avenue Montaigne boutique is available off-hours by appointment, and there will be private showings of the rtw line. Ultimately, the house plans to have the personal shoppers make sales visits to the homes of Club members.

“Our goal is to bring some services to our professional clients who don’t have time to shop,” said Scherrer managing director Jean-Claude Cathalan. Some 3,000 mailings were sent at the end of January to professional graduates of the Grandes Ecoles, France’s most prestigious universities, and to female advertising, marketing and communications executives.

Scherrer worked with Citadelle, a Paris public relations firm, to develop and execute the Club plan and mailing. While answers are still coming in, Cathalan said 15 percent of the initial responses were positive, and the Club is now up and running.

Some of the more original strategic moves of late have been taken by Pierre Cardin. First, he banned all photographers from his couture collection and restricted access to just 10 journalists. Then he began retailing his perfumes in two giant French hypermarkets, Auchan and Carrefour. In the first two months in Carrefour alone, he sold 170,000 bottles of scent, worth $4 million.

“I don’t know why some people restrict their distribution,” said Cardin. “When someone gives you a present of a perfume you don’t ask what shop it was bought in. That has no relevance. Perfumes are products, la mode is art. They are completely different things.”