By  on July 2, 2007

PARIS — Couture may be a dwindling art in terms of the number of practitioners, but it's hardly down for the count.

Au contraire: The same gusher of wealth-bolstering sales of fine jewelry and five-figure handbags is fanning a boom in high fashion, with strong attendance and sales expected as couture week kicks off today with a flurry of high-octane anniversary events here and in Rome.

"With the January collection, we doubled sales," said a beaming Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, marking its 60th anniversary with an extravagant show and party at Versailles this evening. "Our atelier is fully booked. We have a lot of orders to deliver."

Chanel saw its couture sales double last year, boosted by a blockbuster show featuring a 100-foot tower as its centerpiece that was reprised in Hong Kong, a move that ferreted out new high-fashion customers from South Korea, Taiwan and China.

"Altogether, it's a kind of renewal of couture," declared Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel's president of fashion. "These new clients are quite young and really wealthy. The youngest one for us is 24, so it's unique."

Most houses have been charting strong double-digit sales growth recently, fueled by a buoyant market for exceptional luxury products and the advent of an emerging clientele in Eastern Europe and Asia.

"Couture is very vibrant," said Nicolas Topiol, president of Christian Lacroix. "Last year was up about 25 to 30 percent and this year, so far, is running slightly higher. It's something a lot of people are starting to understand and appreciate." Echoing other observers, Topiol also noted a surge in requests to attend its couture show on Tuesday, which will be followed by a party at the rooftop restaurant Georges to mark the 20th anniversary of the Lacroix house.

"My feeling is that the pendulum is swinging back to couture," said Christophe Caillaud, president of Jean Paul Gaultier. "Rich clients are willing to have exclusive and exceptional products: made-to-measure and personalized. They want to have goods adapted to their specific needs and this includes, or course, couture. I therefore believe that haute couture will continue to live long."That Giorgio Armani launched his Privé couture line in 2005 at a time when the likes of Balmain and Emanuel Ungaro were exiting high fashion was a strong signal, and sales trends are "very positive," said Robert Triefus, Armani's executive vice president of worldwide communications. He cited particular strength in France, Spain, Belgium and the U.K., and noted the average order size already has increased to three outfits per client.

"[Armani's] intuition seems to have been proved correct from the interest and growth that Privé has seen," Triefus said. "The demand for handmade, exclusive, personalized fashion designs for a small but important number of women is significant and growing."

In recent years, the Middle East has emerged as a key and vibrant market for high fashion, executives concurred. "Lately, the Middle East has been a significant market that has grown very quickly," said Marco Gobbetti, chairman and chief executive of Givenchy, which posted an increase of 30 percent for its naval-themed summer couture collection. Givenchy recently dispatched its couture to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and Cairo to meet demand there, he noted.

Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino's longtime business partner, said Arab countries today account for roughly 60 percent of its business. The house, which will stage three days of festivities in its birthplace of Rome to mark its 45th anniversary, also has seen major clients emerge from Eastern Europe and Asia.

"We have one client — I can't say the name — who orders 25 to 30 dresses a season, so she is a good percentage of our production," Giammetti said. "There is such a new wealth in the world in countries you didn't expect to explode so much. These people are dressing almost all the time in couture, so they're able to order huge amounts of clothes."

Dior's Toledano said its sales remain strong in couture's three strongholds — Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Last month, Dior was called upon to do a major wedding "where we dressed everybody," Toledano said, declining to identify any details about the client.

Special occasions, in fact, continue to be a strong engine for couture sales.Gaultier's Caillaud estimated that about 60 to 70 percent of its couture pieces are purchased for weddings, parties or other events. "The biggest part of the business is made with eveningwear," he noted.

Giammetti said new billionaires, who think nothing of hiring George Michael or Tina Turner to perform at a private party, may allot a large budget for couture dresses. "I really look at couture in a positive way," Giammetti said. "There is a new clientele to touch."

In Toledano's view, the same clients snapping up million-dollar jewels, prestigious real estate, art masterpieces and private jets with customized interiors are now seeking the same excellence in their attire. "There is a big demand for very expensive and exclusive products," he said.

And there are even couture impulse buys. Toledano said that the day after Dior's January show, a new client stepped forward and placed an order for the burgundy gown worn by model Morgane Dubled. (In the past, Toledano noted, couturier John Galliano often designed additional styles adapted from the runway.)

Yet there are still couture clients for daywear. Armani's Triefus noted that special events account for only about 30 percent of its couture sales, and that many clients order clothes seasonally. "Almost all of our customers are career women," he said.

Several executives see the boom in couture sales as a natural consequence of the democratization of luxury. "The luxury powerhouses have been spreading and growing so much," Lacroix's Topiol explained. "Now, certain clients are looking for more exclusivity, and couture is the ultimate."

In February, Lacroix re-staged his summer couture show at the Houston home of Becca Cason Thrash for a charity event to aid American Friends of the Louvre. "Most of those women weren't used to those prices," Topiol said. "But at the end of the day, we sold a couple of pieces."

Dior's Toledano noted that sophisticated clients, seeking excellence in all the products they buy, are now discovering the marvels of couture quality.

"They're not going to put a $2 million piece of jewelry on a Zara dress," he said.

"Very wealthy clients are growing in many markets, so the desire to distinguish themselves, and to have a very special service, is strong," agreed Givenchy's Gobbetti. "It's another type of very high luxury."Most couture houses concentrate sales and order taking in Paris, and also bring the collections to New York seasonally to capture American clients. But sales representatives and seamstresses are making more house calls to important clients wherever they live. Valentino, for example, recently dispatched personnel to Dubai, Jordan, Argentina, Russia and India. "For us, a good client must buy above five dresses a season," Giammetti noted.

"Our people are traveling a lot to where the customers are to give the right level of service, whether they're in New York, Los Angeles or South Korea," said Pavlovsky at Chanel. "There are three fittings, and for that we sometimes need to go where the customers are. It's a way to reinforce this kind of service and develop their loyalty to the brand. If we don't do fittings, it's not the perfection of couture."

In order to meet growing demand for its high fashions, Chanel added a third atelier in recent years, bringing its full-time couture workforce up to 120 employees, not counting temporary staff called in during crunch periods. "Even if couture is a small business compared to ready-to-wear, accessories or beauty, it is business that's in development," Pavlovsky said, citing particular demand for jackets and eveningwear.

Executives agreed that press coverage of couture continues to mount, especially with the advent of more international editions of many fashion magazines. For example, editorial pages devoted to Armani's summer couture collection vaulted 38 percent over the previous season, Triefus noted.

Celebrities also have helped popularize couture, especially with young stars like Kirsten Dunst and Cameron Diaz now wearing high fashion to film premiers, executives said.

Caillaud at Gaultier said, "What we see is that more ladies are now coming together with their daughters to buy pieces, which makes us believe that the new generation who may not have been used to this kind of luxury are now discovering it and will make our future base of clients."

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