PARIS — Although houses including Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro opted to downsize their couture audiences this week, high fashion is on a big-time roll.

Take Chanel. Couture sales rocketed 50 percent last year in volume, and roughly half of that came thanks to new clients, according to Chanel president Francoise Montenay.

She attributed the growth partly to an enlarged atelier capable of turning around orders in six weeks and to price increases. Suits from last winter’s collection by couturier Karl Lagerfeld ran from about $37,500 to $75,360, or 30,000 to 60,000 euros at current exchange, while dresses started at $43,960, or 35,000 euros.

Looking at 2004, Montenay said, “We feel ready to do plus 50 percent again. And in two years, we think we can double.”

At Christian Dior, president Sidney Toledano also cited an increase in couture sales last year. And while he declined to pinpoint the increase, he said he expects a repeat performance in 2004, citing a stream of new customers from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.

“We have started the year with strong orders, even before the new collection,” he said, referring to the summer show Dior couturier John Galliano presented here Monday. “We also received orders in November and December for wedding dresses and special-occasion dresses.”

Emanuel Ungaro characterized couture sales last year as “fair,” but noted that the house would put “a great deal of energy” into couture this year. Tactics include taking the collection to Los Angeles in March, and presenting it to private clients in New York in May, when the couturier is slated to receive an award from Pratt Institute.

He also said showing at its salons on Avenue Montaigne this season represents a return to the roots of the house. “Success is a matter of how one presents it,” he said. “Couture will always have allure and therefore interest will not diminish. Our client list is growing constantly.”

Marianne Tesler, chairman and chief executive at Givenchy, projected flat sales in 2004 against a “significant” increase last year, but was upbeat about couture. “We had a real comeback of the Middle East last year, and we are now starting to see some Russian clients, too,” she said.Houses downplayed the impact of the surging euro, which is driving up the cost of couture for Americans and other dollar-sensitive clients.

“It’s not that people don’t look at prices, but they’re big numbers anyway,” Toledano said.

Ungaro said he would hold prices this season and downplayed currency fluctuations. Benchmark prices are about $25,000 to $37,500, or 20,000 to 30,000 euros, per item.

Meanwhile, Tesler noted that “a little bit of negotiation” is par for the course with clients.

But couture faces other challenges — especially the dwindling number of houses.

Chanel’s Montenay said Paris couture needs more players to sustain media interest and a unified couture week in Paris. “If we are only five or six houses, we are too small,” she said. “We feel we need two more, but real houses, not young designers with two dresses to sell.”

“I would be happy to see more designers doing couture,” agreed Toledano at Dior. “We need to have some big players. But even if everyone else stops, we will continue. For us, it’s our way of being and it has a big impact on our business.”

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