By  on May 30, 2007

VALENCIA, Spain — Luxury is battling the Mediterranean waves once again.

Lured by the image of sailing, prestige brands from the worlds of fashion, watches and sports cars are making major splashes at the Louis Vuitton Cup races here to determine the boat that will challenge the Swiss team, Alinghi, for the Americ's Cup. The finals of the challenger series kick off Friday between Prad's Luna Rossa team and Emirates Team New Zealand.

"Luxury and sailing go hand in hand," said Malaika Arora Khan, Indi's first cover girl, pointing to a crew member who shimmied up the Girard-Perregaux-imprinted mast of the BMW Oracle Racing team's boat before it rounded the Louis Vuitton buoy (the boat later lost out to Prad's "Luna Rossa").

"Values of aesthetic and design are shared in both sailing and luxury," said Michel Bonnefous, chief executive officer of the Americ's Cup, who noted the plethora of new shops opened for the duration of the event inside the boathouses that dot the port, including Louis Vuitton, Luna Rossa and Tag Heuer's store at the China Team headquarters.

And the sailing set is taking the connection seriously, upping the design quotient at every opportunity. Prada drafted legendary Italian architect Renzo Piano to design its shorefront boathouse and headquarters for its Luna Rossa team, while the Veles e Vents (or "sails and winds," in English) building, home of a VIP roof lounge for its weather-beaten crew, was designed by the British architect David Chipperfield.

At times, the relationship is less subtle, as a fleet of prestige brands broadcast their names on the 80-foot ships that participated in the challenger series. Splashed across masts, sails, hulls and beams, luxury labels are fighting for valuable advertising space and supplying promotional products and limited edition lines in order to hitch their names to the exclusive sport and buoy sales.

Louis Vuitton, Prada, Audemars Piguet, Tag Heuer, Hublot, Girard-Perregaux and high-end sportswear labels such as Sergio Tacchini, Henri Lloyd, North Sails, K-Swiss and Aigle are among the brands lending their names to the sport. Even the cup itself is an original creation by the Parisian goldsmith Puiforcat."We share the same values — love of travel and exceeding excellence," said Yves Carcelle, chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, the main partner of the Americ's Cup since 1983. Earlier this month, Carcelle welcomed 2,000 guests to La Cartuja, a 13th-century monastery on the outskirts of Valencia, for the highly anticipated Louis Vuitton Cup party, which marks the end of the Louis Vuitton Cup-sponsored round-robin one-on-one races between the 11 challengers.

In line with tradition, the event's location was kept secret in the run-up to the party. (Past soirees have been held on the "USS Kitty Hawk," an aircraft carrier, and at the Top Gun Base in the San Diego desert, for example.) This year marks a particularly significant occasion for the Cup since it hasn't been held in Europe since 1851. To fete the return, Vuitton transformed the ruins of La Cartuja into an enchanted palace with palm trees lining the cloister's inner courtyard and flamenco dancers performing on elevated pedestals.

"We are the spirit of travel, so we like it when the Cup travels," Carcelle said, adding that the Valencian event has drawn the largest crowd to date, with attendance figures already exceeding one million visitors since its start last month.

A diverse crowd ranging from boardroom behemoths to Bollywood thespians turned out for the Vuitton fete. Swiss pharmaceuticals mogul Ernesto Bertarelli, president of the defending Alinghi team, circled the event with his Versace-clad wife, Kirsty, who chatted with Deepika Padukone, Indi's rising star, who was taking a break from filming what is slated to be the next Bollywood blockbuster, "Om Shanti Om."

Brands, aware of the event's eclectic following, have begun creating specific Americ's Cup collections to tap into that interest. "It's a modern-time saga that goes beyond the traditional sports arena," said Bruno Troublé, organizer of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

And how. With Vuitton's profits from limited edition Vuitton Cup-branded products reportedly surpassing its investment in the event, it's no surprise the brand is diving deeper into the category. Its limited edition lines, which began appearing in 1992, include sunglasses, bandannas, leather goods and watches, all in nonslip, waterproof materials and with floatable features. The Spinnaker bag, for 1,000 euros, or $1,340, and the Tambour LV Cup Watch collection are among the line's bestsellers and are available in Louis Vuitton stores worldwide. Troublé warned, however, that as the event's popularity grows, less-glamorous brands also might look to edge in, which could in turn drive luxury labels away."The luxury label is an ambassador for something you can't control," he said, adding that sponsoring the event in itself is less risky than backing a boat, where sponsorship is often shared.

For watchmakers, the Cup is the ideal platform to associate their collections with high-performance technology.

"[The partnership] is based on shared values, such as passion, dynamism, team spirit, commitment, research of perfection, dedication to being successful," said Luigi Macaluso, president and owner of Girard-Perregaux, a sponsor aboard the BMW Oracle racing team.

The brand has offered an Americ's Cup-inspired collection and sailing-inspired lines for both men and women since the start of the partnership in 2004. The Laureato line was launched for both men and women this year.

"Such a high-profile challenge allows our brand to develop a number of activities that range from innovative products to ways to communicate," added Macaluso.

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