By  on November 22, 2005

PARIS — If you think a month's rent for a handbag is expensive, try an entire year.

In a buoyant luxury market, ultraexpensive items — from $6,000 Azzedine Alaïa shearling jackets to $21,000 Bottega Veneta handbags — have become a surprise hit, selling briskly to a superrich clientele in search of the exceptional.

Citing swift sales of $30,000 crocodile Detective bags and $58,700 sable coats, Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive of Christian Dior, said: "We see our average price increasing each season, and it's not the impact of the euro. It was a fantastic season for fur, in spite of the weather."

Toledano said well-heeled luxury customers are seeking "super quality" and "people want to differentiate and so they're investing."

"It's a part of my business that's very important," said Janet Brown, whose namesake boutique in Port Washington, N.Y., has been selling $10,000 Taher Chemirik necklaces, $1,350 passementerie-trimmed Prada boots and $3,000 gowns and $7,000 fur coats from Lanvin. Of the latter items, she quipped: "Their shelf life is usually a day."

The trend to high-priced items is likely to continue into spring and summer. Among the pieces Linda Dresner ordered for her eponymous stores in Manhattan and Birmingham, Mich., are silk and lace jackets from Balenciaga that will retail at $4,450, and such styles were layered up in triplicate on the runway.

"We see this as a collectible," Dresner said of the jacket, also describing $1,035 leopard-print sling-back wedges from Alaïa as irresistible. "There is a desire to have the item for one's personal enjoyment and a sense of confidence."

Chanel is among European brands at the forefront of pushing the limits of fashion pricing with its so-called satellite collection, a three-year-old luxury ready-to-wear line embellished with handiwork by the couture ateliers it owns. This fall, Chanel sold 12 coats priced at 35,160 euros each, or about $41,300 at current exchange, and a dozen jersey ensembles priced at 26,000 euros, or $30,500.

Francoise Montenay, president of Chanel SA, said the success of those designs in its boutiques — at prices approaching the opening ranges of couture — proves that a ceiling has yet to be reached for today's elite shopper."I don't see price resistance at all at the highest prices," she said. "What is really developing is a kind of customer who wants very special products."

Another example is Chanel's limited-edition J12 watches, priced from 36,320 euros, or $42,700, to 48,950 euros, or $57,500. Only a dozen of each style is produced. "[Customers] know there will be very few," Montenay said.

It's what gives her confidence to include in Chanel's rtw collection next summer two dresses that will retail for 22,000 euros, or $25,850, and an evening style at 29,800 euros, or $35,000. "I'm sure we will sell them," Montenay said. "In our normal collections, we are introducing more and more expensive items."

Among the best-booked items from Chanel's spring runway are a lambskin jacket at 4,600 euros, or $5,400, a white taffeta evening dress at 2,590 euros, or $3,040, and a gold metallic goatskin handbag at 1,900 euros, or $2,230.

Gucci Group, which reported an 11.6 percent increase in third-quarter sales, also is buoyed by the upscaling phenomenon.

Robert Polet, president and ceo, said high-priced items are the best performers for Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron and Balenciaga.

"There has been a strong trend towards individuality and a desire for product made with superior quality, precious materials and outstanding craftsmanship," he said. At Gucci, Treasure bags in crocodile from the cruise collection will retail for around 14,000 euros, or $16,500, while Bottega Veneta has an embroidered leather dress for fall priced at $32,000, and a $200,000 made-to-order set of crocodile hard-sided luggage.

"Our brands offer a range of prices that include higher prices, and each season, our prices are consistently and naturally trending upward," Polet said. "Our clients appreciate the value of creativity, workmanship and materials, and they recognize the price of quality. When a product becomes a must-have piece, its price does not matter anymore."

Other retailers and brands concur, citing few signs of price resistance this season.

"People continue to seek the highest level of quality, perfection and elitism," said Evelyn Gorman, owner of Mix in Houston, which this fall sold a Balenciaga coat for $6,875, a Rochas gown for $6,695 and a wool Lanvin coat priced at $3,145.Prices on European designer goods are lower for next spring, as they typically are for that season, retailers noted. Also, buyers said they were aided by a dollar that is stronger than it was six months ago, when euro exchange rates hovered around $1.33. The euro is trading at about $1.17.

Still, some are voicing concerns about spiraling inflation in designer collections.

"It limits the customer base for a product," said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. "A beautiful white shirt is terrific, but a beautiful white shirt at $3,000 really limits the audience for that shirt."

Gorman agreed. "With these luxury brands, the sky seems to be the limit," she said. "But I can't have a store full of $2,500 blouses."

Robert Burke, the departing senior vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said exceptional products are driving purchases in the store, evident in the interest in luxury fabrics such as astrakhan in rtw and exotic skins such as ostrich in accessories.

But he stressed affluent customers are well educated and discriminating and prices have to be justifiable in every instance. He also noted that assortments must reflect the right balance of high- and accessibly priced goods.

To be sure, many retailers acknowledge being flabbergasted at prices six months ago when they placed orders for fall merchandise.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, who operates Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta, acknowledged he had trepidations, especially with "boots being a couple of hundred dollars more" and shoes about $100 more than previous seasons. He ordered women's rtw based on dollars, not units, because of the inflated prices.

But after a stellar fall, selling $1,500 Balenciaga pants and $710 Christian Louboutin platform pumps, Kalinsky said he's actually a bit low on merchandise.

For example, Marni fur items, priced from $3,000 to $10,000, sold out. "If I had known, I would have bought more," Kalinsky said, voicing a common lament.

"We would definitely welcome more exceptional pieces from all the brands, as we have a demand for them in our market," said Majed Al-Sabah, who operates Villa Moda stores in Kuwait, Dubai and Qatar.For example, Al-Sabah said he sold his supply of limited-edition Bottega Veneta Cabat handbags in less than a week, priced at about 15,000 euros, or $17,600. "If it's the right piece, there is no price resistance," he said. "We are in a period of fashion that heralds iconic bags, from Fendi's Spy, La Pelle Guccissima's hobos to personalized logo Goyard bags."

Kalinsky also noted he sold more than 10 clothing items from Project Alabama priced between $5,000 and $15,000. His explanation? "It's very special pieces, and they call out to my clients," he said. "It's an opportunity to go to an event and not look like everyone else."

Brown said devoted fashion shoppers are certainly not buying out of need. "These are collectors of clothes," she said. "That woman needs that item to complete her wardrobe."

Gorman said "perceived value" is a key criterion, and her clients are more willing to shell out for exceptional pieces when they know she ordered only one for her store.

Saks' Boitano said most brands need to work on pricing, ensuring there are enough accessibly priced items to entice new and younger customers onto the designer floor.

"In some cases, key items went up 20 percent from fall [2004] to fall [2005]," he said. "Customers are concerned about some of the prices, particularly when the merchandise doesn't look special.

"There's nothing wrong with a $5,000 jacket, but you can't have only $5,000 jackets. You need a jacket at $2,300. In many collections, those entry price points have not been considered."

At Chanel, Montenay acknowledged strong demand from the label's wholesale clients for better prices at the opening ranges.

"Our first price for handbags is around 900 euros and I know they keep asking for one at 700 euros. For the moment, we don't have it," she said, also citing demand for jackets, at least in spring collections, at around 1,100 euros, as opposed to the current 1,600 euros.

"There is price resistance when things are too simple or too familiar," Dresner noted. "A black wool skirt should not cost $1,295, regardless of the label. That goes for a black cashmere sweater, too. If we are shown a reinterpretation of something that costs five times more than its familiar sister just because of a few special details, we say, 'No.'"

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