ANTWERP, Belgium — No advertising, no celebrity dressing, no handbag push and no pre-collection.
That might sound like a recipe for disaster for a fashion company today, but it's working wonders for Ann Demeulemeester, whose sales vaulted 60 percent over the past year to 20 million euros, or $36 million, generating healthy operating profits in the range of 20 percent of revenues.
Things are looking rosier for other Belgian designers, too, who acknowledge that fashion, after years of exaggerated femininity, ruffles and ribbons, is swinging back to their strengths: sobriety, tailoring and dark romanticism.
"If fashion comes more in my direction, I'm very happy with that," an upbeat Demeulemeester said in an interview here. "But for me, it's just another step. It's the waves of fashion. I'm here now for 20 years. It comes [in] my direction, and then it goes away from me. I'm used to that."
Belgian designers are proving that persevering with a business strategy that is often the polar opposite of the luxury giants is not the height of folly. Demeulemeester, for example, who has never bought a page of advertising or sent a gown to Lindsay Lohan, is pressing ahead with a retail expansion seven years after opening her first flagship here. A Tokyo boutique is slated to bow this month on Omotesando, and she's in talks with a Hong Kong partner about a development that would see her counterparts Raf Simons and Martin Margiela open new side-by-side boutiques.
To be sure, Belgian designers acknowledge they have weathered some tough times, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And while the Belgians were all the rage in the late Nineties, which won them unprecedented media coverage, that heady moment coincided with the formation of Europe's big luxury groups, whose aftermath had unforeseen and sometimes devastating consequences. Most of the designers maintained their independence only to find themselves being squeezed by the luxury groups, which started demanding high minimums and multiple-label buys from the independent stores that had been the lifeblood of the Belgian pack.
"It's more difficult than it was in the beginning," acknowledged Veronique Branquinho, one of the second-generation stars who made waves with her first collection of billowing skirts and lacy sweaters in 1997, but who has seen her women's wholesale business decline. "We're looking for more clients. We visit stores more often than before. [Retailers] used to be more loyal. Now it's more about figures. They're buying safer. They invest more in established brands."
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