PARIS — All those couture shows and events in China in recent years are bearing fruit.
High fashion is coming off another good year, with clients from Asia compensating for weakness in other geographies, said executives, who remain largely sanguine about business prospects for 2016.
Consider Valentino, which posted a “slight” increase last year and ran its Roman ateliers at full capacity.
“For the first time, we had a very significant portion of our revenues done with Asian customers,” said Stefano Sassi, chief executive officer of Valentino, which held a Shanghai showing in 2013. “This compensated for a decrease in the Middle East.
“Asians are opening up to couture in a significant way. They understand haute couture is the peak of a certain way of dressing, in terms of craftsmanship, in terms of status, in terms of uniqueness,” he added.
While cautioning that couture sales are dependent on perhaps a few hundred women, who can change their buying habits from one season to the next, Sassi said Eastern countries are adding another leg of stability to couture — just as most luxury firms tout that sales of their ready-to-wear and leather goods are spread across multiple regions.
“I think that our challenge for 2016 and the other years to come will be to maintain a balance between established markets and new ones,” said Giorgio Armani, who shows his Privé line in the French capital. “We will work in that direction, but of course we will continue to explore and seek new business opportunities around the world.”
Armani said “the best performance was recorded in China and Europe,” while adding, “good results were also achieved in the American market, which has shown strong signs of recovery since last year, and the Middle East.”
“Emerging markets are also continuing to grow, which brings new impetus and new energy to the haute couture market,” he added.
The designer plans to open Salon Privé, a 2,800-square-foot space dedicated to couture on the fourth floor of his Avenue Montaigne boutique here during couture week, which started Sunday night and ends Thursday with high jewelry presentations.
“I decided to work on it myself with my Armani/Casa Interior Design Studio to create a harmonious, contemporary space that fully reflected my aesthetic vision,” Armani said of his new couture salon.
“Then, of course, we will continue to hold private presentations for our customers abroad,” he added.
Novelties of the week include today’s Dior show, with the collection designed by the internal studio awaiting the appointment of a new artistic director of women’s collections to succeed Raf Simons, who exited last October. According to market sources, senior members of the team include Serge Ruffieux, an eight-year veteran of the house, and Lucie Meier, who joined Dior in 2014 after stints at Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton.
“We feel confident with the teams and the collection,” said Sidney Toledano, chief executive officer at Dior, noting that couture is “not only a show” but a companywide effort to exalt its savoir faire and provide elite service to clients. “It’s the heart of the house, and a beehive of activity.”
Toledano said couture performed well last year, buoyed by new customers including many from Asia in search of exclusive products of the highest quality. “The Chinese clientele will be important,” he said.
“Asia is the market where we have seen the strongest development recently and we will focus our efforts to maintain this trend,” echoed Sophie Waintraub, general manager at Jean Paul Gaultier.
The arrival of Chinese clients underpinned an “excellent” year for the house, which registered “a nice increase.”
Reinforcing its focus on Asia, the roving Gaultier retrospective will travel to Seoul in March.
“We will also continue to develop the established markets such as the Middle East, U.S.A. and Europe,” she said. “In the second part of the year we are also planning to open the South American market.”
She noted that Gaultier, who halted ready-to-wear collections in 2014, now has “more time for the couture, a big factor in the success of our collections.”
“We have reinforced our commercial team and are working on more variations and choices in the collections,” she added.
Chanel continues to ride high, calling 2015 its “best year ever” in couture with record revenues, unit sales and clients. Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, said customer numbers jumped 10 percent on the back of “very strong” collections by couturier Karl Lagerfeld and heightened interest in the rare and painstakingly made clothes.
“There are growing numbers of women who want clothes made only for them, who appreciate the creativity, the know-how, and what couture represents,” he said. “And we see more and more young customers from new markets who are quite interested in this approach.”
While the U.S. and Europe remain Chanel’s key markets, the French house takes the couture collection to New York, Los Angeles, London, Dubai, Hong Kong and Tokyo for order taking. What’s more, crews of sales specialists and seamstresses take plans and clothes to meet clients individually, wherever they are in the world. “We have several crews and they are more or less traveling every week,” he said, estimating couture teams make more than 100 trips a season.
Echoing other executives, Pavlovsky said he expects couture’s “dynamism” to continue into 2016 despite the turbulent economic background, which has seen stock market gyrations worldwide and a plunge in the price of oil that is squeezing the finances of countries in the Middle East and South America as well as Russia — and their consumers.
Nonetheless, fashion houses forecast healthy attendance at this week’s shows, despite travel warnings issued by nations including the U.S. and Japan in the wake of last November’s terror attacks in the French capital that claimed 130 lives. The severe snowstorm on the East Coast of the U.S. over the weekend also is likely to impact travel plans for some.
“I’m optimistic about another very important year for couture in 2016,” said Valentino’s Sassi, citing stock market volatility as one of the chief factors that could impinge demand, “but this is something that is difficult to predict.”
Armani concurred: “Considering the results achieved in 2015, and in spite of a difficult global scenario, I look to 2016 with optimism and I’m expecting positive results,” he told WWD.
Camilla Schiavone, managing director of Schiaparelli, cited a “significant” increase in couture sales in 2015, when the Place Vendôme house welcomed a new creative director, Valentino alum Bertrand Guyon.
She said his debut July collection exalted “the level of refinement, details, and quality our studio and ateliers were capable of” and answered “the customers’ search for new, very exclusive and exceptional pieces.”
Last year, the U.S. became Schiaparelli’s number-one market, the other important regions being the Middle East and Europe, primarily France, Italy, the U.K. and Switzerland.
Schiavone anticipates the same breakdown in 2016, while noting “we feel that the Asian clientele, especially from China, should develop. We also expect more Russian customers as we noticed that, after a long period of absence, we receive new requests from them for the show and collection review.”
Chanel, too, plans to eventually add a Moscow stop to its global circuit, perhaps in 2017 should the ruble devaluation ease or reverse, Pavlovsky noted.
During the week, John Galliano is to present his third Artisanal couture collection for Maison Margiela. Margiela president Giovanni Pungetti noted that the couture range remains “more of a strategic tool and is not strictly designed for business,” although Galliano’s designs have been sold to collectors, museums “as well as a more typical couture clientele.”
“While the maison is currently studying a business plan to potentially develop this activity in the future, in 2016 the ready-to-wear business still remains a priority,” he noted.
Echoing his 15-year tenure at Dior, Galliano has made couture at Margiela his ultimate creative expression which “enforces the house’s aesthetics in a ‘trickle-down’ effect, informing and inspiring all other collections,” according to Pungetti.