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PARIS — High fashion received another blow Tuesday as the commercial court here approved a plan to convert troubled couture house Christian Lacroix to a licensing operation.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A judge read the decision to a packed courtroom, setting the stage for Florida’s family run Falic Group, majority owner of the 22-year-old firm, to cut Lacroix’s workforce by 100 to about a dozen employees, putting an end to its high-fashion and retail operations.

Potential suitors — including an Ajman sheikh and French turnaround firm Bernard Krief Consulting — failed to provide financial guarantees for their relaunch plans by court-imposed deadlines. Italy’s Borletti Group, parent of Printemps and La Rinascente department stores, withdrew from the process in September.

After the hearing, Nicolas Topiol, chief executive officer of Lacroix, said Falic Group would continue to negotiate with prospective buyers now that the court-observed administration period has ended. “I am working on finding a solution for the company. Everything is still possible,” he said.

The chairman of Bernard Krief, Louis Petiet, said he, too, hopes to find an agreement with the owners that would preserve Lacroix’s activities.

“Christian Lacroix is a fantastic brand,” he said. “It’s frightening to think the haute couture and ready-to-wear could be shut down.”

Absent of any deal, Topiol said he plans to forge ahead and restart Lacroix’s rtw and accessories business under license, adopting a model similar to designer firms such as Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano.

The winding down of current operations, which include three company-owned boutiques in France, one in New York and another in Las Vegas, are expected to happen over the next month.

Falic Group has financed the company during the observation period, even though employees had little work to do.

Lacroix’s current licensing pacts include men’s tailored clothing with Sadev, men’s shirts and knitwear with Rousseau, wedding dresses with Rosa Clara and Mantero for scarves and neckties. A perfume pact with Paris-based Inter Parfums SA is set to expire next year.

Topiol described Lacroix’s fragrance partnership with Avon, set in 2007, as “extremely, extremely successful — beyond belief” — speaking to the reach and power of the Lacroix brand. He also noted men’s wear licensing agreements for Chile and Argentina are doing well, with seven stores already in operation.

Still, Tuesday’s decision left another gap in the increasingly thin high-fashion ranks.

The next couture week in Paris, from Jan. 25 to 28, includes a day dedicated to high jewelry from the likes of Boucheron, Cartier and Chaumet as organizer Chambre Syndicale seeks to create a broader “luxury” event alongside couture stalwarts such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Valentino and Givenchy.

In recent years, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Balmain, Jean-Louis Scherrer and Hanae Mori have all discontinued their couture activity. Giorgio Armani, a rare newcomer, joined the high-fashion fray in 2005.

The decision also puts a question mark over the fashion career of Lacroix, 58, who burst onto the international radar in 1987 when luxury titan Bernard Arnault set up a couture house just for him, unleashing a Baroque-style statement that included the “pouf” skirt and heavy gold crosses.

“This is the most awful decision possible and I’m speechless with anger,” Lacroix told WWD. “I’ll do my best to find a way of battling. But it seems no one is interested in the future of Lacroix in such a cynical world where the word ‘fashion’ doesn’t have the same meaning as mine. My duty has to be struggling against the Falics…against this decision and against the state, who did nothing in fact.”

Lacroix has designed stage costumes for Madonna, dressed Helen Mirren for the Oscars and landed a cameo on the British sitcom “Absolutely Fabulous.” From 2002 to 2005, he was also the designer of Florentine house Emilio Pucci, part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

The designer is listed among creditors of Christian Lacroix SNC, which filed for the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, and is owed 1.2 million euros, or about $1.8 million. Yet he long ago diversified his oeuvre via his XLCX design studio here with ongoing projects for opera costumes, movie theaters, set designs, signature hotels and even tramways for French cities.

Despite critical acclaim for soigné and extravagant designs that drew on the designer’s native Arles and its rich gypsy and Provençal traditions, the Lacroix fashion house weathered a revolving door of managers and failed to turn a profit. Lacroix’s debut perfume in 1990, called C’est la Vie, was a flop and was discontinued.

Best known for its Duty Free Americas chain, Falic Group acquired Lacroix in 2005 from LVMH and initiated a costly upscaling drive, phasing out the Bazaar and Christian Lacroix Jeans collections. In 2008, the Falics initiated a search for a strategic investor to accelerate the company’s expansion, but no deal was concluded.

As the financial crisis bit, a steep drop in wholesale orders drove the company deeply into the red. Losses last year ballooned to about 10 million euros, or $14 million at current exchange, on revenues that declined to an estimated 30 million euros, or $42 million.


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