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PARIS — Could haute couture be compared with cruise, prized for its luxuriously long selling window?

This story first appeared in the July 2, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Absolutely, as some of high fashion’s remaining purveyors — rebounding strongly from the 2009 financial crisis — are still fielding orders on their January shows, on the eve of another couture week getting under way here Monday.

“There is no end of the season,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, reporting an increase “between 20 and 30 percent” in units and revenues for Karl Lagerfeld’s silvery summer couture — and forecasting an overall increase for 2010. “The people who are interested in couture, they are quite active at the moment. They can come at any time.”

Indeed, executives trumpeted the return this year of American and Russian clients, who had retreated in 2009 amid the global economic downturn.

Meanwhile, well-heeled women from emerging markets such as China continue to plump couture coffers.

“We also have new clients from Europe and the Middle East,” Pavlovsky noted. “Today, we feel a new interest in haute couture.”

Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive officer at Christian Dior, declined to pinpoint the scale of the house’s increase last season, but he characterized sales of John Galliano’s equestrian-themed summer couture as “one of the best” since his arrival at the French house in 1996.

“We received so many orders, we are not sure we can deliver them,” said Toledano, noting that some 80 percent of ensembles purchased were direct from the runway, with no customization. Bestsellers included a daytime look — a twisted “bar” jacket and long riding skirt — and an evening ensemble consisting of a plunging satin top and sweeping skirt composed of lace ribbons.

“The demand is here. The number of clients has increased,” Toledano said. “The clients are looking for high quality, and haute couture is the summit.

“I’m very optimistic for the future,” he continued. “In the business of couture, the numbers are becoming interesting.”

Véronique Gautier, president of Jean Paul Gaultier, also described a “spectacular recovery” in couture that far exceeded its forecast for the beginning of the year, given the severity of the 2009 downturn. “All of the orders proved that clients are once again enthusiastic for the unique creations only couture can propose,” she said.

A spokesman for Giorgio Armani cited a “very positive performance” for the firm’s spring Armani Privé collection, particularly for eveningwear.

Givenchy, which plans to host individual appointments next week in lieu of a runway format to enhance couture’s exclusive cachet, said sales from the January show rose 10 percent, with its tuxedo looks and bulbous, dégradé finale dresses being the standout sellers.

Givenchy ceo Fabrizio Malverdi said the brand registered a rebound in demand from the Middle East, Russia and China. The couture house, part of luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is forecasting an increase of 10 to 20 percent in couture this year, “thanks to a collection that will be more concentrated, more special and richer, expressing craftsmanship and [designer] Riccardo Tisci’s creativity.”

In tandem with the dwindling number of couture houses comes a higher level of elite service — and a more confidential approach.

Malverdi noted attendance by clients at the company’s couture shows receded over the past year, giving the firm confidence it could forego the runway without denting the business. “[Clients] prefer an intimate and private presentation, and oftentimes the house visits them,” Malverdi said.

“The majority of our customers order dresses from the look book anyway,” said Elie Saab, whose couture generates 45 percent of the Beirut, Lebanon-based firm’s sales. “The percentage of our clients attending the show varies from 30 percent to 40 percent.”

In fact, Saab said, “many of our clients would not be comfortable being seen out in public and therefore never [would] attend the show.”

Armani said it has received strong RSVPs from Middle Eastern clients, who often travel to Europe in summer, and a “faint” increase in the number of Americans attending.

Stefano Sassi, ceo at Rome-based Valentino, said the vast majority of customers receive home visits from the atelier. “It’s definitely a one-to-one relationship and very top service. Nothing should be standard with haute couture,” he stressed.

Chanel’s Pavlovsky agreed service levels in couture continue to rise, which encompasses everything from the level of creativity and savoir faire in the clothes to the personal attention clients receive. He noted its couture specialists and seamstresses are probably the most frequent fliers at Chanel, boarding planes up to five times a month for consultations and fittings.

“They’re going to Russia, China, the Middle East and many countries in Europe,” Pavlovsky said in an interview at Chanel’s hushed, beige-and-black headquarters on the Rue Cambon. “Compared to 10 years ago, it’s a big change. The important thing is to serve the customer how they want to be served.”

And these days, according to Gaultier, fittings with clients might take place “on a yacht in the Greek islands or in the Caribbean” or a palace in the Persian Gulf.

Executives said Europe and America remain the chief markets for couture, with growth coming mainly from Russia, the Middle East and Asia. They noted, however, that the high-fashion universe is small, and even a dozen new clients can swing its fortunes.

Saab, whose top market remains the Middle East, said an influx of new clients is coming from Turkey, Russia and former Soviet republics.

A spokesman for Giorgio Armani said it has recently seen a small number of clients from Brazil and Eastern Europe for Armani Privé. “As for the large emerging markets, such as China and India, these are still at the beginning stages,” he added.

Several houses have taken couture abroad recently to fan demand in emerging markets.

Staging its cruise show in Shanghai in May in tandem with the opening of an enlarged Plaza 66 boutique, Dior also paraded couture creations such as dramatic organza and tulle gowns. Toledano described the impact as “huge. The boutique in Shanghai is just booming.”

Last year, Valentino showed couture in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, which yielded orders, and it plans to repeat the on-the-road operation this year, although the destinations have yet to be finalized. Sassi also disclosed plans to present a “very special selection of pieces” to the top customers of Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Harrods in London.

Gaultier reprised his Mexican-flavored summer couture show in May in Moscow, an event that “opened the door for us to an upscale clientele,” Gautier said, noting some of the firm’s new Russian clients would attend the show next week.

Executives allowed that couture remains an important vehicle “for activities linked to celebrities and special events,” Malverdi noted, citing as an example the recent dinner Givenchy hosted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for performance artist Marina Abramovic. Couture is also “important for the research aspect, and for generating ideas for our other product categories in the future,” he added.

Saab estimated media coverage of his January couture show rose by 10 percent, with exposure — excluding television and online coverage — valued at 1.2 million euros, or $1.5 million at current exchange.


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