PARIS — Do dresses with six-figure price tags have a place in fashion magazines at a time of economic crisis?
And can couture have a bright future when one of its most acclaimed practitioners, Christian Lacroix, is in receivership?
Those are among the questions weighing on the industry as the high fashion shows get under way here today.
Still, executives cite an expanding global clientele for couture and continued press interest, albeit now skewed to emerging markets.
What’s more, couture’s remaining players (not surprisingly) insist the pinnacle of fashion’s pyramid is still relevant as it exemplifies savoir faire, craftsmanship and elite service: virtues that have come to the fore of consumer consciousness after an overdose of hype and bling during the luxury boom.
“It is a powerful tool to educate the customer about our brand,” stressed Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, which will parade Karl Lagerfeld’s latest collection to about 900 guests under the soaring glass roof of the Grand Palais at sundown Tuesday. “In couture, the objective is to be perfect. There’s no compromise on excellence.”
“There is a demand for sophistication,” agreed Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive officer at Christian Dior, which is staging two shows today in its salons on the Avenue Montaigne. “It’s about the real value of names like Dior: the savoir faire, the notoriety of our atelier.…This contact between the hand and the fabric — inspired by a great designer — is something important we have to continue developing.”
Toledano said his main concern is preserving the artisans and suppliers that nurture couture — not the small number of big players. “It doesn’t mean because you are few, you have to stop doing it,” he said.
Pavlovsky called 2008 a “record year” for Chanel’s couture business, with a 10 percent sales uptick over the previous year. Sales for the white-themed summer 2009 collection slipped about 15 percent, reflecting recessionary times, but hardly prompting alarm.
“The number of potential customers is still the same: The number of customers who are ordering is less,” is how Pavlovsky put it. Indeed, while fewer American clients opened their checkbooks last season, Chanel won a handful of orders from important new ones from the Middle East, Russia, Greece and China.
Noted Toledano: “There are more and more millionaires in China — more than in France.”
What unites clients is a desire “to feel very special with the brand, and to be unique in their outfit,” Pavlovsky said. “It’s working. There will continue to be fans of couture.”
Indeed, even at Lacroix, where employees are fretting that a court-appointed administrator could liquidate the 22-year-old couture house, or reduce the firm to a licensing operation, there is an order backlog.
Marie Martinez, Lacroix’s longtime couture director, cited a waiting list for more than 20 outfits, including three wedding dresses. In fact, clients are still placing orders on the summer collection shown last January, with sequin-trimmed navy military jackets, frothy chiffon blouses and gold lamé evening columns among in-demand styles.
Fear that Lacroix’s couture operations may be shuttered might in part be driving orders, Martinez acknowledged. However, she noted some clients are buying up a storm as a way to support the house, “because they are nice,” she shrugged in her deep plum shift dress, punctuated at the waist with a striped ribbon in the acidic colors for which Lacroix is famous. “The clients love Mr. Lacroix.”
Martinez noted the daughters of longtime clients have begun placing orders, along with new buyers from countries including Singapore and Japan.
Later this month, Martinez is scheduled to deliver dresses for a wedding in Brazil, even as the fate of future orders, including Lacroix’s made-on-a-shoestring winter collection, hangs in the air.
“I think it’s very courageous for Christian to do a collection,” she said. “It’s going to be a big day on Tuesday, I’m sure.”
Veronique Gautier, president of Jean Paul Gaultier, said its couture business emerged “unscathed” in 2008, with the effects of the worldwide economic crisis registering only this year.
“We are very aware that the second part of this year will not be as positive as last year, but we are doing our best to maintain a good average of sales as we rely on the loyalty of our clients,” she said. “And we are still courting new clients who are always attracted to the creativity of our couturier, who is one of the very few French couturiers to carry on the tradition.”
Gautier noted the house’s clientele is growing, with Russian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European customers supplanting American ones.
Fabrizio Malverdi, ceo at Givenchy, said the house is confident it can achieve sales in line with last year — when the couture business vaulted 80 percent — thanks to clients who value a “personal experience” and a “one-to-one relationship” with the fashion house.
“The future for Givenchy will be even more in that direction,” Malverdi said, highlighting its “niche approach” with intimate shows and small, exclusive collections.
Beirut-based couturier Elie Saab said high fashion represents 45 percent of his total sales, and he’s gunning for “another prosperous year.”
Echoing other executives, Saab said his clientele is expanding beyond America and the Middle East to Asia and Eastern Europe, citing new and younger buyers from Turkey, Greece, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. “Couture will always thrive as long as there are women who like to be unique and distinguished,” he said.
Stefano Sassi, ceo at Valentino Fashion Group, said the Roman house is expecting a decline in couture in 2009 given the “very difficult general environment.” However, he characterized last year as “the overall best performance ever” in couture sales and reiterated the group’s commitment to its high-fashion business as the ultimate “expression of craftsmanship.”
“It’s becoming a very scarce resource, and like all scarce resources it is becoming more valuable if properly used,” he said. “I’m expecting just a few houses to continue their haute couture business, but I am convinced of the great value behind it.…It is a unique opportunity to show creativity with less business constraints.”
Although Pavlovsky described couture as a cornerstone at Chanel, given “full economic support” from the house’s owners and supported by a steady clientele, he allowed the future of couture week in Paris is up in the air, given a shrinking number of attractions, and few new participants. “At the end of the day, we feel a little bit alone,” he said. “We need to keep couture as a strong moment here in Paris. We have to support that. How many ready-to-wear fashion weeks do we have in the world?”
A spokesman for Giorgio Armani, who presents his Privé line Tuesday, followed by a launch of the Idole d’Armani perfume, said presenting the collection in Paris is “absolutely fundamental and positive for our business.”
Armani said its couture line performed “well” in 2008 as an influx of new clients offset lower orders from some regular ones. However, the spokesman warned that “a few clients might further extend their caution when buying the next collection.”
Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, said press attendance would likely be “down slightly” this season. However, he cited a full roster of off-schedule shows as proof of couture week’s appeal.
“If you think of couture as an industry, of course you can say it’s in jeopardy,” he said. “If you think of it as a savoir faire and a service, then you think differently, that it will always exist.”
Gautier agreed, saying death knells for couture have been sounded since the Sixties. “Forty years later, haute couture is still alive,” she said.
Executives acknowledged editorial coverage of couture has fallen in some fashion magazines — partly due to the dwindling number of practitioners; partly due to sensitivities about showing exorbitantly priced garments amidst record unemployment, and partly due to the economic impact on publishing, which has resulted in both fewer ad and editorial pages. Italian Vogue is one of the few magazines to still produce special couture supplements.
But it’s a contrasting picture. According to its tallies of haute couture coverage in 2008, which is assigned a value equivalent to like advertising space, Chanel said coverage of couture last year fell 33 percent in France and 39 percent in the United States. By contrast, coverage in Italy rose 13 percent and almost tripled in Russia.
“There is a lot of talk about crisis — perhaps too much, in fact — and for this very reason it is important to continue to show the more creative side of the fashion world,” said Alberto Zanoletti, fashion director of Elle Italia, which is planning a 14- to 16-page couture spread for its November issue.
“In the words of John Galliano, this is a credit crunch, not a creative crunch, and our readers still love to look at beautiful things,” agreed Glenda Bailey, editor in chief at Harper’s Bazaar, which is planning a feature about this week’s shows for a fall issue. “The innovation and craftsmanship at these ateliers is unparalleled — they truly are laboratories for fashion and the art they create is a source of inspiration for our readers. As long as women dream about beautiful clothes, they’ll be inspired by couture.”
Sassi noted Jennifer Aniston’s appearance in Valentino couture at last February’s Oscars led to “immense” coverage worldwide, “so there are certainly other, and new ways to exploit and obtain visibility for the great creative effort and exquisite craftsmanship that is still so much a part of Valentino’s DNA.”
Pulling from a pile of magazines on a conference room table, Chanel’s Pavlovsky opened the thick Brazilian title Mag! — revealing a 66-page feature on the making of Chanel’s summer collection, with photos documenting the creation of dresses, decor and beauty looks through to the final presentation.
Amid a shrinking pool of players, “we think we are more and more visible,” he said.