After the czars, the maharajahs, the American Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and the sheikhs, where will couture find a new client source?
If the spring/summer 2007 season was anything to go by, there seems to be a new youthful clientele in the front rows, amongst them the Miller sisters, Alexandra Von Furstenberg and Marie-Chantal, wife of Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, as well as the 20-something Angelique Hennessy of the cognac family, (Chanel’s youngest client is currently all of 24).
Soaring oil prices have also stroked Middle East interest, reviving a client base that had slumped in the early 1990s. The oil rally has seen some of those princesses return. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Khaled Hamad al-Thani from Qatar was a guest at the Dior show. “I am a client for my wife,” he said. Asked if more of his friends and colleagues would be buying haute couture after oil prices hit a record of $70 per barrel last year, he said, “I think so.”
By now it’s apparent that primary factor driving Couture sales is vast new wealth, especially in emerging markets like India and Eastern Europe, as well as Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates. The presence of a large Arab clientele was also echoed by Marco Gobbetti, the CEO of Givenchy. "Lately, the Middle East has been a significant market that has grown very quickly," he says. Even Giancarlo Giammetti of Valentino has noticed the upswing in couture clients. "There is such a new wealth in the world in countries you didn't expect to explode so much. These people are dressing almost all the time in Couture, so they're able to order huge amounts of clothes,” noted Giammetti.
But the most telling sign of a couture revival occurred back stage after the Dior show, where staff were overjoyed as yet another couture client - the 17-year-old daughter of a Russian millionaire - ordered seven bespoke Dior outfits. With an estimated 25 billionaires, along with a healthy number of 88,000 millionaires, the Russians have become couture’s newest customers, assuming the swagger and style of the oil sheikhs of the 1970’s in their spending habits.
Furthermore Armani Privé has taken to flying its seamstresses to clients for in-person fittings, where a five-dress-per-season order is considered the minimum to qualify for such elite customer service. While Valentino Couture boasts one client who orders a mindboggling 25 to 30 new dresses each season. “The demand for handmade, exclusive, personalized fashion designs for a small but important number of women is significant and growing,” notes Robert Triefus, Armani’s executive VP of PR.
But despite the growing number of clients at several of the couture houses, it is widely believed that the couture label with the most customers is neither Chanel, Valentino, or Dior for that matter, but the lesser-known Lebanese designer Elie Saab, whose front row is usually packed with glamorous Saudi princesses. “Haute Couture is the ultimate refinement," said Nayla Lati, a member of a prominent Beirut banking family who was seated front row at Saab's show.
Then there are the first lady’s, queens and royal consorts who rely upon the couture as a means of projecting a confident and sophisticated image in their increasingly public lives. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missnad, wife of the Emir of Qatar, for instance, regularly calls upon the Houses of Dior, Scherrer, Gaultier, and Chanel to outfit her for foreign visits and the state functions she attends as part of her role as a roving ambassador for the Emirate. While the young Queen of Morocco, Lalla Salma, who is best know for the sumptuously embroidered caftans she dons for royal banquets, is often seen in immaculately tailored Valentino couture outfits for other official functions.
The couture houses that remain insist they are making money. Chanel, which has arguably of the largest haute couture businesses, has reported a 50 per cent increase in sales for the past two years. Its couture division has experienced such significant growth that it now employs 120 workers in three ateliers to keep up with orders. “The couture was profitable if you took out the cost of the presentation of the show”, said Francoise Montenay, the chief executive and president of Chanel, who added that, "What happens is that when they have tasted couture, they cannot live without it - if they still have the money."
In 2005, when Giorgio Armani entered the rarified world of Haute Couture, industry insiders questioned the decision. But according to Armani’s Triefus, the Privé line has experienced tremendous “interest and growth,” pointing out that their roster of European and British clients are now ordering an impressive average of three Armani Privé ensembles each season. At Christian Dior Couture, sales doubled with the previous January collection, while the House of Lacroix has experienced similar growth. "Last year was up about 25 to 30 percent and this year, so far, is running slightly higher,” agrees Nicolas Topiol, president of Christian Lacroix. "Couture is very vibrant."
“My feeling is that the pendulum is swinging back to Couture,” says Jean Paul Gaultier president, Christophe Caillaud. “Rich clients are willing to have exclusive and exceptional products: made-to-measure and personalized. They want to have goods adapted to their specific needs and this includes, or course, Couture.”
Yet despite a rising interest in the craft, the market for haute couture is becoming less French every day. For decades, couture clients used to buy their haute-couture suits and ball gowns directly at the fashion houses in Paris. But many of the couture houses have recognized that if wealthy clients from emerging markets such as India and the Far East can't or won't come to the shows, then the designers will take their collections on the road. The latest to do so were Chanel and Georgio Armani, who both reprised their Paris shows in Hong Kong and New Delhi in a bid to capture a new clientele.
During Dior’s 60th anniversary couture show held on the grounds of Versailles, one executive said that they expected to sell many of the 45 embroidered gowns coming down the runway at that night's show. The catch was that such transactions would not be taking place in Paris, but at a showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Officials at Valentino have also confirmed that they regularly fly to Moscow and Dubai to meet clients, since only 10% of clients still buy the label's signature couture gowns through its Paris showroom.
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