Haute Couture: A premature death?

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Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini issued the 2007 edition of their annual World Wealth Report last week and the Financial Times and other media took notice, remarking on the dramatic growth of high-net worth individuals and the risky investment strategies that have helped make the world’s rich even richer (subscription required). And then, today’s WWD reported on the dramatic rise in Haute Couture sales experienced by houses from Dior to Chanel to Givenchy. Was Haute Couture’s death knell premature?

Conventional wisdom says that the Haute Couture lines of famous Parisian fashion houses are more like publicity machines and creative R&D playgrounds. For the price of  a collection of  hand-made, intricately designed dresses, the maisons of Paris get millions of dollars worth of media coverage that helps build the mystique and exclusiveness of their brands. In this way, couture is the single most important method for communicating the individual persona of a luxury fashion brand.

This persona can then be extended more profitably to ready-to-wear and accessories lines, as well as licensing opportunities in fragrance, eyewear and a host of other proximate categories. Furthermore, the unabashed creativity that couture designers use to develop their works of art generates scores of ideas that can the ‘declined’ (it sounds much better in French) to these other classifications. For example, in John Galliano’s most recent ready-to-wear collection, you can see the themes carried over from his origami fiesta during the January Haute Couture show.

However, in recent years, many observers have questioned the relevance and future of Haute Couture, especially from an economic perspective. If the figures cited in today’s WWD are not just a blip, then haute couture may have been declared dead prematurely. With the burgeoning wealth of new luxury customers in South Asia, the Middle East and Russia, couture houses are finding new clients who are looking for something more exlusive than the latest it bag from Balenciaga. Referring to the much-discussed high-low phenomenon, Sydney Toledano of Dior quipped:

"They’re not going to put a $2 million piece of jewelry on a Zara dress."

Makes sense to me. No wonder there are businesses out there catering to matching up the world’s wealthiest men with women who aspire to be dressed in those exclusive couture creations furnished by their billionaire husbands-to-be.  Nonetheless, according to an article from MSNBC, a Zara dress will do just fine in helping women close the deal on a couture life at which point she can move on to some seriously expensive origami.