Dec 3, 2009
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Couture must juggle the creative with the commercial to survive

Dec 3, 2009

PARIS, Dec 3, 2009 (AFP) - The tribulations of the celebrated French fashion house Christian Lacroix at a bankruptcy hearing this week show more than ever that haute couture cannot pay its way on its own.

Photo: AFP/File/Pierre Guillaud

Although Lacroix was adulated by fashion editors and celebrity A-list customers for his extravagant, fairytale clothes, couture is a notoriously loss-making activity. Anyone who indulges in it needs to have the solid backing of ready-to-wear lines and more importantly, accessories and perfumes which the general public can afford.

The figures speak for themselves. From around 100 haute couture houses in 1945, there are only around 10 entitled to call themselves that today, despite the fashion body easing its criteria for membership of the elite club.

"Haute couture is made-to-measure, it is a personal service for the very wealthy, you will never make it pay", explained Erwan Rambourg, a financial analyst on luxury goods at HSBC.

It is a "shop window, an advertising investment. But if there is nothing to back it up, it doesn't work."

"Haute couture as a money-making machine has been dead for a long time, but it remains a cultural exception which approaches art," adds Jean-Jacques Picart, co-founder of Lacroix, who is now a consultant, notably to the global luxury leader LVMH.

"It gives a tremendous boost to all the other products," he said, citing the case of Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose fashion shows help to sell his perfume lines.

"Even if in 2009 Lacroix sold around 70 bridal dresses - an enormous number for couture - at an average of 35,000 euros a throw, it is obvious that it is not enough to run a couture house," Picart added.

In 2008 Lacroix ran up losses of 10 million euros.

Haute couture can be justified for big truly international brands, which sell lots of different products - like Chanel and Christian Dior - argues Rambourg, but not for smaller businesses. The Lacroix' perfume "C'est La Vie" notably failed to take off.

To survive, haute couture must be built on a pyramid model: haute couture at the top, followed by ready-to-wear, perfumes and accessories, in other words from an exceptional product down to items which can be bought by the general public, says Julie El Ghouzzi, director of the Centre du luxe et de la creation.

An outdated concept? Not at all, she believes. "In the same way that high tech businesses invest in research and development without any likelihood of instant returns for their money, luxury houses invest in haute couture to nourish creativity. You have to think in terms of adding value, rather than making a profit."

Picart thinks the solution for Lacroix might be in niche-marketing, along the lines of Azzedine Alaia, who has few boutiques and does not advertise, but sells very expensive frocks.

He could join the ranks of designers who are replacing haute couture proper with their high-end ready-to-wear. Britain's Alexander McQueen, in the Gucci group, freely admits that some of his creations are "haute couture in disguise" and could not be manufactured.

The Paris commercial court's decision on Tuesday 1 December to nod through the restructuring plan proposed by US owners, duty free giant Falic, met a lukewarm reception among fashion professionals.

The turnaround plan involves sacking all but a dozen or so of the house's 100 plus employees, closing down its fashion activities and concentrating on the licensing deals for accessories and perfumes.

"Who can still remember Thierry Mugler? No consumer today knows the label, only the perfumes," Rambourg commented of the French designer who found himself in a similar fix.

Picart said "This leaves the door open for just anybody to come and take over Lacroix and imitate his work."

El Ghouzzi also warned "the survival of a brand is in danger if there is no longer any creative activity."by Dominique Ageorges

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