Haute Couture That's Not So Haute

More designers are romancing the bourgeois with labels for less

Yves Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Christian Dior. The names all evoke haute couture, a rarefied market where every year about 2,000 women pay $30,000 and up for handmade one-of-a-kind creations.

Glamorous as it is, haute couture is only a marginal money-maker. For profits, couturiers rely on related lines. There are couture fragrances and couture accessories--scarves and the like--that bear the names of Saint Laurent and others. Then there's luxury ready-to-wear, such as Saint Laurent's Rive Gauche line. Ready-to-wear can cost a lot less than the real thing, but it still commands up to $10,000 for a suit. The French houses had more than $1 billion in 1990 apparel and accessories sales, according to industry group Federation Francaise de la Couture. Cosmetics consultant Allan Mottus estimates fragrance added some $265 million.

DOWN TO EARTH. Now, a herd of European couture houses and prestigious U. S. designers are jumping into the more down-to-earth activity of "secondary lines." These clothes are designed by couturiers but cost from $100 to $900 (table)--pricey, but within the reach of the prosperous middle class. Although a few houses such as Guy Laroche have had cheaper secondary lines for years, most of the industry is pinning its hopes on this category. "Secondary lines are the only way to continue," says Aldo Pinto, chairman of Krizia, the Italian couture house. Krizia is hoping to launch a secondary women's line, while Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent have launched much less expensive lines for the first time (table).

Behind this trend is the impact of recession. Although total industry figures are hard to find, Jacques Mouclier, chairman of the Federation Francaise, says orders for French haute couture and superexpensive ready-to-wear are running 20% below last year's level. Orders for accessories are off about 10%. The house of Pierre Balmain has laid off its haute couture staff of 60 people and will use ready-to-wear staff for all designs. Pierre Berge, president of Yves Saint Laurent, says orders for his custom-made couture have dropped 50%. "There is a change of mentality," he says, citing a rejection of Eighties glamor as a major depressant. "Women no longer feel like flying to Paris for fittings and waiting three months for a dress."

Worse, the couturiers are losing those customers who were once willing to drop a few thousand for ready-to-wear couture. Says Carolyne Roehm, an American designer: "Any of us who just stay doing luxury ready-to-wear will be dinosaurs."

So now, designers are targeting the bourgeoisie. In France, jackets in Yves Saint Laurent's Variation line sell for $200. Variation will probably be available soon in the U. S. In March, Emanuel Ungaro announced a secondary line for the U. S., with almost everything priced under $500. And such American designers as Roehm and Michael Kors are rolling out cheaper lines.

Couturiers wax eloquent about their new customers. Says Kors: "I kept noticing that every time my most expensive pieces got marked down, this sophisticated customer we hadn't seen before was buying." Givenchy Chairman Jean Courtiere figures that cheaper couture could eventually capture 10% to 15% of women's apparel dollars worldwide--potentially a $12 billion business.

The trouble is that in the U. S., the biggest potential market, experienced players such as Anne Klein are already selling clothes that are expensive but not out of reach. American designer Donna Karan has also launched a stylish career clothes and sportswear line, dubbed DKNY, that's expected to reach $135 million in sales this year.

SHY GUYS. The other problem is the sullying effect the cheaper lines could have on haute couture's image. Such designers as the late Halston, for example, lost their luster by attaching their names to too many products.

Aware of this danger, some designers are shying away from the trend. "I simply said no because I didn't feel I could do all those things honestly without prostituting my name," says James Galanos, the Los Angeles designer whose clients include Nancy Reagan. In Paris, Christian Lacroix, whose house is only four years old, also avoids secondary lines. "A couture designer shouldn't have too many labels," says Lacroix. But a lower tolerance for extravagant consumption is undermining an industry that got its start by clothing the ladies of Napoleon III's court. In the end, many couturiers may have no choice but to settle for something a lot less aristocratic.

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