Couture is back: Rumours of its death had been exaggerated. Designers including Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy reporting a rise in sales of their custom-made creations ahead of this week's Paris shows.
The increase in sales of exclusive fashions – often costing upwards of £30,000 a dress – is being credited to new clients in Russia, the Middle East and China, as well as the return of US customers who had reined in their spending during the recession.
Chanel estimates sales of the label's summer collection were up 20 to 30 per cent on 2009, while Givenchy said its January couture sales were up 10 per cent on last year. Jean Paul Gaultier's president, Veronique Gautier, described the situation as a "spectacular recovery". The company reported that its Russian client base began growing after it held its first haute couture show in Moscow in May. Dior, meanwhile, showed couture at the opening of its enlarged boutique in Shanghai in May.
"It is difficult to pinpoint where couture customers come from," said Harriet Quick of Vogue. "The people you see in the front rows at Paris aren't the same people who are going to the salon to buy them. They are discreet."
Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, told the US fashion blog Women's Wear Daily that Dior's couture arm is booming globally. He said: "We have received so many orders, we are not sure we can deliver them."
Designers, buyers and fashion editors flocked to Paris this weekend for the city's couture shows, which open tomorrow. Labels such as Dior, Valentino and Giorgio Armani Privé will stage catwalk shows, while Givenchy has decided to show its designs by appointment only this season.
"It has gone from a beleaguered couture week to a buoyant commercial proposition," Ms Quick said.
Stringent rules, policed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, that governed the exclusive world of Paris fashion for 150 years are being relaxed. Once, to use the term "haute couture" fashion houses had to have a workshop in Paris, present a certain number of outfits twice a year and design made-to-measure clothes for individual clients. While purchasing a couture gown from a traditional house such as Chanel requires plenty of both time and money – involving at least three trips to the workshop for fittings – some new designers are happy to work remotely, having the dress sent to and from clients by courier.
"Alexis Mabille does a mix of ready to wear and couture, and the prices are much lower. There is also a new designer, Lee Klabin, who is in Paris showing," Ms Quick said.
Mabille and Klabin are not the only newcomers to Paris fashion week. Jewellery brands such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Chanel Joaillerie showcased their expensive wares as part of the official haute couture calendar for the first time in February. And the last day of the couture shows is now entirely devoted to jewellery. Since allowing jewellers entrance into the couture week, the Chambre Syndicale is said to have been inundated with requests to open up the shows to other brands.