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Couture steals the spotlight in Paris

Versace and Chanel among designers profiting through fashion's most exclusive craft, says Susannah Frankel

For years, fashion pundits and sceptics alike have been predicting the death of what may seem to many an archaic and overly-indulgent discipline.

But the autumn/winter 2012 collections, which kicked off at the Ritz in Paris last night with Donatella Versace's first bona fide Atelier Versace catwalk show since 2004, demonstrate that haute couture is thriving.

There may be no more than a few hundred women wealthy enough in the world to afford couture, but industry figures say the business is "an active one".

Earlier this year, Versace chief executive, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, told Women's Wear Daily that the company's couture workshop, which today employs about 30 seamstresses, had escaped restructuring cuts made in 2009 because Ms Versace "protected and maintained it".

But the cost of a runway show was deemed prohibitive. Instead, private clients and celebrities have been viewing the collection behind closed doors. After healthy haute couture revenues for 2011, and a slightly larger presentation in January this year, more money is now being invested in this, most upscale and elitist, arm of the label.

Given that the economy continues to nose-dive, it may seem surprising that Versace is by no means the only fashion house to report significant, even double-digit, growth in sales of haute couture. This craft is the jewel in fashion's crown − each of these garments are hand-sewn, beaded, embroidered and fitted to suit the client's every curve. Such exclusivity is expensive. Prices start at about £20,000 for a simple day suit. It is not uncommon for more complex pieces to weigh in at 10 times that amount.

Chanel is expanding its haute couture business, too. That collection, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, will be shown on Tuesday. "We feel more and more interest from customers for something unique," Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, told Women's Wear Daily. "People are looking for top quality."

The company, which is privately owned, reserves the right to keep exact figures to itself, but said 2011 was "a very good year". Couture is a "small business" Pavlovsky continued, "but an active one" nonetheless.

Both Givenchy, presided over by Riccardo Tisci, and Valentino, designed since the Roman couturier's retirement in 2007 by Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, have injected new life into the twice-yearly calendar. This time Maison Martin Margiela, famed for transforming found objects into hand-worked designs, has been invited onto the official schedule for the first time.

All eyes are on Christian Dior in particular, meanwhile, where Raf Simon officially took over from John Galliano in April. His debut on this most rarefied catwalk takes place later today.