Haute couture: Class of 2008

They're young, well heeled, with a passion for fashion. If it's bright and cool, they want it. Meet the new force in haute couture
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They are hardly your archetypal big fashion spenders. Many are barely out of university and would make more normal targets for chains such as Topshop and Hennes & Mauritz. But that is not deterring a new generation of designer addicts who have thrown an unlikely lifeline to some of the biggest names in the rarefied world of haute couture.

Jostling for front-row status with celebrities such as Claudia Schiffer and Victoria Beckham at last week's Paris shows was a new crop of couture clients who are more likely to take fashion cues from hit US television shows such as Gossip Girl than the creations traditionally whipped up by the cream of the luxury world.

Hind Hariri, who, in her early 20s, was until recently the world's youngest dollar billionaire, headed a pack that included Lou Doillon, 25, the daughter of Jane Birkin, and several Middle Eastern princesses. The class of 2008 also featured Aleksandra Melnichenko, 30, the wife of the Russian coal magnate Andrey Melnichenko, and Kirsty Bertarelli, who is a former Miss United Kingdom and is married to the billionaire sailing champion Ernesto Bertarelli.

Ms Hariri, a recent graduate of the Lebanese American University in Beirut, inherited her $1.5bn fortune when her father, Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005. Taking her cue from her couture client elders, she keeps a low profile outside of her home country, where she campaigned for her half-brother Saad in the last elections.

Her couture weakness is Chanel but she likes to save it for special occasions, telling the fashion trade bible, Women's Wear Daily: "Couture is for when I am representing my family. I'm more into prêt-à-porter."

Rachel Sharp, editor of Harper's Bazaar Middle East, said: "The older generation of Arabic women didn't embrace Western fashion in the way that the younger generation does."

The new couture customer has helped to drive a remarkable turnaround for an industry that many had written off as a dying art as recently as a couple of years ago. Darren Cabon, of the London College of Fashion, said the fashion world is witnessing "a new wave of neo-couture". He added: "Couture is getting younger. A lot of new wealth is being inherited which means girls have money at a young age and they want to dress in clothes that perhaps their mothers wouldn't have worn."

Mr Cabon singled out Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel as the two houses leading the drive to woo younger customers. Chanel's couture show last week prompted WWD to declare that its designer, Karl Lagerfeld, had "gone for the youth vote". The magazine added: "The real news [was] an unmistakable out-with-the-old vibe". The show beckoned, it said, to the "sweet bird of youth".

Other popular designers include Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci and Anne Valerie Hash, whose show kicked off the bi-annual haute couture season, and also Elie Saab, the Lebanese couturier whose collection was dubbed "Barbie bling" by one fashion editor.

Christophe Caillaud, president of Jean Paul Gaultier, said last year: "What we see is that more ladies are coming together with their daughters to buy pieces." He added that he believed the new generation would make "our future base of clients".

And Givenchy's chief executive, Marc Gobetti, has said that prominent Middle East families are inviting their "very chic" daughters and nieces into the couture club, which helped the once-ailing Givenchy enjoy a 30 per cent jump in couture orders last year.

Chanel

The couture house courted the young with its autumn/winter collection. Designer Karl Lagerfeld has seen the potential of the new high-spenders

Irina Abramovich

The ex-wife of Britain's most famous Russian resident, Roman, likes to mix couture with ready-to-wear pieces by designers such as Ralph Lauren. She has a cool $300m to spend, post-divorce

Hind Hariri

The daughter of the late Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri saves couture for special occasions, when she is representing her family. Her fortune is a whopping $1.5bn

Kirsty Bertarelli

The Geneva resident and former Miss UK who wed into billions likes Christian Dior, Armani Privé and Chanel. Her husband made his money from a family pharmaceuticals firm

Aleksandra Melnichenko

She chops and changes between Chanel, Lacroix and Givenchy. The cost? The small change from nearly $3bn in her coal magnate husband's bank account

Yuki Tan

The Chinese business magnate runs the jewellery-to-accessories chain Folli Follie. For her, buying couture from Giorgio Armani and Givenchy is buying into a dream

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