Couture champagne for millennium parties

Bubbly makers are bringing in fashion's leading lights to give their products a new look

Forget your plain old bottles of fizz; champagne has joined the marketing makeover exercise and formed a brave new alliance with design. In the past few years, champagne makers have been hiring some of the fashion world's top creators to make designer bottles.

Pommery led the way four years ago by commissioning a series of designers, including Ines de la Fressange and Givenchy designer Alexander McQueen. Christian Lacroix, part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) designed this year's champagne "bottle wrap" for Pommery.

The wrap, a silvery bag with a blue leather base and matching straps, has been designed to hold a magnum of champagne. The Christian Lacroix insignia sets it off at the top of the bag.

Groupe Marne et Champagne, the world's second-largest champagne maker, called on Paco Rabanne to come up with a bottle encased in chain mail for its Lanson champagne.

The designer recently attracted mixed attention for predicting the end of the world and that Russia's Mir space station would crash into Paris during the solar eclipse.

Now, Jean-Paul Gaultier has created a corset cover in red vinyl for Remy Cointreau, brought together at the front with flat lace. The bottle was designed for a new Piper Heidsieck champagne, "Rare", and will sell for 600 francs (pounds 60) in nightclubs and specialty liquor stores.

"It's the most exciting bottle ever realised for champagne," said Vincent Duhem, Piper Heidsieck's product manager.

Marne et Champagne is hoping Paco Rabanne will spice up its Lanson brand, and Vranken Monopole hired an outside consultant in Paris to design new shapes and labels for its bottles.

"It makes sense to have an alliance between a quality product such as champagne - the most luxurious wine in the world - and with fashion," said Francoise Peretti, director of the Champagne Information Bureau in London. "Champagne represents the ultimate lifestyle - a wine people aspire to drink - and fashion has a very strong link with lifestyle," he added.

The changes come as champagne makers benefit from early demand for millennium parties, especially from abroad.

Exports were up 23 per cent at the end of May, with shipments to the United States booming 92 per cent up, according to industry trade group Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wines, which represents the 120 champagne houses and 15,000 growers in France.

Piper Heidsieck sales last year totalled FFr565m, adding to the FFr137m of its Charles Heidsieck brand, whose more serious image contrasts with Piper's party style.

Company officials declined to estimate how many cases of Rare they expect to sell.

Not everyone feels a need to hire designers. "We consider that we have a prestigious brand and don't need to associate with a designer to make this point," said Jean-Baptiste Maugars, marketing director at Moet & Chandon, another LVMH unit.

Vranken Monopole, maker of the Charles Lafitte and Heidsieck brands, hired a Paris-based communications company to enliven the look of its champagne.

Vranken, which went public last year, has unveiled five champagnes specifically for the year 2000, including "Cuvee 21", its "haute couture" 2000 presentation. The long-necked bottle has a gold ring and crest plate, carried in a velvety blue bag with gold imprints enlaced in a golden cord.

The five vintages, which range from $20 to $60, will retail throughout 2000. "We've positioned the brands toward every segment to appeal to all social classes," said Virginie Martin, a marketing executive at Vranken Monopole.

Millennium hopes are also doing good things for share prices: LVMH, which fell out of favour with some investors last year because of the recession in Asia, is the second-biggest gainer in the benchmark CAC 40 index, its shares up 79 per cent this year. Remy Cointreau and Vranken each have risen about 10 per cent in six months.

Some companies are hoping that the new designs will stick beyond the new year and into the next millennium.

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