washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Fashion

A Vintage Approach To High-End Sales

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page C02


On any given week in this city, there are innumerable cocktail parties celebrating the fashion industry. Each one is crowded with waiters passing glasses of champagne and well-groomed guests greeting each other with a double kiss. Depending on one's point of view, the kissing is either a charming habit picked up from years of travel to European fashion capitals, or a silly affectation that spreads germs more rapidly than a handshake.

While there are no official statistics, it does not seem much of a stretch to say that the fashion industry is the primary industrial consumer of Veuve Cliquot. Whether it is a book, a collection or a pot of cold cream, every new product gets a toast. Occasionally the merchandise is worth the celebration.

_____From Robin Givhan_____
At the End of the Race, Dressed to Impress (The Washington Post, Nov 5, 2004)
Classic Furs, Styled for Youth (The Washington Post, Oct 29, 2004)
Spring Collections, Floating on Air (The Washington Post, Oct 22, 2004)
Paris, When It Fizzles (The Washington Post, Oct 12, 2004)
Clothes Ready For Takeoff On the Paris Runways (The Washington Post, Oct 8, 2004)
_____Arts & Living_____
The Fashion & Beauty section has stories and tips.

Wednesday evening, Barneys New York hosted a cocktail party for designer Alber Elbaz, whose collection for Lanvin was one of the best of the spring 2005 season. Elbaz presented the line last month in Paris, and it received the kind of rousing praise that goes beyond arms-length appreciation -- the audience wanted to wear these clothes. In addition to the week's champagne toasts, Elbaz was scheduled to oversee a trunk show, an event attended by those rarefied women who are willing to spend several thousands of dollars to order clothes that they most likely cannot try on and that they will not receive for months. In short, they are women who are either supremely confident in their sense of style or in Elbaz's ability to offer guidance.

Elbaz gives the impression that he is a levelheaded designer. On the receiving end of enthusiastic praise for his spring collection, he is quick to quote advice given to him by the late designer Geoffrey Beene, for whom Elbaz once worked: "You're only as good as your last collection." One senses that Elbaz would not turn lordly and domineering with his customers and try to decree what they should wear. He is the reassuring sort, who would blame the line of a dress for making a woman's rear end look fat, even if her derriere is in fact double-wide.

The guests at these fashion cocktail parties typically include potential customers, boldface names, friends of the designer and fashion editors. In some ways, the fashion cocktail party serves the same purpose as the talk show. Instead of promoting a new film, the designer is promoting a new collection. And while an actor who sits down for a chat with Jay Leno is hoping that millions will buy a ticket to his movie, a designer who rubs shoulders with a few hundred guests at a cocktail party is hoping that a tiny number of them -- maybe one -- will plop down in excess of $20,000 for a broadtail coat.

Selling fashion at this level -- where a glamorous short silk skirt with a spray of flowers at the hem sells for approximately $1,200 -- requires a personal touch. That may come in the form of a salesperson who knows precisely how each piece in the collection will fit, a designer willing to serve up charm, warmth and good information . . . or several glasses of champagne and a few caviar-stuffed potatoes.

At these cocktail parties, where it is common to encounter the same guests from evening to evening, one is reminded of how quaint the high-end fashion industry remains. Lanvin, which was founded in 1890 by Jeanne Lanvin, is another of the old French houses seeking lucrative resurrection. That is accomplished in part by courting one customer at a time, by dressing highly visible patrons who will wear pieces from the collection on the social circuit, by receiving an introduction to the "right" groups of women -- whether in Hollywood, Paris or the Upper East Side.

With Lanvin, the razzle-dazzle of titled and well-connected ladies adds an air of excitement. But the collection doesn't need it. It has more than enough panache to sell itself. Besides, if the clothes are not splendid, it doesn't matter where they are seen and on which women.

Folks will still come to drink the champagne, but they won't spend a penny on the frocks.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company