UPDATE 1-Hermes' sales growth gallops ahead
* 2012 sales rise 16.4 pct at constant forex
* 2012 operating margin seen above 2011 level
* Proposes interim dividend of 1.5 eur/shr (Adds detail, background)
PARIS, Feb 12 (Reuters) - French luxury group Hermes has posted a 16.4 percent rise in 2012 sales at constant exchange rates, beating its own recent forecast and predicted a slight rise in its operating margin for the year.
Known for its silk scarves and Birkin and Kelly handbags, the company had only raised its sales forecast for the year in November, saying then that growth could be more than 13 percent.
"Sales exceeded the target for the year, driven by persistently robust momentum in the fourth quarter," Hermes said in a statement on Tuesday.
Revenue grew 18.5 percent in the last three months of the year, marking an acceleration from 15.7 percent growth in the third quarter and 13.4 percent in the second.
Quarterly growth was strongest in Asia, excluding Japan, at 30 percent, Hermes said. The group added two branches in Taiwan and China, while six other stores were renovated or expanded last year. Growth in Europe was 12 percent.
Last month LVMH's fashion and leather goods division reported sales growth of 5 percent like-for-like in the fourth quarter, the bulk of which came from Louis Vuitton, the world's biggest luxury brand.
PPR, which owns Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, the world's second biggest luxury brand in terms of sales behind Louis Vuitton, publishes its annual results on Friday.
Hermes said revenue totalled 3.48 billion euros ($4.66 billion) last year, a rise of 22.6 percent at current exchange rates. Fourth-quarter sales came in at 1.04 billion.
The company, which is due to post full-year results on March 21, said its 2012 operating margin was expected to be "slightly above the all-time high achieved in 2011". The margin reached 31.2 percent of sales in 2011.
The 176-year-old French company's products include its Kelly and Birkin leather handbags which cost around 12,000 euros and can take months to obtain in certain colours or types of leather. ($1=0.7474 euros) (Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Greg Mahlich)
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