London designers seek to defy tough markets with luxury pieces

Mon Sep 16, 2013 4:40pm EDT

* Designers say optimistic about sales despite economic woes

* Bold, colourful, luxurious designs on catwalks

* Consumers becoming more demanding

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

LONDON, Sept 16 (Reuters) - London designers are seeking to entice more demanding fashion followers with luxurious materials, rich embellishment and vivid colours, hopeful that the country's luxury industry will grow despite continuing global economic woes.

London Fashion Week, effectively a trade show that sees hundreds of buyers, journalists and celebrities descend on the British capital, is expected to result in orders worth more than 100 million pounds ($159.35 million) during its Sept. 13-17 run.

Hoping to cash in on last year's London Olympics and the Kate Middleton factor that thrust London in the spotlight - even though the city is a smaller sister to fashion giants Milan, Paris and New York - designers are full of confidence.

Despite a noted slowdown in designer-hungry China, many brands still see huge potential there and a rebound in U.S. demand, while Japan is boosting spirits and balance sheets.

"I think the customer is still there," Mulberry Chief Executive Bruno Guillon told Reuters after the luxury label's spring/summer 2014 womenswear show.

"I think the customer is certainly focusing on quality."

In a lush garden setting in London's exclusive Claridges hotel, Mulberry models wore colourful silk floral as well as sparkly sequined dresses, leather T-shirts, dark coats with pony-skin panels and silvery jacquard coats.

The British luxury sector is forecast to almost double in size over the next five years, from 6.6 billion pounds in 2012 to 12.2 billion pounds in 2017, according to a Ledbury Research and Walpole Luxury Benchmark study published in July.

Fashion contributes 21 billion pounds to Britain's $2.5 trillion economy, British Fashion Council figures show, and, as the largest employer of all the creative industries, it supports around 816,000 jobs.

"British brands developed very well recently - Burberry and Mulberry ... stress a lot on British heritage and this is beneficial for the whole British luxury industry," said Mario Ortelli, Bernstein luxury goods analyst.

Bernstein expects the luxury industry to grow at six to seven percent a year, mainly driven by emerging markets. "Chinese consumers will not end their love for luxury goods."

MORE FOREIGN BUYERS

At Burberry's show on Monday, models wore pastel-coloured lace dresses cinched with bejewelled belts, cashmere and suede coats, as well as trademark trenches. Chief Executive Angela Ahrendts said there were more U.S. and Asian buyers in town.

"I don't just think (there are more) Americans, if you look at the front row, I would tell you there was more Asians than we've ever had before," she said.

The 157-year-old seller of raincoats and leather goods, known for its camel, red and black check pattern, in July said first quarter sales rose 18 percent.

Alice Temperley looked to the Mediterranean for her line of luxurious heavy silk gowns in pink, mint and rich plum colours, some with intricate cut-outs on sleeves and shoulders.

"I see it as positive that the customer is becoming more and more demanding," the brand's Chief Executive Ulrik Garde Due said, adding demand was strong in Asia and Middle East.

"People want to buy into authenticity of brands."

At Jasper Conran's show, models wore striped shift and loose African-print dresses, clean-lined suits with Peter Pan collars in a palette of yellow, green, blue and pink grapefruit.

"I think (customers) are looking for things are going to last - they're more selective in what they're buying," he said.

The glitz of the shows has been accompanied by lavish London shop openings, including a new Paul Smith store in upmarket Mayfair. "There is a lot of money still there," Smith said as he showed colourful wide-legged trousers suits and floral dresses.

Unveiling sparkling evening gowns in pale golds, shimmering silvers and pale pinks embellished with crystals, Julien Macdonald said his clients were not holding back on expense.

"The people who buy my clothes have everything. They are for people with vast wealth," he told Reuters.

"The economic world never affects people who are glamorous, especially those who have sparkle." ($1 = 0.6275 British pounds) (Additional reporting by Li-mei Hoang; Reporting and writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)