WASHINGTON, April 3, 2007 - In "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris", the 1992 made for TV movie starring Angela Lansbury and Omar Sharif, a London cleaning woman attempts to realize her dream of owning a Dior couture gown by plunking down her savings at the counter of company headquarters, circa 1955. She finds out rather quickly that the heady world of couture isn't so easy. That elusive allure she was searching could not be bought for any amount.

How times have changed! Were Mrs. 'Arris to walk into the Avenue Montaigne boutique nowadays, she would be lucky to escape the hoards of sales clerks sizing up the depth of her pockets, or the limit of her credit line. She would be tempted with a large range of off-the-rack dresses, household wares, perfumes, accessories, and even updated novelties - Dior now sells its logo on a digital USB key.

And the merchandizing is not limited to Dior. Chanel once created a window display in the venerable Rue Cambon headquarters featuring logo-stamped tennis balls. Hermès, knowing where cash flows, accepts payment in US Dollars and Russian Rubels - the Cannes boutique reports the largest sales worldwide.

The French don't like to think of themselves as money-grubbing, and displays of wealth have always been considered pas du bon got, a practice, in Gallic reasoning, totally American. But the fact of the matter is that the French can't get enough cash. Pressures within the luxury industry have changed the way business is conducted. What used to be an intimate and artistic creation is now mass marked to the world's wealthiest, be they from the West, or developing nations of the world. Bernard Arnault proudly proclaimed as much in his message to Dior stockholders this year. "The Christian Dior brand is attracting new customers and becoming a leader worldwide," he wrote. "Including the newest consumer countries like China and India."

The strategy of selling allure, via a costly label, has worked well to this point, as stockholders and financeers have grown rich. But at some point, a slow decline inevitably sets in. With Hollywood stars now marketing their own personal lines, and H&M and Target introducing designer collections at half price, one is left to wonder how much longer growth can be sustained.

Into the mix now comes the loss of star designers behind famous logos. Tom Ford's exit from Gucci Group, and Hedi Slimane's from Dior Homme, represent something of a turning point. Company owners decided on the strategy of elevating little-known understudies to take over the brand name, rather than searching out new design talent, and a correspondingly new artistic direction. That would seem to indicate that the highest priority is replacing stock on the shelves.

Fashion has seen ups and downs, wars, plagues and meltdowns. Maybe it was easier when the Mrs. 'Arris's of this world were chasing after dreams.

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