During couture week in January, Emanuel Ungaro presented 30 new pieces at his Avenue Montaigne showroom. By couture standards, they were bargains—$2,300 for a gold satin top trimmed with lace and appliquéd with butterflies, $17,000 for a black draped evening dress. Ungaro made only 10 or 12 models of each design.
That same week, Giorgio Armani debuted his Privé line: 31 evening gowns in fabrics like chiffon, duchesse satin, and double silk, embellished with gemstones such as crystal, jet, and pearls, with skirts buoyed by crinolines and tulle. Customers can choose a design and have it tailored to their specifications. "This collection has been conceived for the client who demands an item of unique quality, produced according to the standards of haute couture but with the accessibility and modernity that characterizes Giorgio Armani's philosophy of fashion," the company's press release announced.
These are but two examples of a quiet yet distinct trend developing among high-end designers and retailers. Just as the art world has its numbered and signed prints, the fashion world now has its own limited editions. On one level, such lines represent a shrewd marketing strategy—by offering the rarefied, the makers of these pieces encourage destination shopping. On another, the trend has also helped designers identify a new pool of clients: those who are seeking something somewhere between the long- drawn-out ritual of haute couture and the mass-market availability of ready-to-wear.
Last year Prada issued only seven blue satin dresses hand-embroidered with Swarovski crystals and beads at $18,340 each; Roberto Cavalli produced nine $9,600 sheepskin coats covered in precious stones and turquoise. Both designs sold out quickly—and won't be made again. Dolce & Gabbana makes its mark with a special stash of one-off dresses, available exclusively at its Milan boutique.
"We've seen an unyielding demand from customers for rare and one-of-a-kind products," says Robert Burke, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "People want to feel a sense of discovery when they buy something. They take great pride in telling their friends 'There are just two of these in the world,' or 'You can only get this bag here.' " In response, the store recently introduced a selection of women's off-the-rack (so to speak) couture by such American designers as Isaac Mizrahi, Maggie Norris, John Anthony, and John Valdi. "There was a time when it was perfectly fine for everybody to carry the same handbag," Burke says. "That time is over."
This sentiment is echoed by Joan Kaner, the fashion director for Neiman Marcus. The upscale department store now consistently stocks unique pieces by the likes of Alexander McQueen and Michael Kors, with prices starting at $25,000. "If people invest this kind of money in a dress, no one else had better show up at a party wearing the same thing," Kaner says.
Even middle-market retailers are getting into the act; J. Crew recently offered limited editions of a hooded cashmere toggle coat trimmed in shearling and a cashmere peacoat—at $1,500 apiece. Both sold out. (The fall line will feature a strapless Italian duchesse satin gown for $1,800.) In February, Manhattanites almost came to blows over Nike's limited-edition skateboarding shoe. Dozens camped out for days, enduring freezing temperatures, in front of the Reed Space store on New York's Lower East Side, to get their hands on one of the 150 pairs. The suggested retail price was $69; Reed Space sold out even though the price was upped to $300 a pair because of demand. The shoes later went for as much as $1,000 when auctioned off on eBay.
Consumer interest in these lines can be traced to several factors, retail experts say. They offer that coveted aura of quality craftsmanship, costly materials, and a distinctive design that cannot be easily copied: It's unlikely counterfeit ostrich feathers and Swarovski crystals will show up for sale at outlet malls or on city street corners.
Most essentially, as luxury has become increasingly commonplace—with so many women sporting Louis Vuitton knockoffs and a Karl Lagerfeld collection available at H&M—limited editions provide a kind of assurance, making people feel that they're rising above "masstige" and getting something truly special.
"People like the idea that something won't be repeated," says Glen Hoffs, the fashion director at Brooks Brothers. "I trace the trend back to the Gapification of the world. You could be shopping in New York or any little city anywhere and visit the same eight retailers. Who wants to be a fashion clone these days?"
To be sure, the concept is not new. The accessories industry has been onto the idea with considerable success for some time. Hermès, for example, produced only 100 of its $1,500 Picotin bags to celebrate the June 2003 opening of its Honolulu store. And last year, to honor the centennial of New York City's subway, it made 300 orange leather MetroCard holders, which went for $150 each.
When Tod's opened its boutique in Tokyo last December, the company created 14 pink ostrich accessories: seven key cases for $4,360 each and seven medium-size handbags for $7,270 each. All were snatched up in less than a week.
Limited-edition customers, says Robert Triefus, head of communications at Armani, see fashion as an art form. "To them, having a signed and numbered dress in their closet is like having a Picasso on the wall."
ROBIN POGREBIN IS A REPORTER ON THE CULTURE DESK AT THE NEW YORK TIMES.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS: A SHOPPING GUIDE
If only ten alligator Ferragamo clutches exist in the universe, how do you get your hands on one? Simple. Become a regular. When Audemars Piguet began offering an exclusive watch at the Westime boutique in Beverly Hills, calls were put in to the store's favorite clients and many of the 50 watches were reserved before they hit the shelves. If you don't have an in, plan ahead: Ordering for fall pieces begins in July; for spring, start in January. Besides the joy of owning something no one else has, why buy limited editions?
"The rarer the design, the more value it holds," says Clair Watson, director of Couture, Textiles, and Fine Costume Jewelry at auction house Doyle New York. "An Armani will be worth more in the long run if less pieces were made." In other words, today's limited edition is tomorrow's treasure.
—DANIELLE K. JOHNSON
Christian Louboutin switches gears by making leather slippers with a matching carrying bag (trademark red soles still included). $320; 212-396-1884
Asprey made 15 coral silk tulle cocktail dresses and divided them between its boutiques in Beverly Hills (310-550-0520) and New York (212-688-1811). $4,000
Audemars Piguet's 50 timepieces for Westime in Beverly Hills feature a pale blue crocodile strap and a white face with a stainless-steel case. $22,900; 310-271-0000
Bottega Veneta debuts a chain belt with a dangling black leather flower. An engraved silver plaque tells you which of the 100 pieces you own. $3,550; 877-362-1715
Giorgio Armani's Chuck Thomas at the Madison Avenue boutique in Manhattan will tweak your Privé gown to fit your shape and style. Price upon request; 212-988-9191
Jimmy Choo's 40 green python pouches are sprinkled among the company's boutiques throughout the United States. Your best bet? Palm Beach: It's getting the largest stash. $3,800; 561-655-3635
Oscar de la Renta chooses looks each season to make exclusively for its Madison Avenue boutique. A flounced fuchsia skirt with crystal embroidery is one of the selections for fall 2005. $3,300; 212-288-5810
Salvatore Ferragamo did ten clutches in black alligator with a soft mink cuff. Six will be at the New York store (212-759-3822), four in Beverly Hills (310-273-9990). $1,600
Burberry's pale pink leather trench is available starting next month with 30 percent of the sales going to breast cancer research. $1,895; 800-284-8480
Tod's celebrates the reopening of its Madison Avenue store with 10 shearling jackets ($3,900) and 11 gazelle bags (from $1,300). 212-644-5945
Dunhill's new watch line is done strictly in quantities of 100 to 2,000. Only 600 Car Watches exist. $8,960; 800-776-4053