John Hooks, deputy chairman of Giorgio Armani Group, was enjoying a quiet weekend afternoon last summer at his Milan apartment when he got an excited call from the Armani megastore at 31 via Manzoni: A princess from the Gulf region was thinking of buying some clothes for her family and asked if a selection could be sent over to her suite at the Principe di Savoia hotel. Hooks gave the go-ahead to dispatch the goods, along with two top salespeople, who ended up flying to the royal’s home country to finalize her purchases, which totaled roughly $500,000. “The more service you throw into it,” says Hooks, “the better.”
At the de Grisogono boutique in Geneva, a phone call last December resulted in major ka-ching. A gentleman from Turkey rang to inquire about the luxury jeweler’s new Meccanico dG watch, which has a patented dual analog and mechanical digital display, and retails from $320,000. After a quick e-mail exchange came a transfer of funds and, one day later, a private plane to collect the timepiece. “It cost him a fortune, but there are still people spending like they used to,” marvels de Grisogono founder and president Fawaz Gruosi.
Welcome to the world of fashion’s big spenders, where six figures can be dropped in a single excursion—and that’s not counting serious jewelry. Unlike even a decade ago, when much of the big-bucks spending was done by the Japanese, Americans and Russians, today’s elite fashion consumers can come from anywhere and spend pretty much everywhere, downturn be damned.
“There’s still a lot of cash in the world, in all countries,” says Bernard Fornas, president and CEO of Cartier, whose coveted high jewelry pieces run to about $27 million. “Look at the price of Cartier pieces at the auction sales. It’s stunning!” Stunning, too, is the way Cartier coddles its customers. Last October the jeweler flew 150 of its best clients to Istanbul for a lavish weekend, complete with tours, private dinners and a smorgasbord of 300 new high jewelry pieces displayed in a mansion on the Bosporus. The baubles included a platinum bracelet with 30 pear-cut yellow diamonds dripping from a blizzard of brilliant-cut stones. “We sold very, very well,” Fornas says, beaming, while declining to give figures or—heaven forbid—name any clients, whose privacy all luxury brands and retailers guard ferociously.
Still, there’s no question the worldwide financial crisis has hit even the deepest pockets. Global Blue, a company that specializes in tax-free retailing, says spending by Russians dropped 20 percent as the recession hit hard in 2009. Americans pulled back a bit further after a major retrenchment (27 percent) in 2008. Yet purchases in the six figures were not unusual, and total spending last year on big-ticket items rose somewhat despite the economic situation. Global Blue’s other findings? Paris, London and Milan remained the top three destinations for fashion splurges, and the top-spending nationalities last year were Russian, Chinese (up 50 percent), Japanese, American and Indonesian.