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Luxury brands look to China market amid crisis

BEIJING -- Clutching a fistful of shopping bags from designers Vivienne Westwood, Dior and Alexander McQueen, 29-year-old Zhao Bing prowled an upscale department store.

"Is there a financial crisis in China? I don't think it has affected my life very much," said Zhao, who spent 7,000 yuan (US$1,000) in 90 minutes at Lane Crawford in Beijing's financial district on what she said was a twice-monthly shopping spree last week. "I still buy those big brands, anyone you could think of."

Some well-heeled Chinese shoppers like Zhao, a film technician who gets an allowance from her parents on top of her salary, are spending freely during the global economic crisis. High-end designers and luxury retailers that thrive on such extravagance are looking to them to drive sales as demand in other countries collapses.

China's 6 billion euro (US$8 billion) luxury market accounts for just 3 percent of global sales, but China and Brazil are projected to be the two fastest-growing luxury markets for the five years through 2012, according to consulting firm Bain & Co.

China's sales of designer clothing, jewelry and other goods will climb 7 percent this year while the industry's worldwide revenue could fall 10 percent, Bain & Co. forecast. Last year, luxury sales in China surged 25 percent while global growth was zero.

Just as more mainstream brands like Starbucks Corp. and Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC are expanding fast in China, higher-end brands such as Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci are adding stores here while other retailers have postponed or limited expansion in listless U.S., European and Japanese markets.

"The China market is growing fast. Beside the global downturn which affects every country, China is quite stable," Michele Norsa, chief executive of Salvatore Ferragamo SpA, said in an e-mail response to questions. "Definitively, we are optimistic."

Ferragamo plans to add seven to eight China stores this year, with further expansion in 2010, according to Norsa.

Gucci Group, part of France's PPR SA, plans to open a flagship store in Shanghai in May after adding three new locations in January. It says its sales in China soared 42 percent last year compared with 2007, 10 times its global growth rate of 4.2 percent. Gucci said China currently represents one of its most dynamic areas of retail growth. Greater China including Hong Kong and Macau accounted for 14.3 percent of Gucci's sales last year.

France's Domaines Barons de Rothschild, producer of Chateau Lafite wine, is developing a vineyard in the eastern province of Shandong to serve growing local demand.

China's luxury shoppers are strikingly young, many of them self-employed or part of a growing professional class. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 80 percent are under 45, compared with 30 percent of luxury shoppers in the United States and 19 percent in Japan.

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