Glamorous liaisons

Times Automotive Critic

It's THE world's fastest handbag.

Meet the Bugatti Veyron Fbg par Hermes, a $2.4-million, 253-mph, 1,001-horsepower hypercar, a collaboration between Bugatti and Hermes' elves on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.

Go ahead, inhale the excess: the two-tone, ebony-and-brick bull calfskin interior; the saddle-stitched steering wheel (requiring 30 hours of handwork); the wheel locks branded with the signature "H"; the door handles borrowed from an Hermes valise; an Hermes wallet fitted to the glove box; and special luggage for the trunk.

Now this, this, is how to accessorize.

Unveiled at Geneva's auto show in March, the Veyron par Hermes will be available by special order to no more than 15 customers worldwide by the end of this year. And yet the wait is still shorter than for a Birkin bag.

The Veyron Fbg par Hermes is the latest and most lavish of a recent slew of low-volume fashion-automaker collaborations -- Lamborghini and Versace; Cadillac and Bulgari; Mercedes-Benz and Armani; Alfa Romeo and Costume National -- that celebrate the awesome power of rich people to get anything they want. Call it car-ture.

"Even with a car as special as the Veyron, some customers have expressed a wish for even greater personalization. The Hermes allows us to give it to them," says Alasdair Stewart, sales and marketing director for Bugatti.

You see, high net-worth types have a problem. Some of the world's most prestigious brands -- Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Dior -- have sunk into mass-class ubiquity, so it's hard to tell who's rich and who's just overextended. Another problem for the rich: There are just too many of them. In 1986, Forbes magazine identified 140 billionaires around the world. The 2008 survey listed 1,125 billionaires. The growing ranks of ultra-wealthy have put pressure on prestige brands to be ever more exclusive and more distinctive. "These people say, 'I want the best. I can afford the best. I want it to be mine and . . . I want people to know it,' " says Wes Brown, principal of the Los Angeles marketing research firm Iceology.

With regard to cars, one of the most gorgeous signifiers of class, the problem is particularly acute. There was a time when a white Mercedes-Benz convertible was the ultimate in swank, Beverly Hills affluence. Now you can't get arrested in one, unless you are Britney Spears.

So, while the stock Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 might be fine for some people -- one-hit movie producers, NBA stars and other mere millionaires -- it's a bit quotidian for the extremely wealthy. If you're one of these unfortunates, your luck is turning. Last year Lamborghini offered the Versace Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 edition. The top-grain, vegetable-dyed leathers and stitched Greek fret motifs in the Lambo are the same used on Versace's furniture.

"There is a natural synergy between Lamborghini and Versace," says Roberto Selva, director of Versace's home design division. Both are exclusive, image-driven brands, both make products in very low volumes and both, interestingly, favor stark, chromic shades of black and white. "Black and white is very important language for our design."

Also, in the last few years, Hermes and Versace have been reaching out beyond couture to bespoke mega-luxury items, what Selva calls the "new frontier" of luxury. Both couturiers have received commissions to put their marques on helicopters, jets and yachts.

Affinity marketing is not only for the hyper-rich. These alliances are struck when fashion houses and carmakers are talking to more or less the same customer, in roughly the same income bracket. Bulgari is a fine old Italian luxury goods company but isn't in the same league as, say, Harry Winston. So it made sense for it to link up with Cadillac -- another respectable but not elite luxury brand -- for the Bulgari-kissed Neiman Marcus Edition XLR.

Mercedes-Benz -- a notch up the mass-class totem pole from Cadillac -- recently collaborated with Armani for a 100-unit run of the Armani-edition CLK Cabriolet.

In the last year, Alfa Romeo -- which is desperately trying to enhance its youth cred -- offered two low-volume, designer editions of its 147 runabout: the 147 C'N'C CoSTUME NATIONAL, with a gritty streetwear edge by designer Ennio Capasa; and the 147 Murphy & Nye, inspired by the company's line of nautical sportswear.

So far, it all makes sense. Carmakers sell a few special-order cars at obscene markups (the Veyron par Hermes will set you back $1.2 million more than a regular Bugatti). Fashion houses get a tidy profit center and piggyback on the massive marketing throw-weight available to a global car company. Car buyers levitate grandly above the riffraff and their pret-a-porter cars. Glamour begets glamour. Everybody's happy.

The only problem is that fashion designers really aren't able to make many modifications to their special-edition cars. True, they might be able to pick out an exterior color or select some interior fabrics -- as long as those fabrics are fireproof and sun-resistant -- but, on balance, it's quite hard to retrofit a car with couture.

"Cars are the most accountable products that you can buy," says Freeman Thomas, Ford's director of design. "There are certain things you can change, like the seats, but as soon as you get into the moldings or the instrument panel, then you've reached the limits. They have to be absolutely safe, reliable and durable."

What it comes down to is that, as in so much other co-branding, what consumers are really buying is a name, a label in a collar.

"People are brands, and brands are people," says Ford's Thomas. "These designers, for better or worse, have tremendous authority as arbiters of style. If they validate something, you know it doesn't come from a corporate committee, but it comes from an individual [who] has a philosophy."

Sometimes all designers have to do is stand next to the car. For its 2006 Ypsilon campaign, Lancia (another Italian brand owned by Fiat) recruited Stefano Gabbana of Dolce-&-Gabbana fame to star in its TV commercials.

There is no Gabbana-edition Lancia. Not yet, anyway.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Versace Lamborghini Murcielago LP640

Price: $500,000

Number: 21 (20 coupes, one roadster)

Fashion spiff: Versace's Greek key motif in leather upholstery, same skins that are used in Versace furniture, fitted luggage

Last word: Rodeo Drive rocket ship

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Bugatti Veyron Fbg par Hermes

Price: $2.4 million

Number: fewer than 15

Fashion spiff: bull calfskin, hand-stitched interior, fitted luggage, Hermes' distinctive luggage handles on doors

Last word: A Royale with cheese

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Cadillac XLR Neiman Marcus Edition, by Bulgari

Price: $85,000

Number: 101

Fashion spiff: Lurid violet exterior, shale and ebony interior, Bulgari-branded, chronograph-style analog gauges, matching Bulgari watch

Last word: Jeweled GM

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Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet Armani Edition

Price: $106,000 (est.)

Number: 100

Fashion spiff: Pale green exterior, curio saddle leather, patina metal, sportswear textiles

Last word: Axis of elegance

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Alfa Romeo 147 C'N'C CoSTUME NATIONAL

Price: $55,000 (est.)

Number: 1,000

Fashion spiff: Gloss-white exterior paint, metal-flake black turbine wheels, textured leather and perforated Alcantara upholstery, black varnished roof pillars and ceiling

Last word: streetwear, really on the street

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