A tale of two consumers: Why Prada is killing it

September 20, 2011, 8:52 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Here’s a piece of counter-narrative news as economies around the globe continue to struggle: Prada announced yesterday that it had a great quarter this summer, exceeding Wall Street’s expectations. Anyone who bet against the luxury brand is now chastised. Even in the worst economy in a generation, plenty of people are apparently going to buy those $2,000 handbags.

The results were surprising. Prada opened 26 stores in the first half of the year, bringing its total to 358. One of the reasons it beat the mark was that it wasn’t forced into discounts as it had been in recent years. So does this mean the pain is actually over?

Not on these shores. Even though Prada saw U.S. sales growth of 16% in the half, it also enjoyed a 35% sales rise in Asia. Revenues grew 24% overall. A full 50% of total sales growth came courtesy of Asia, mostly from spending in stores in China itself. One hundred and ten of the company’s stores are in Asia—more than in all of Europe (104) and many, many than in the entire United States (40). In the end, the Chinese really will buy everything.

Or, in more general terms, the rich will buy everything while the poor will buy nothing. Christian Buss, who covers apparel and footwear for Credit Suisse, attributes the divergence in the U.S. to the growing chasm between two types of consumers: ‘Income Statement’ consumers and ‘Balance Sheet’ consumers.

Here’s the basic idea: 54.5% of U.S. consumers make less than $100,000 a year. These are ‘Income Statement’ consumers, the kind of people who decide whether they want to buy something based on this week’s paycheck. Working our way down, the unemployment rate for those making less than $50,000 per year hovers around 17%. All-in, the role of those earning under $100,000 in our overall spending has declined by 6% over the past ten years. The income for the entire crowd has declined from 58% of the total to 54.5% over that time.

The simple conclusion, according to Buss: don’t buy stock in those companies that sell simple discretionary items, except if you’re going to go deep discount. That means that Quiksilver (ZQK) and Columbia Sportswear (COLM) could be at risk. Quiksilver, for its part, is a mature brand and also in the midst of a turnaround. And don’t focus on companies that have too much of a domestic focus since, as Prada shows, much of the growth potential right now is coming from China. That would include U.S.-centric companies like Limited Brands (LTD) and Under Armour (UA).

Here’s the good news. Buss goes on to identify ‘Balance Sheet’ consumers — the 45.5% of the people who make more than $100,000 a year. These are people whose spending doesn’t really change based on their weekly paycheck. Their employment rate hovers around 3.6%, what economists call “full employment.” (Don’t ask me. Apparently 4% unemployed is like 11 on the Spinal Tap amp.) The ‘Balance Sheet’ consumers are thriving — they have seen an increase in average income of 10% over the past 10 years. Their share of total income has naturally risen, from 42% to 45.5%.

Buss states the change in a very politic way. “I think it’s important for people to know that this is a structural change in the economy,” he says, “that the balance sheet consumer continues to gain share of the total income pie.” In other words, the richer are getting richer.

The man isn’t kidding. So who is selling to the rich and winning? Prada, for one. Coach, for two. Coach (COH) nailed it in its last quarter. It had 71% sales growth in China.

And what of Hermes? The maker of equestrian-inspired scarves and ties enjoyed 22% revenue growth in the first half of the year.

Here’s a final one for you: athletic apparel maker Lululemon (LULU). While I prefer Nike (NKE) running clothing, I have nothing against the chain. Or even yoga itself. But who is buying $100 pairs of yoga pants? The rich, that’s who. RBC analyst Howard Tubin said recently that Lululemon’s results were among the strongest he’d seen this reporting season. Lululemon had all of revenue growth, margin growth, and earnings-per-share growth in its latest quarter. Kind of like Prada. That said, the stock reflects people’s excitement about the story, so it’s no screaming buy.

Lulu may even run down the Yogi’s lane against the Italians. Bank of America analyst Lorraine Hutchsion thinks Lululemon will open 35 stores in 2012. The firm’s sales increased 40% in their last quarter. Perhaps we will all find our inner yoga master. Or our need for leather handbags. Or both.