(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow's New York Times.)

(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow's New York Times.)

c.2012 New York Times News Service

ROME Has Africa's golden moment arrived? For the gurus of the luxury world, the answer is a resounding yes at least as a source of inspiration for design trends rippling through the fashion industry.

Designers from Vivienne Westwood to Jean Paul Gaultier have long drawn on the vibrancy of African culture in their clothing lines. But now the industry is taking a tentative look at whether it makes sense to put down larger stakes as the African economy begins to take its place alongside the world's other promising emerging markets.

After decades of struggle, and despite continued serious challenges that include poverty and conflict, a middle class is forming in several large countries that have managed to diversify their economies away from basic commodities.

That is fueling a perceptible rise in large cities like Nairobi in the numbers of people who are aspiring to more than necessities, creating a demand for luxury goods, participants at a luxury conference in Rome said Thursday. The event was convened by The International Herald Tribune.

''We all know that Nigeria was all about oil and natural resources for a long time," said Omoyemi Akerele, the creative and managing director of Style House Files, a guide to fashion, style and beauty. "Now we have telecoms, banking, marketing, retail and tourism."

Studies offer wildly different estimates of the number of Africans moving into the middle class anywhere from 80 million to 300 million. What is certain is that economic output is surging: growth is forecast to rise to around 12 percent in 2015, after growing an average of 4.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2008.

For the moment, the big houses, including LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and PPR, have not set up retail outlets in the middle of the continent. Other problems come in the form of a stark class divide.

"The problem is that rich people keep the money," said Farida Khelfa, a representative for Maison Schiaparelli of Algerian heritage. "They raise their children in America or take the money out of the country with them."

Nonetheless, many young Africans are increasingly hip and knowledgeable. With access to the Internet, they are plugged into the latest trends from around the world.

''In Nairobi, a man in a tailored jacket with a scarf wrapped around him is the coolest, chicest man I've seen," said Kim Jones, the men's style director at Louis Vuitton.