French luxury group Hermes , maker of 10,000 euro (9,000 pound) leather bags and 1 million euro crocodile leather jackets, showed its resilience to the economic downturn with an 18.3 percent rise in 2011 sales and a confident outlook.

The 175-year-old brand reported buoyant demand in Europe, the Americas and Asia, and said on Thursday its operating margin exceeded 30 percent last year, up from 27.8 percent in 2010.

Shareholders of the family controlled group will receive an interim dividend of 1.5 euros a share, up 50 percent from a year ago.

Hermes said revenue reached 2.84 billion euros last year, beating its own target for 15-16 percent sales growth at constant exchange rates and slightly ahead of the 2.81 billion Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S average estimate.

The year was all the more exceptional given that growth was already very strong in 2010 ... We are entering 2012 with confidence, finance head Mireille Maury told Reuters.

Maury added that the sales trend had continued unchanged in January, without saying whether this compared to the full-year growth rate or the 14.3 percent rise achieved in the fourth quarter at constant exchange rates.

Hermes' performance shows the company continues to be one of the most resilient luxury groups in the face of the economic downturn and follows upbeat comments from rivals.

LVMH , which has a 22 percent stake in Hermes, said last week the outlook for 2012 was excellent and hiked its dividend after rapid growth in Asia and at its Louis Vuitton brand helped it post a forecast-beating rise in full-year operating profit.

Swiss luxury goods group Richemont said last month sales growth held up in the last three months of 2011, underpinned by buoyant Asian demand and Chinese tourists flocking to European boutiques.

HIGHER INVESTMENTS

British luxury brand Burberry reported a sharp slowdown in U.S. sales growth in its fiscal third quarter, but it too said demand from Asian shoppers and tourists remained strong.

Hermes saw the pace of growth slow in the fourth quarter, but attributed this to limited production capacity, especially in leather goods, rather than any dip in demand.

The company said it opened two new French production sites for leather goods and textiles at the end of last year to help plug the production gap.

Overall, investments will increase from 200 million euros last year to 250 million euros in 2012, when Hermes plans to open or renovate some 15 stores, Maury added.

LVMH, the world's biggest luxury goods group, repeated last week that its shareholding in Hermes remained friendly, suggesting it did not plan to launch a hostile takeover.

Hermes family shareholders, who view LVMH's move as hostile, have responded to LVMH's stakebuilding by creating a majority holding to shield it from the threat of a takeover.

Hermes said on Thursday that it bought back 286 million euros of its own shares during last year.

The stock, which has been driven by takeover speculation, was trading at 265 euros on Thursday, up around 15 percent this year after gaining 47 percent last year, and giving Hermes a market value of more than 28 billion euros.

($1 = 0.7545 euros)

(Editing by Christian Plumb and Elaine Hardcastle)