MILAN — The challenges at the fall Mipel leather goods fair were daunting: The four-day show opened March 20, a day after the start of the war in Iraq, and many international buyers went home early, while the once-hot handbag sector struggles in a down cycle.

Some exhibitors cranked up the creative juices and brought out an array of new handbag styles, but buyers were conservative, many taking a wait-and-see attitude to placing orders amid the general economic uncertainty.

There were 16,082 visitors, of which 6,433 came from outside Italy, a 2 percent drop compared with last year’s edition. The number of American buyers fell 11 percent.

Italian handbag exports have been on the decline in the last year. From January to November 2002, Aimpes, the Italian leather goods association, reported a 10 percent drop in exports to about $1.69 million. Although sales were stable in Italy, exports to the U.S. dropped a substantial 16.4 percent, fell a hefty 46.6 percent to South Korea and 8.7 percent to Japan.

The hesitant attitude waslargely reflected by safe collections and traditional fall colors. Those who did add some zest to their bags embellished them with details such as fur, embroideries, bows and jewels. There also were some bags made with tapestry fabrics, and ethnic and folk themes ran strong. Shapes were mostly soft and deconstructed.

Gianni Dori, one of the owners of Rodo, which showcased a collection inspired by Siberian motifs and the Victorian era, said he was pleased with orders but not with attendance.

"There were no new visitors this season," Dori said. "This is not the time to play it safe. We must be more daring and offer new…products. There is room for growth if we do."

Rodo embellished its bags with Mongolian fur and crocheted wool handles. Pleated bags and the laser-worked calfskin styles also booked well, he added.

"It’s important to offer a different, trendy product with quality," said David McMillan, designer for the Pibra collection.

McMillan said bestsellers were the Istanbul bag, a soft, tubular bag in suede with fringes and an ethnic buckle, and the Baroque bag, a flattish calfskin bag with an embossed pattern.The designer said a more rigid bag with wood applications sold well, too.

Riccardo Braccialini, chief executive officer of Braccialini, said his brand also was offering some novelty in cautious times.

"If there is no innovation and research, there is no growth," he noted. Although many buyers from the U.S., the Middle East and China did not come to Mipel this season, Braccialini said he was generally pleased with business.

"We registered a 40 percent growth with our spring-summer collection and we are happy with the orders for this season," he said. "I feel that customers are responding to our product because it is unusual."

Ruched napa bags were among the bestsellers, as well as those in soft shapes, suede and with metallic influences. Braccialini also showed a selection of embroidered bags with fairy-tale themes. Many were embellished with leaves and flowers, pearls and enamels, as well as shiny stones set in geometric patterns.

Braccialini noted that the company is building a new manufacturing plant in Pontassieve, in the Tuscany region, which will expand production by about 40 percent and is slated to be open for business in about six months. Other projects for this year include the opening of a showroom in New York this month, as well as a new store in London, four boutiques in Italy, 25 in-store shops in Italy and Europe, plus a store in Beijing.

Francesco Biasia showed a new line called Aztechi, with big pockets in full view, that have a casual, ethnic feel. They are made of suede with a crackle effect and are embellished with leather and wool yarns. Biasia also showed his new Medioevo bag, a soft leather style.

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