PARIS — Conservative sportswear with elegant touches and shots of bright color were the main fashion messages at the latest edition of the Prêt-à-Porter and Who’s Next trade shows at the Porte de Versailles here.

Despite the specter of war in Iraq and the dour economic environment, buyers cited strong sales at retail last season. Some said they would increase their buying budgets by as much as 30 percent for fall 2003.

Yet, behind the optimism, buyers said business remained precarious. As a result, many stressed the importance of not making buying errors and said they would sit on their orders until the very last possible moment.

"When you don’t know what the future will bring, you need to more cautious," said Hirofumi Kurino, creative director at Tokyo’s United Arrows. "You need to wait."

Kurino said his budget would remain flat or modestly increase, depending on the evolution of world affairs and the economy.

"Business in Japan has been very bad," he said. "But we’ve done quite well. The trick at the moment is not to make any buying mistakes. There’s no overwhelming consumer exuberance out there. The merchandise has to be right."

Kurino cited a return to elegance as among the major trends in fashion right now.

"People want to dress more conservatively. They want to see the quality in the garments," he said. "A new elegance is the result. It mixes sportswear with more chic elements, such as cashmere drawstring trousers or other sporty garments in luxurious fabrics."

More than 1,000 firms participated in the Prêt with another 350 at Who’s Next. Both shows completed their four-day runs in late January.

At the Prêt, organizers have been working to polish the show’s image, adding new designer areas including Atmosphere and By Casabo.

"We’re moving more and more towards the high end," explained Jean-Pierre Mocho, who runs the show. "We intend to continue to become more and more selective and have the greater level of quality."

Mocho said the fair continued to become more international with more than 50 percent of exhibitors coming from outside of France this session. Last year, foreign exhibitors were about 40 percent overall, he said.Meanwhile, at Who’s Next, retailers sought urban and sportswear looks. Trends included customized designs like reconstructed tops, military-inspired designs in denim, low-waisted pants and jeans cropped and fitted at the ankles with drawstring or elasticized cuffs. Miniskirts, a major trend on the runway, were also everywhere.

But many buyers expressed reservations about thigh-high styles.

"I see my customers becoming more conservative," said Sorcha Murphy, managing director of the moderate sportswear boutique Escape, in Wicklow, Ireland. "I don’t know that short, short skirts are right at the moment. They may be difficult to sell."

Murphy said she continued to embrace bohemian looks. "I really think color is an important story at the moment," she said. "People want to feel upbeat. They don’t want all of those dark and miserable colors. They want some cheer."

Murphy said she was coming off a strong winter season and would increase her budget about 15 percent.

Valerie Blondeau, who owns Irma La Douce in Lille, France, which carries brands such as Paul & Joe and Antik Batik, said her budget would grow 30 percent.

"I don’t know how to explain it, but business is good now," she said, citing mixes of "chic and sport" as an important trend. "It’s very stressful not knowing what the future holds, but we’re moving ahead with optimism."

Exhibitors characterized business as steady to strong, but tricky.

"The way things look now, we believe business is good," said David Jarmon, president of French moderate sportswear line Tara Jarmon. "But it’s not easy to keep it that way. We have to update the collection more often and we have to deal with buyers dragging their feet to confirm their orders."

"Buyers are very uncertain about the future right now," echoed designer Bali Barret. "It’s going to be a hard season. But if you work it right, we believe we can still increase our business."

The Prêt said 37,000 people visited, up 2.4 percent from last year. Who’s Next said 26,000 people visited the show, up 7 percent from last year.

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