MIAMI BEACH — Timing is everything.

The first bombing of Baghdad on March 19 coincided with opening night of shows for Miami Beach’s Fashion Week of the Americas, but the women’s, men’s, swimwear and lingerie shows went on as scheduled, with little distraction in the crowd.

"Media (around 300 organizations, many from Latin American countries) was already in Miami for the event," said Beth Sobol, president of Sobol Fashion Productions, the Miami-based show organizer.

There were a couple of cancellations due to delays in getting collections through customs. But for those who braved the pre-war travel, the shows proved to be a shot in the arm to jump-start business.

"When the economy’s bad, fashion gets fun," said Patricia Field, the New York designer and retailer, who attended FWA to receive the Council of Latin American Designers Lifetime Achievement Award.

Erica Freundt, marketing manager of the 29-unit Ripley chain, based in Lima, Peru, said, "My business needs this. The war would never stop my trip here."

Freundt did change her American Airlines ticket for LanChile "to be cautious," a sentiment echoed by others.

Sobol downsized the FWA production budget to accommodate tightened corporate spending and designers suffering from economic woes in Latin American countries.

The event, with 11 fashion shows, featured 21 designers from 18 countries, mostly from Latin America, with Italy and Canada also represented. It was held March 19-22 in the Grand Ballroom of the Roney Palace Hotel. The Grand Ballroom was less exotic than the usual surfside tent, but attendees liked the change for convenience, comfort and a more intimate and energized atmosphere.

Shows were standing room only in 500-seat ballrooms, filled with local trendsetters who bought tickets, joined by buyers and press. Shows were held in the evening, followed by nightly concerts and musical performances. Samy Salon, owner of an eponymous hair salon in Miami, styled hair for the shows, and MAC Cosmetics provided touch-ups for guests.

Buyer education programs were presented by Cotton Incorporated and Peclers Paris. A buyer discussion panel met and focused on sourcing options and ways to take advantage of various trade agreements in the Americas.Some 30 international specialty and department stores attended, including House of Frasier, London; Ripley, Peru, and Burdines, a Miami Federated Stores’ division. Retailer attendance was down from the 50 stores that attended last year, due to scheduling conflicts and prewar uncertainty, said Theissy Mahecha, FWA buyer coordinator.

"We’re all looking for someone unique," said Mahecha, owner of TEIS, an eveningwear showroom in New York. "Designers who show here are unique and adventurous."

Mahecha arranged meetings with Claudio Cosano and Fatima Arrieta, eveningwear from Argentina and Peru, respectively. Last year, Mahecha ordered from Heather Jones and Sitka Semsch, who won FWA’s New Star in Fashion award this year. Marie Pierre La Fortune, a women’s sportswear boutique in Montreal, will order Arianne lingerie and requested videos of other shows.

OKHA Fashions, an upscale women’s specialty boutique in Atlanta, shopped for contemporary and eveningwear collections. Ambriel, OKHA’s buyer, was interested in Heather Jones, Claudia Pegus and Italian Occhi Neri’s cocktail gowns and suits.

Ambriel said the economy has not affected her buying. "Our clientele is high-end and trendy," she said. "We have a quick turn."

Jorge Luis Salinas, Peruvian designer of handknitted alpaca sweaters and handembroidered jeans, also said he is undeterred by the economy. "My audience ranges from 15 to 22," Salinas said. "They don’t care about the economy."

Franco Montoro, a Venezuelan designer of cocktail separates, and Claudio Cosano, an Argentine eveningwear designer, both cited poor economies in their countries as factors in decisions to expand into the U.S. market.

Although buyer numbers were small, the FWA’s designers have often become successful. New York-based designer Angel Sanchez, who got his start at the first show in 1999, made a surprise appearance to give the New Star Award to Sitka Semsch. Sanchez was in town to premier his fall 2003 eveningwear runway collection for Saks Fifth Avenue’s Bal Harbour Shoppes.

Sanchez said he chose Miami over New York to show the collection because "Miami is a very important market for international designers, as many international clients live and travel here."

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