MILAN — The world economy and political scene may be murky and unstable, but spring handbag trends at Mipel were crisp and clear: ethnic themes, an earth-color palette, and styles loaded with studs, stitching, fringes and wood or horn details.

Last season’s bestsellers by design houses such as Balenciaga, Fendi, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Bottega Veneta served as inspirations for many of the exhibitors. For example, versions of Bottega Veneta’s famous intrecciato signature, made with interwoven leather strips, was displayed at many booths.

The mood at the four-day leather goods trade fair that closed here Sept. 22 was upbeat compared to a year ago, when attendance suffered from the shock waves following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mipel organizers reported visitors totaled 16,688, an 11.8 percent increase over last year. Foreign buyers increased 37 percent, marking a resumption of business traveling. Buyer attendance grew 58.8 percent from the U.S. and 41.2 percent from Japan.

While figures look promising, Giorgio Cannara, president of Aimpes, the Italian leather goods association, painted a more challenging picture.

During the opening press conference, Cannara said that in the first four months of the year, category sales in the U.S. dropped 23.2 percent and were flat in Japan. These are the leather goods industry’s two main markets, with Japan accounting for 15.8 percent of Italy’s exports and the U.S. 13.7 percent. Cannara said the European market helped contain the losses, with the U.K. registering a 34 percent increase in sales and France a 31 percent jump in the first quarter.

Gianni Dori, an owner of Rodo, was encouraged by the attendance and orders.

"Our buyers were enthusiastic about our new sportier line, which still follows the Rodo philosophy, the details, the artisanal workmanship, but it’s a new look," he said.

Rodo is known for its high-end, luxurious evening bags, spotted on celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Uma Thurman. Orders rose 20 percent at this show, according to Dori, who said, "In hard times like these, it’s even more significant."

Dori said new materials such as calfskin with a parchment effect and a fabric produced with fibers derived from bananas were a hit. The African theme was completed by horn, wood, coconut and bone details.Dori said the company’s distribution in the U.S. was taken in-house this year to better control its business in that market. In addition to its longtime accounts at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, Rodo is now available at Jeffrey and Chuckies in New York. Rodo also recently signed an agreement to open 24 sales points in China, including two flagships, within three years. A corner in Maison Mode in Shanghai opened in 1997.

Riccardo Braccialini, chief executive officer of Braccialini, said, "We are now reporting a 70 percent increase in orders for all our labels."

In addition to its eponymous line, the company, owned by Mariella Burani Fashion Group, produces bags for the parent’s labels, including Mariella Burani and Mila Schön, and for Vivienne Westwood.

"Although buyers are often afraid to experiment with new looks, there is an increasing demand for our product, which is anything but conservative," Braccialini said.

The company showcased soft bags made with computer-perforated hides and a touch of the Middle East; structured totes in bright orange or yellow, silk embroidered with an Indian-inspired pattern; shoulder bags with printed, appliqué or patchwork flowers, and a Native American look using feather trims. Braccialini plans to open stores in Hong Hong, Shanghai, and Beijing by the end of the year.

Bags with exotic details, tribal motifs and African themes were top-booking items at Pibra. The Tuscan company also showed shopping bags with wooden handles, stripes of crocodile, linen and bands of laser-laced calf hair. Saddle and banana bags sported fringes and Etruscan-style metal details, studs, medallions and bronze buckles.

Mali’ Parmi also banked on printed crocodile, combined with shiny, mother-of-pearl plates. Canvas bags were adorned with hand-sewn ribbons, shells, embroidered sequins, wood and semiprecious stones, embellished tulle or cotton bags. Vivid turquoise stones — a hit at most stands — contrasted with a chocolate brown and terra-cotta palette.

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