FLORENCE, Italy — With the consumer economy on shaky ground around the world, demand for the high-end European yarns on sale at this month’s Pitti Filati show was soft.

While executives said that a pickup in the economy would be the surest way to boost their business, they acknowledged that there hasn’t been a lot of evidence lately that one is on the way. That has them pushing hard to develop innovations that, in the oxymoronic words of one exhibitor, could lead to products that were "a luxury but a necessity."

Exhibitors at the show, which closed its three-day run at Florence’s Fortezza da Basso on July 5, also moaned that penny-pinching buyers hold some of the blame. They complained that, by constantly looking for the cheapest sources of supply, retail executives have reduced the quality and variation of much of the apparel on offer in stores today. That, they contended, led to bored consumers who shop only by brand name and price tag.

The downbeat mood may have resulted from figures from the Italian Bureau of Statistics showing a 12.9 percent drop in Italian yarn exports and a 14.6 percent drop in textile exports during the first three months of 2002.

Filpucci sales manager Sergio Locoli said big retailers’ focus on cutting costs during the financial slowdown of the past year has hurt business for European vendors.

"It started in the early part of 2001 and grew," he said. "Exports to the U.S. fell in all sectors and brands. American buyers were on a crusade, searching for Italian quality at Chinese prices, a combination that is a contradiction in terms. When American buyers and manufacturers went to China for lower prices, consumers could see the difference in the quality they were being offered, and as a result they lost faith in the labels and stopped buying. Even though we felt the loss of business, we are committed to the American market...we’ve invested a lot of time and money there and we are in for the long haul."

Luciano Bandi, manager of international sales at Loro Piana said of the slowdown: "There is no point in looking for easy answers to the current financial problems, because there simply aren’t any. And it doesn’t do any good to blame 9/11 for a financial crisis that was already in progress months before the attack on the World Trade Center — 9/11 was just another element that was added on to an existing problem. It is up to us to create a need for the quality of product we produce, to make luxury goods not a luxury but a necessity by offering consumers real value for their money."The offerings on display at Pitti Filati showed that many yarn vendors were committed to rolling out innovations in an effort to spark consumer interest. More than 90 companies, showing 112 brands, presented yarn collections for fall-winter 2003-2004. The Italians showed new yarns in many colors and combinations. Winter yarns in wool, cashmere and mohair, often mixed and matched, were feather-light, air-spun strands in solids, vintage mélange, heather and tweeds.

While color charts serve primarily as a jumping-off point for high-end buyers — who often offer their own revisions to products shown — the palettes shown included ripe fig, deep forest greens, autumn leaf gold and burgundy red tweeds. Some vendors showed pale peach and soft olive mohair yarns, lightweight and airy, targeted at cruise lines, while others offered sharp accent colors of violet and turquoise to give added punch to ethnic looks.

Natural fibers dominated the offering. Filpucci showed new cotton-cashmere transseasonal yarns that were soft and luminous, and also resistant to pilling. The company also showed air-spun cotton and wool yarns that had slight stretch properties for comfort.

Zegna-Baruffa’s line included vicuna yarn, which was shown only to clients from the highest strata of the fashion field. It is made from the hair of the vicuna, an animal that until recently was on the endangered species list, and was only recently legalized for import into the U.S.

Mila Zegna-Baruffa, a member of the family that owns the spinner, said her company plans to open new sales offices in London, Paris and Shanghai before the end of the year.

Printed alpaca yarn was one of the novelties offered by Lanificio Dell’Olivo. Export manager Franco Maiani said the mill’s designers have developed blends of alpaca, mohair and acrylic creating new bumpy textures, including a new super-soft bouclé.

Bouclé, tweed and printed yarns were also on offer at Filatura di Grignasco. Members of the New York-based American Eagle Outfitters design team shopping the stand said they were pleased by the color combinations on display. Patricia Gobo, sweater designer for the American Eagle Bluenotes line, and Karen Wu, director of production for American Eagle Outfitters, also said they were pleased by the vintage looks and the printed yarns the company showed.Also shopping the show was Frances Nepiarsky, product director for Bloomingdale’s. She said she was especially impressed with the vintage and country looks she and her team found.

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