NEW YORK — Although the word "knockoff" has negative connotations in the fashion business, this season’s European and U.S. designer collections have paved the path with strong trends that Seventh Avenue suit and dressmakers have adapted for their customers.

While last spring’s boho-peasant styles may have made sense for fashionistas in Saint-Tropez, caftans for lunch at the Four Seasons in New York would turn heads with unforgiving affectations. So a return to more conventional, even traditional style was embraced wholeheartedly by mainstream ready-to-wear firms.

Designers such as Marc Jacobs and his collection for Louis Vuitton, Luca Luca and Donna Karan looked to eras such as the Forties, Fifties and Sixties to create belted, high-waisted dresses and suits with feminine details like frilly trims. Though the result was a mixed bag of styles, fashion executives said a resurgence in daytime dresses and luncheon suits that played up femininity was evident.

Ladylike influences have always been a key part of Shoshanna’s collections, said senior vice president Felicia Marie Geller. Embroidered strawberries, eyelet fabrics and ruffle trims are just a few of the more feminine accents found in Shoshanna’s spring collection.

"We always happen to be feminine and look to the Fifties because [that era] allowed womanly curves," said Geller. "That sweet-and-sexy look in Marc Jacobs and DKNY is in line with our collection. This season, we’re offering it and more people are understanding it because they see it on the runway. Sometimes that validates it because it becomes more of a trend."

Shoshanna is shying away from looks such as the "miniskirt bandwagon" that dominated the European runways, particularly Milan, Geller said. One peasant-esque top that happened to be a strong seller for the past two seasons is getting a break, Geller added, to avoid redundancy in the collection.

Shoshanna’s strapless, belted A-line dress is one of the line’s best sellers, Geller said, noting that the style is timeless and forgiving on many different body types. One of the line’s strongest attributes is its wearability for a wide range of ages and body types, Geller added. Normally, she said, the collection looks to find a successful style and offer it in a new fabric going forward, rather than create something that is identifiable from a specific season."Our price point is not investment," Geller said. "But we feel strongly that you should be able to pull out your sundresses year after year."

Buyers have responded positively to the type of easy-to-wear dresses that has become the signature of the line, said Geller, who projected sales to double this spring. The domestically manufactured line has also seen a slight increase in its wholesale prices. It’s now between $125 to $135, where it used to wholesale just under the $100 mark.

Like Geller, Leslie Fay design director Frank Spina also said he paid attention to curvy trends from the Fifties that accentuated the waist and featured skirts with more swing. Overall, dressmaker details such as pintucks, godets, scarf hems and pleats are trends for spring and after.

"Leslie Fay is focusing on two-piece looks that have a vintage dressmaker suit look," Spina said. "Pantsuits with a softer, fuller leg are just a step away from our familiar, slimmer-leg looks. One- and two-piece dresses with details and embellishments such as ribbons and embroidery [will be offered], as will soft day dresses in sheer and small-scale prints on fit and flare bodies or long, full bias looks."

While Spina said Leslie Fay remains focused on silhouette, prints, color, embellishments and other details to give the line a distinct look at retail, he said the company is constantly reviewing the merchandise scheme and how it matches up with current trends and customer acceptance at retail.

Using different types of fabric is a popular way to create different looks, Spina said. For a luncheon suit, Leslie Fay will use structured linen-like fabrics, and silk shantung for dressier daytime looks that lend a vintage feel. Additionally, Spina will use both printed and solid georgette and chiffon for romantic styles that include pintucks and ribbon trims, for example.

That trend — softness and romance — is what ABS design director Allen Schwartz said was prominent throughout the collections here and abroad. But it often translated to sportswear, he said, and said dresses still took a backseat to separates.

Items in rayon, printed and solid chiffon and matte jersey in soft hues like yellow, lilac and blue are what make up the 45-piece ABS collection, Schwartz said.Meanwhile, suit executives said a strong evidence of tailoring throughout the recent collections is a bonus for the suit business. Trends that will no doubt influence the market, executives said, include wide-leg trousers, pencil skirts, double-breasted jackets and suit styles from the Sixties.

A few suit designers referenced Marc Jacobs’ collection and its use of color and tailoring techniques. Smaller details, like contrast stitching and interesting buttons, used to get less attention, said Eric Kristjanson, vice president of design at Kasper ASL.

"Obviously, we don’t go to the shows, but the major lines like Gucci, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Prada are highly influential," Kristjanson said. "What I look for are color stories and silhouettes."

Kristjanson also said the recent collections were far more influential than last year’s bohemian flavor, which tends to be adopted by a younger audience. Kasper’s large-scale production means Kristjanson has to have the line completed before the collections, which makes it difficult to predict popular styles and color.

"The collections are not so important for us immediately because in many cases we’re six months ahead of the designers," Kristjanson said. "The designer collections began in mid-September and I started previewing spring at the end of June. Sometimes it’s difficult because [buyers] haven’t seen trends in the market or press. I showed a lot of yellow and they didn’t react. Then Max Mara did a whole yellow thing and buyers called to order yellow suits."

Resources, such as trend reports and color services offered by mills and outside organizations, help him focus on top looks, he added. Like dresses, suits are also getting a dose of feminine details through softer fabrics like georgette and chiffon, Kristjanson said. Skirts are getting shorter, even though Kristjanson said it probably won’t be embraced by his customer as strongly as with a fashion-forward woman.

Jones New York Suit will pick up trends from the runway, such as shorter skirts and wide-leg pants, and adapt them for everyday women, according to Jackie Linitz, division president.

"Our customer seeks trend-right styling and we adapt all the trends to appeal to the Jones New York Suit customer," said Linitz. "While we didn’t focus on a particular era in designing our spring line, one could definitely say we have Sixties-inspired ladylike suits on the line."Pantsuits with double-breasted jackets in pinstripes, slim skirts paired with updated jacket silhouettes and ladylike suits are key trends for spring, said Linitz.

Harvé Benard president and design director Benard Holtzman said he doesn’t think trends ever evolve smoothly and that the recent interest in tailored styles seen during the collections is a backlash to the peasant trends seen for spring 2002.

"Peasant over the age of 26 doesn’t work," Holtzman said. "She’s been through her idealistic state and there is a return to pretty. There’s also color and a return to career dressing that’s been on the wane for years. A well-tailored woman is all of a sudden exciting."

Holtzman also said one of the strongest trends was a shorter skirt.

"That’s a good thing because women don’t want to shorten the skirts they already have," Holtzman said. "They may as well buy another one. A shift to short can drive a whole season because when you go shorter, the market has said it’s permissible to show your leg and that’s a big statement."

As far as trend, Holtzman said pretty details like floral trims taken from the Sixties are key, as well as color. He said the first half of the year will be flat and projects an increase for the second half of 2003.

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