By  on September 26, 2005

MILAN — The packed show calendar and macroeconomic uncertainties aside, Italian fashion houses revved up for fashion week, armed with strong order books, long-planned anniversary bashes and a determination — bolstered by strong pre-collection orders — to win over choosy retailers in a challenging environment.

Despite market concerns over climbing oil prices and the economic impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on key U.S. markets, it looks like companies are learning to live with the uncertainty.

"That's part of the game. Tranquil markets don't exist anymore," said Versace chief Giancarlo Di Risio, noting a 35 percent jump in orders for pre-collection apparel and accessories.

Fendi ceo Michael Burke said he's encouraged by pre-collection orders, showing growth as high as 70 percent in some product categories. He's also pleased to see a stronger dollar and swift sales in Asia, but he said it's too soon to judge where the post-hurricane U.S. economy is headed.

"You have to stay tuned — it could have an impact on buyer sentiment," he said.

Vittorio Missoni, marketing director and sales manager at Missoni, concurred. "Clearly, there are concerns about the U.S. and areas like Texas and Florida. Everyone is worried about what happens there. They are extremely important markets," he said, noting Missoni pre-collection orders grew more than 20 percent.

A spokesman for Giorgio Armani said the company isn't at all concerned about the hurricane aftermath and thinks any potential economic slump will be a brief one.

"We're very bullish about spring," he said. Armani's pre-collection apparel orders rose 8 percent, while those of accessories went up 15 percent.

No matter the challenges, fashion houses are steaming ahead with the requisite fashion week parties, two of them splashy birthday fetes. Pringle of Scotland is holding its 190th anniversary party Tuesday night and Dolce & Gabbana will celebrate its 20-year milestone on Thursday. Roman jeweler Bulgari is even getting into the fashion week spirit with a special exhibition of 50 one-of-a-kind white gold and diamond pieces at the Bulgari hotel, here.

As for the season's trends, clean silhouettes dominated pre-collection looks. Common elements include white, florals and lace, the latter ranging from trim to a garment's focus. Missoni is expected to use a softer, more delicate color palette than it has in previous seasons, while Ferragamo is turning to hues like aged metallics, violet and turquoise.The designers need to use strategies to woo increasingly selective retailers, executives said.

"The customer who comes along and falls in love with a product and buys with her eyes shut doesn't exist anymore," observed Antonella Tomasetti, general manager at Moschino. She said brisk business in jackets and accessories fueled a 15 percent jump in pre-collection buying.

Ferragamo ceo Ferruccio Ferragamo, boasting a 10 percent uptick for pre-collection, said his company's new handcrafted accessories collection, Atelier, has performed well. Handbag orders are up 18 percent.

"Buyers are increasingly looking for high-quality products," he added. "The Atelier women's shoe collection is having great success, especially in America."

Alberta Ferretti also emphasized the importance of price-to-quality ratios.

"The buyer is really evaluating what he or she is ordering. I don't feel a sentiment of euphoria coming from the market," she said. Still, her namesake label saw its pre-collection buying jump 38 percent, while her diffusion line, Philosophy, registered a 9.8 percent increase.

But as encouraging as pre-collection orders might be, several fashion houses still do a large chunk of their business after the shows. Such is the case at Armani and Gianfranco Ferré.

Ferré ceo Massimo Macchi said pre-collection orders to franchisees have already reached the company's goal for the entire spring season. He added that clients buying the lower-priced Ferré collection are buying on average 15 percent more than they did a year ago.

"Considering the strong response we got from our franchises," he predicted, "we could see some great surprises after the show."

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