CHICAGO — Many Midwest retailers, less anxious than at past markets, scouted their favorite fashions and placed solid orders at the recent holiday-resort-spring preview market at Chicago’s Apparel Center.

Jackie Bartolini, owner of Oak Lawn, Ill.’s 18-year-old Bellissimo store, reported that her order-to-buy is up from last year.

"I’ve been feeling very optimistic," said Bartolini, who added that her customers, who range from age 20 to 80, have been buying steadily. "Every month, sales have been up, except August, because I think women are buying closer to season."

Bartolini’s sentiments reflected those of other retailers looking to rebound from a tough year, visiting showrooms during the market held Aug. 23-27. Highlights included a Sunday evening rooftop party at the East Bank Club and a capacity-crowd holiday and early spring fashion show titled "The Collections."

"It was a good show for everyone," said Susan McCullough, vice president for apparel for the Merchandise Mart Properties, which operates the Apparel Center. "Our registration was flat against last year, but everyone was upbeat and seemed enthusiastic about writing orders."

McCullough first noted a rise in retailer spirits at last March’s StyleMax show, following the retail doldrums in the six months that proceeded Sept. 11.

"I saw a marked turnaround there," she said. "Now, I think the mood has really changed."

Marilyn Fleer, manager and buyer for Higley’s on Second in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also felt confident purchasing for the upcoming holidays.

"I’m not bragging," she said. "I’m just grateful. Our business has been good."

Noting the pending anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Fleer and Bartolini opted for more subtle holiday attire.

"People are staying in more," Bartolini said.

In turn, she sought more casual silk and velvet separates, items suitable for dinner parties and holiday get-togethers, rather than high-glamour events. She found velvet and linen separates from Dear Friends in black, as well as stretch velvet and stretch crinkle tops in black from Lou Nardi.

Fleer agreed with that buying strategy."It’s still a very casual world out there," said Fleer, noting that three-year-old Higley’s on Second caters to women 30 to 65.

Fleer ordered several black pieces from Drama sold in the Bernice Burg showroom that she believed were versatile enough to sell well. She liked a black crepe skirt with a ruffled hem, a long black skirt with a side zipper that opens into slit, a cropped microfiber black jacket that could pair with the ruffled skirt or matching narrow-leg black pants.

"They could double for holiday parties," she said. "It’s easier for me to buy separates."

Fleer traveled in for the day from Iowa to place holiday orders and check out spring merchandise, which she usually orders in October at StyleMax, one of the largest women’s markets held in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

For spring, she liked linen and Tencel separates.

"I come to see what the buying trends are," Fleer said. "We saw a lot of linen, which always does well."

For resort and early spring, she ordered Eileen Fisher cropped pants, tunic jackets and shells in cinnamon, stone and black. "I was happy to see capris, cropped and flood pants," she said. "I hope they never go out of style. Last year, I couldn’t keep them in the store. For our ladies, they’re a good substitute for shorts."

Bartolini ordered stretch cotton blouses from Ell Jay in black and white, as well as a poppy-print coral and white dress with cap sleeves and a sleeveless floral dress with matching jacket from the same line.

For spring sweaters, she chose two styles from Kindred Spirits: a polyester and cotton number with woven ribbons in yellow and khaki, and a silk and linen sweater in vanilla, sage and wisteria.

"I liked the colors I was seeing," she added. "They’re really soft and feminine."

Crissy Fiorello, owner of Crissy’s Casuals in Madison, Wis., needed to buy some fill-ins for fall. She liked denim with a printed rayon trim at the cuffs of jackets and jeans.She also ordered washable microsuede tan and periwinkle tunic-style shirt-jackets and zip microsuede jackets with leather trim in tan, styles she believes will be popular with her clientele, which tends to be over 45.

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