By  on October 31, 2007

MILAN — You can't always get what you want.

That was the feeling for many buyers at ready-to-wear and accessories trade fairs Touch, Neozone, Cloudnine and White, which ran in Milan Sept. 27-30.

Buyers were tantalized by the vast and sumptuous assortment for spring. But whether they could take advantage of it was very much governed by exchange rates.

The range of women's wear for the warmer months was varied, but silhouettes were generally straight, simple and looser-fitting.

"It's got to be comfortable in summer," said Finnish designer Jasmin Santanen, who is based in Paris and was making her second appearance at White with her namesake rtw line. "The trend is for loose tops that can be balanced with tight-fitting bottoms, like leggings. That way, a dress becomes like a shirt."

Pitti Immagine, which organized Touch, Neozone and Cloudnine, reported a slight increase in the number of buyers by comparison with the last edition in February, but a sizeable 11 percent jump in non-Italian representation, which made up over a fifth of the 6,385 total. Notably, Japanese buyers dominated the international mix, despite the weakness of the yen against the euro.

But therein lay the problem, for some at least.

Izumi Uroshima, a buyer for Hanshin, a department store in Osaka, Japan, made her first visit to the fairs. She said she enjoyed what was offered but that spending power was limited by the struggling yen.

"The exchange rate is a problem," Uroshima said. "We cannot put a higher price on spring [clothes]. You can get away with it for fall, but Japanese customers aren't prepared to pay more for spring. That makes it difficult to find what we are looking for."

Many exhibitors shared this frustration and applied it to other currencies against the euro, notably the U.S. dollar. But Alessandro Moneta, sales manager at San Andres, said designers can do little about it if their costs are high.

"We try to calibrate our prices but it's difficult because we use expensive materials," Moneta said. "Anyway, 'Made in Italy' is important for foreign customers and they are prepared to pay more for this."Buyers from other parts of the world were less hampered by financial constraints.

Yasmeen Al-Sudairy, creative director of concept retailers Life and SID, in Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said, "We know the brands we are looking for. We focus on contemporary designers. It's all about attitude."

Life targets teenagers and young adults while SID caters to luxury consumers. There are five stores in total.

"We've bought Linda Farrow vintage sunglasses and placed an order with Sarah Arnett," Al-Sudairy said.

Arnett showed at White, displaying loose-fitting silk dresses and kaftans, much sought after in the Mideast because of the weather, Al-Sudairy added.

TOUCH

At Touch, Brazilian shoe brand Melissa presented a candy-colored array of soft patent plastic shoes, from flats to wedged heels, created with several designers, including Isabela Capeto, J Maskrey, the Campana Brothers and Alexandre Herchcovitch.

"Our shoes are pieces of design. Our clients understand this and sell them as design," said Junior Da Silva, who is responsible for the brand in Europe.

Melissa positions itself as a premium brand at accessible prices with shoes retailing between 40 to 50 euros ($56 to $70 at current exchange), he said.

"Why? Because we want people to enjoy them," he quipped, adding that for fall 2008, a special collaboration with Vivienne Westwood and architect Zaha Hadid is scheduled.

Korean rtw brand Andy & Debb also attracted attention with its minimalist designs, notably a sleeveless cream dress made of layered silk squares rising to a high neckline.

"This is our first time trying to enter the European market," said Yunsook Ma, textile and garment division manager for Samsung, which distributes the 10-year-old line. "We have had big interest in the style and the quality of our product."

Another debutant among the eclectic mix of 49 exhibitors was Milan-based Duyan. It showcased a high-waisted coat made of transparent, lightweight yellow silk "to wear over a cocktail dress in the evening," said owner and designer Doo Youn Jeoung, who added she had drawn inspiration for the collection from engravings by M.C. Escher.

NEOZONE

At Neozone, San Andres had Japanese retailers Isetan and United Arrows in mind with its handmade cotton, silk and muslin tops and dresses.

"The Japanese are open to more new things," said Mexican designer and founder Andres Caballero, who won the Next Generation award from the Camera Nazionale Della Moda Italiana in February as best emerging designer. "Italians by contrast are a bit more hesitant, more closed, and think more about labels."

The collection incorporated trapezium shapes and echoes of the Fifties and Sixties. Of particular note was an A-line dress and little jacket in white and beige cotton piqué with printed silk lining, rounded collar and three-quarter sleeves.

Caballero, who is based in Milan, founded San Andres in 2005. The brand is sold in Milan's Trace in Via Savona — a boutique for emerging designers — throughout Japan, in Korea and in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Japanese brand Momijiya made its first appearance at the fair, hoping to break into Western markets. Momijiya used to sell kimonos — and still makes the more casual cotton version, or yukata, at its Nagoya factory — but president Maya Okada has taken the 65-year-old family business into the 21st century.

"I mix French style with Japanese," Okada said. "We draw on heritage and traditional fabric designs for a modern collection."

Momijiya offered cotton blouses, three-quarter-length trousers, little dresses, bodices, skirts, jackets, caps, bags and sneakers, all trimmed to greater or lesser extent with kimono fabric designs in pink, red and gold rayon.

"We hope people appreciate the fusion as interest in Japanese style expands," Okada said.

Long-established English knitwear brand John Smedley was exhibiting for only the second time at Neozone in the company's 223-year history, in an attempt to boost the profile of its women's wear, particularly among Americans.

"We are more traditionally known for men's wear but we took this opportunity to show our women's collection: classic roll collars that are always stylish and never out of fashion," said brand manager Dawne Stubbs. "We think this could be a good fair for us."Stubbs said Japan was John Smedley's best market — particularly for women's wear — where the brand is in six retailers, including Beams, United Arrows and Isetan in Tokyo.

"We also have a strong business in Italy, which is a unique position for an English knitwear company," Stubbs said.

But she underlined that Smedley wants to grow in the U.S., where it sells at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York in Manhattan, and at Fred Segal, Carroll and Co. and Bullock & Jones on the West Coast.

"[The U.S.] is a huge market and we know it's big for us because of our online customers," Stubbs said. Smedley offers a click-to-office service, through which it delivers online purchases of its men's range to buyers' workplaces.

Stubbs said black remained the best-selling color, while navy and purple were also doing well. For spring, the range of sea island cotton and cashmere-mix women's sweaters had been added in "more intense colors" like yellow, white and silver-gray.



CLOUDNINE

Down the road at "the accessory planet," as organizers referred to Cloudnine, luxury hatmaker Habig offered a unisex collection of headwear, characterized by clean-cut masculine looks and flamboyant materials.

"We try to have styles that are easy to wear in extraordinary materials like ostrich leather and fish leather," said Barbara Habig, the fourth generation of the family to design for the 143-year-old Viennese brand.

The spring range combines straw with patent leather, crocodile leather or ostrich leather, as well as linen and leather combinations, and silk and rayon, often in neutrals. And being lightweight and casual, most models are easy to pack.

The hat specialist was making its fourth appearance at the fair and Habig said she was happy with the turnout.

"We always go to Cloudnine and to Premiere Classe in Paris. Most of our buyers [at Cloudnine] are from Italy," she said. "We use Italian fabrics so we hit Italian tastes. But there have been some Greeks. A few Americans, too, but they tend to look at what's on offer in Milan and then buy in Paris."(The latest edition of Premiere Classe ran Oct. 5-8.)

Also nestled among the treasure trove of 54 lines was Italy-based Puerto Rican bag maker CeeBee. "We work with recyclable materials only, which we then encase in plastic," sales assistant Paola Pilotti said.

CeeBee offered handbags made of newspaper and magazine cuttings — including cartoon strips — wrapped in transparent plastic, with metal clasps and leather handles.



WHITE

Prêt-à-porter and accessories fair White, which is run independently of Pitti Immagine, also reported a marginal increase in the number of buyers compared with the last edition in February, but a significant 15 percent jump among foreigners, largely due to growing Russian and American interest. In total, 8,212 buyers attended the event. There were 200 exhibitors.

White founder Massimiliano Bizzi said, "We have a different mentality toward creativity here. We don't want to stifle or compromise it."

That hit the right note with Russian buyer Alexey Astafiev, who buys for stores in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Irkutsk. "We sell cashmere in winter and silk in summer. I come here to find items in these materials, which are also fashionable. I have an appointment with [Italian textile producer] Faliero Sarti later on."

Bizzi's strategy of embracing the new was highlighted in a stand-alone eco-sustainable showroom, presented by C.L.A.S.S. (Creativity, Lifestyle and Sustainable Synergy), a group of eco-sustainable fabric and textile producers, which sees itself as a platform for designers to learn about sustainable raw materials and their use.

"This isn't just a green project," C.L.A.S.S. co-founder Giusy Bettoni cautioned. "This is about technology and innovation. Sustainability by itself doesn't sell."

She showed a range of oil-free fabrics made from renewable sources like wood fiber, bamboo and milk protein.

Vendors also praised White.

"It's the best fair," said Fabio Renzetti, founder of niche Italian accessories line Aristolasia, in its ninth season at White. "We're always busy. We appreciate that it gives us visibility and contacts."

Drawing inspiration from flowers, five-year-old Aristolasia offered the Abbraccio ("Embrace") collection, combining strips of supersoft napa to create a ruffled bulb shape. Jasmin Santanen presented intricately embroidered cotton and silk slips and dresses, and French lace blouses with high collars."These pieces are easy to combine with everyday items but come with a couture mentality," said Santanen, adding the collection was inspired by Elizabeth I of England. The range comes in white for day and black for evening.

"There are so many fast-moving cheap stores that do great stuff for the price," Santanen said. "So to differentiate, you have to move [upmarket]. There's more room to develop at that end, but a higher price alone doesn't say it's higher quality. For someone like me, it's better to compete as a specialist, making spectacular things. There's a big opportunity in rtw and eveningwear for producers of quality."

Sylvia Pichler, who trained as an architect, made her debut at White with her Zilla bag and furniture brand, after showing at previous editions of Cloudnine.

"My philosophy is to see bags as mobile homes for women," Pichler said. "Being an architect, I see myself on the border between fashion and design."

Pichler is inspired by industrial materials, borrowed from the building trade, but she went natural with perhaps the most unusual item at the fair — a large handbag made of sponge.

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