LOS ANGELES — Despite economic showers, spring market here sprouted a new trend — ladylike dressing.

After seasons of hippie chic, Fifties-flavored circle skirts and sweaters look fresh and, retailers hope, equallysalable come spring. In fact, customers eager to embrace their demure side will have plenty to choose from: fitted suits, bouquet floral prints, three-quarter- length coats, full skirts and plenty of pink, according to attendees at the five-day market that closed Tuesday.

It’s not all prim, though. The best looks are infused with a bit of punk — be it a crystal covered safety pin or slogan T.

Denim, however, seemed to be slowing.

The California Market Center honored the vintage mood by decorating its lobby with wall-sized photos from "California Fashion: From Old West to New Hollywood." Author Marian Hall and co-writers Marjorie Carne and Sylvia Sheppard, a former West Coast editor of WWD, autographed copies at a market kickoff cocktail party Friday.

John Eshaya, head buyer for Fred Segal Melrose, described spring’s overtly nostalgic silhouettes as "what the girl wore just before she was a hippie." The veteran buyer listed sexy "American Graffiti" circle skirts as the number-one item on his must-have list.

Stephanie Manos, owner of Material Scapes showroom, characterized the look as "anything feminine except ruffles. We’re tired of ruffles. We’re looking for more tailored, feminine styles now."

Cindy Adams, sales rep for Max Studio, has been selling skirts 3-to-1 over pants since June. An inverted pleat skirt with a floral print reproduced from 19th-century wallpaper booked well, she said. Local dress resource Tessuto also capitalized on the feminine resurgence, opening 12 new retail accounts based on strength in mixed-fabric halter dresses and printed eyelet, according to sales rep Ginger Vasquez.

Sylvana Kessel, showroom owner of Studio 10, showed Tocca’s banded pink-and-black cotton coat and drop-waist dresses with ribbon accents. It’s the first time the ultrafeminine New York-based line has established permanent West Coast sales, which is part of its effort to better penetrate the region’s boutiques.

Even misses’ retailers are going prim, banishing folkloric flourishes for cleaner skirts and tops. Linens and textural knits in soft colors like neutrals and pinks were coveted. Some said they’d like more dress options, but have turned to separates by default."Dresses are either very young or are ‘bubby’ dresses," observed Romane Roman, owner of Uh Oh Clothing Boutique in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Vendors have to wake up. They’re missing the women in the market."

At the newly expanded Designers & Agents, a wistful urge toward gentler times showed up in monogrammed sweaters from Acrobat and initialed handbags from Apropo. The show expanded to the neighboring Cooper Building, which displayed exhibitor fashions in its lobby. Still, some exhibitors griped that buyers weren’t aware of the show’s annex.

"It’s sort of slow, but the caliber of the traffic is high," said Maureen Roffoni, sales rep for Jill Platner Silver, who showed in the soaring-ceiling Cooper Building penthouse exhibition hall.

All over the market, vendors suggested buyer traffic was off and blamed the steady stream of glum economic and political news for chipping away at retail confidence. At the Focus Show in the CMC, David Bilbruck, sales rep for New York-based leather line JKTS, saw economic indicators in the way buyers reacted to his line. They took copious notes on a $150 wholesale ruched leather jacket, but wrote orders for suede tops at half the price. Nevertheless, Cecil Strickland, executive director of retail relations for CMC, said the market had "significant increases in first-time retail attendance," including first-time visits from U.K.-based giants Harrods and Selfridges, both reportedly scouting denim lines.

Playing to fashion’s masculine aesthetic (the yin to the feminine trend’s yang), vendors rigged up commando-utility looks with belting and epaulette details, exposed zippers, drawstrings, tab pockets and a preponderance of olive drab.

Zippers, either placed at an angle or up the side of a leg, have been quitestrong, according to Renee Thomas, designer for Billy Blues, a local contemporary bottoms collection.

Cargo pants, cropped or sash-waist with patch pockets à la Balenciaga, were the key item of the military-utility look. Buyers for Dari in Studio City, Calif., cited the look as their primary focus and gravitated toward tie-bottom, cropped or full-length versions. Echoing several retailers at market, Dari owner Melanie Shatner said they planned to "mix cargo up and pare a feminine top with the pants for an edgy look."Vendors pushed cargo styles for January and mid-February deliveries, hoping to beat a flood of competitive looks onto the selling floor. Other resources said they were striking out into new territory.

"I’m telling my reps to show the cargo almost as an afterthought," said Sean Barron, a partner in Joie, which started with the cargo trend two seasons ago. "When you’ve been so successful in one kind of item, you have to really push people to look at your next thing."

Barron had a feeling for longer-rise pants to give a slightly droopy "boyfriend" quality to the fit, as well as for cashmere workwear undershirts.

As is customary of this market, there were plenty of lines launching — even from out-of-towners wanting to capitalize on the region’s status as a spring-fashion powerhouse. A sister duo from North Carolina launched Eva Fortune, a sharply tailored suit separates line that played black crepe off vibrant kimono prints. Striking a quieter but equally tailored note, former Theory designer Lisa Kulson launched a namesake line including a halter-back jumpsuit and a tunnel-fit canvas skirt. Eva Fortune is repped at the 10 Eleven Showroom.

Jeffrey Lubell, who has launched Bella Dahl and Hippie denim lines in the last three years, has moved on with the debut of True Religion Brand Jeans. The jeans played with oversized pockets, colorful stitching accents and a Buddha-emblazoned back label reminiscent of Lucky Brand.

But overall, the enthusiasm for denim appeared to wane. Even boutiques specializing in denim were paring back.

"There are too many people getting in the jeans business," lamented Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim Co., a 28-year-old Chicago denim store. He said he’d branch out into capris, shorts and skirts in other fabrics. "The marketplace is too wide open. That’s what’s making it a difficult business right now."

Across town at the Standard Hotel, 65 vendors showed in hotel rooms on three floors at the third edition of the two-day Pool Trade Show, which ended Monday.

Margot Wertz, head buyer for four American Rag boutiques, walked the show scouting fuchsia, apple green and yellow items she plans to merchandise with spring’s ladylike looks. "It’s going to be a good season," she beamed.Neely Shearer, an owner of the Xin boutique in Los Angeles, cited hand-made T-shirts that have "more life and color" than in seasons past.

As for retailers’ economic mood, most said they expect the holidays to bring better numbers than last year, but not by much.

"I am very worried," said Cindy Reich, noting her store, Wink, in Houston, has been adversely affected by a lagging oil industry and the Enron debacle. "I’m a small operation and my margins are very thin." To generate shopping excitement, she plans to offer discounts, give gifts-with-purchase and throw cocktail parties.

Buoyed by fashion’s new bloom, retailers said they expect financial reprieve by spring.

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