MILAN — In a world where more things seem uncertain than not — from a possible war to a swift economic recovery — there is one thing that’s for sure: the Italians have their work cut out for them.

Particularly as a lot of buzz emanates from Paris, most makers and retailers agree that creativity is the only salvation for designers in these trying times.

Precollection sales are mixed: Giorgio Armani saw flat sales while Prada’s orders spiked 15 percent and Dolce & Gabbana’s were up 10 percent. Meanwhile, retailers are mostly cautious, with some expressing fears about placing large orders and getting stuck with unsold stock. "It’s a difficult moment, but at the same time, it’s interesting because you need to be more creative and not conservative," said Miuccia Prada.

Roberto Cavalli, whose younger Just Cavalli line makes its runway debut this season, stressed that originality and one-of-a-kind-items are needed to lure women back into stores and stimulate impulse buying.

"That way, if she doesn’t buy it now, she won’t see it next season."

Armando Branchini, vice president of luxury goods consultant Intercorporate, agreed that the challenging economic climate poses a tricky balancing act for designers: get as creative as possible to capture the attention of retailers, but at the same time stay wearable to appeal to consumers.

"Given that retailers will be buying less, designers will be concentrating on making their collections innovative and salable to get a bigger slice of a smaller cake," he said.

Versace said its precollection orders are showing a "high-single-digit increase" with a particularly strong performance in dresses, pants and accessories. Key looks, some of which were presented at the men’s runway show in January, include a boiled wool and lace inset military coat, wool melange combat pants and Goth-inspired cocktail dresses.

Donatella Versace said she is staying the course despite difficult times.

"I am very sensitive to the current global situation, but we must not let these events disrupt our focus, as it is important for the business to continue moving forward," she said.

Armani said precollection sales are flat on the year."Our business seems to be consistent with this time last year in all respects and in all regions," said an Armani spokesman. "It does seem that American department stores are slightly increasing their precollection orders with us, but we will obviously want to see how that continues with the main collection."

Giorgio Armani stressed the importance of putting the retailer first in a tough environment.

"This is a time when you have to be very pragmatic in managing the business, ensuring that you are doing all of the most basic things well: Offering your customers practical solutions; making sure that deliveries arrive on schedule; providing customer service of the highest standard," the designer said.

Prada said precollection sales are up 15 percent on the year. On a geographic breakdown, sales are up 20 percent in the U.K., up 14 percent in the U.S., up 8 percent in Italy and 5 percent in Japan.

"The climate is very positive regarding the Anglo-Saxon countries," said a Prada spokesman, who added that the group should see a boost in Japanese sales when two new stores open this year in the prestigious Ginza and Omotesando districts of Tokyo.

A Dolce & Gabbana spokeswoman, noting the 10 percent rise in precollection orders, added: "We are still expecting big orders from our customers."

Giovanni Burani, the chief executive of Mariella Burani Fashion Group, which also owns Mila Schön, said precollection orders are currently up about 6 to 7 percent on the year. But he forecast that business conditions in 2003 should be even more challenging than those in 2002.

"There should be a recovery at the beginning of 2004, not before," he said.

Some of Italy’s smaller players are seeing the most growth.

Etro said its precollection orders are up 15 to 20 percent, in line with the company’s expectations. Meanwhile,Ermanno Scervino, which upgrades from a presentation to a full-fledged show this season, has seen its precollection sales "more than double" from those last season.

Maria Vittoria Pagani, Ermanno Scervino’s export manager, said she is optimistic about potential retail interest despite uncertainty over if or when the U.S. heads to war."At the moment I just see booked appointments and people planning to come to the show," she said.

A couple of Italian retailers expressed fears about placing large orders and getting stuck with unsold merchandise in empty stores.

Rosi Biffi, who runs six stores, including the Biffi and Banner boutiques here, said it is too early for her to estimate her budget. But she said the uncertain climate is making her job all the more difficult.

"There are all of these world problems and we can’t ignore them," she said. "People are very hesitant — we can’t smile about the situation."

Cristina Gavetti, who handles orders for three multibrand Marisa stores in Milan, said her current budget is down 20 to 30 percent on the year. In a defensive move, Gavetti said she is stocking up more on accessories like handbags, belts and jewelry — items considered easier to sell in a tough climate.

"Everything is at a real standstill," she said. "There are very few people in the stores at this time."

The Americans had a more mixed point of view.

Robert Burke, Bergdorf Goodman’s vice president and senior fashion director, said the store is not sending fewer people than usual, but its team has tried to consolidate certain appointments.

"We’re not going in with less of a budget," he said. "We’re not cutting back."

Burke said he expects to see a more sophisticated Milan this season and less of the overt sexiness and short skirts that dominated the spring collections. Trends are likely to reflect historical references to the Sixties and Seventies as well as a strong use of leather, shearlings and furs. Among the lines he’s eyeing are Versace, which the store is adding this fall after not carrying the collection for about four years.

"We’ll look to Milan to have a bit of an edge," he said.

"Business is getting better and everyone at the store is in a good mood and looking forward to the European collections," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, who noted that his budget has increased to account for a new store slated to open in SoHo in October.Sue Patneaude, vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, said no one on her team has expressed undue concern about traveling to Europe and she is looking forward to a set of strong shows."Our budgets are on the conservative side, but as always, we are receptive to increases when opportunities present themselves," she said.

But Jeffrey Kalinsky, who operates multibrand stores in New York and Atlanta, said his budget at this point is basically flat because there is "too much uncertainty to be going into the market too gung-ho."

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