NEW YORK -- American retailers are clamoring for new shapes as they head for the European ready-to-wear shows that begin this weekend, their budgets pumped up by as much as 20 percent.

The collections start Saturday in Milan.

Executives from key specialty and department stores around the country hope to see more structured silhouettes and skirts that stay above the knee. Pants are as important as ever, they noted.

Chanel and Giorgio Armani top retailers' must-have lists, with store executives describing the two lines as Europe's best-selling labels.

At Neiman Marcus, the approach to the European fall shows will be aggressive in order to build on recent gains.

"We're coming off a strong fall, and Europeans played a major role in that success," pointed out Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based

chain. "We expect to continue the growth of European collections in the range of 10 percent."

Joan Kaner, Neiman's senior vice president and fashion director, said, "We're looking for wonderful designer collections, new talents and, more and more, for items -- something within a collection that we can maximize, or a key look -- like a kilt or a jodhpur pant."

While Neiman's has sold soft and flowing styles well, Kaner expects a shift toward construction and a variety of short skirts.

"Fashion is a game of change and evolution," she said. "Once you've deconstructed everything, you have to start building it back up."

Armani, Chanel and Emanuel Ungaro all had an exceptional fall at NM and are at the top of the chain's shopping list.

Joseph Cicio, chairman and ceo of I. Magnin in San Francisco, said, "We would like to see rich fabrics, more detailing, lots of color and some multicultural inspirations." Beautiful evening clothes with touches of luxury will be a priority, Cicio said, adding, "People are starting to dress up again. They're going out more."

"We're enthusiastic about Europe this season," said Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president for fashion direction. "Last season, the designers seemed to be in a holding pattern. The clothes were simple and nice, but not truly exciting. We hope a true style for the Nineties will be established.

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