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."We're also looking for new dress shapes -- other than slipdresses and baby-doll silhouettes -- that women can wear to work or in the evening," he said.

Texture, knits and pants -- from narrow to wide -- are important elements, he added.

"The era of deconstruction and slipdressing is leaving us," concurred Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president and fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman. "There will be more shaped jackets, longer jackets, tailored pants and A-line skirts -- definitely above the knee."

Texture will play an important role for fall, she added. Double-face fabrics, boucles, tweeds, mohair blends and knits are expected to be key.

Chanel and Armani are leading the pack at Bergdorf's. Saltzman said she had seen some pre-fall from Chanel that was "outstanding." She also expected a strong collection from Herve Leger.

The budget, she said, is "flexible."

Benny Lin, fashion director for Macy's East, will search for items. Sweater knits, including mohair, angora and textured boucle, and tweeds, are of particular interest, he said.

"We're looking for long jackets, slim pants, jumpers and outerwear," he said. "Open-to-buy is about 10 percent higher than last year."

Lin said the Italian designers -- especially Armani, Moschino, Genny and Byblos -- are doing well at Macy's.

"We'll see the beginnings of structure," said Louise Mackenzie, vice president and general merchandise manager at Henri Bendel. "Soft makes sense for spring, but will play itself out for fall."

Montana, Genny and short skirts have been hot at Bendel's.

The way jackets and skirts work together is important, Mackenzie said, "because my customer is buying at this price point to wear mostly for work." Mackenzie said styles that were too sheer, too extreme or not versatile enough to wear for different occasions have done poorly.

Following a strong 1993, Dallas specialty store Stanley Korshak has boosted its budget for Europe by 20 percent and is looking for stylish, young, wearable clothes that aren't faddish. Customers have been asking for narrow pants and short skirts, noted Kay Glatter, manager and designer buyer."We have to look for newness and, frankly, there hasn't been much," Glatter observed. "Looseness has come full circle and women are ready for some construction in their lives."

Shelle Bagot, owner of The Gazebo, Dallas, said her European budget is flat, as she plans more fall dollars for domestic lines, especially bridge.

"Lagerfeld is by far our strongest European resource," she said. "We've seen from spring and couture that short is the direction, and that's good."

Joan Weinstein, owner of Chicago's Ultimo, Sonia Rykiel and Giorgio Armani boutiques and a Jil Sander shop slated to open shortly, said her budget would be up considerably because of the new store.

Mary Hughes, vice president and general merchandise manager of Dayton Hudson Corp., Minneapolis, said her budget was about even.

She hopes softness will continue, and is looking for more knits and dresses, which have been selling well.

While DH customers continue to buy neutrals, Hughes said, "I'd like a shot of color to make the floor look exciting." Strong performers include YSL, Chanel and Chloe. Hughes said she wanted to see some less famous designers, too, like Harve Leger.

Patty Love, international designer buyer for Jacobson Stores, Jackson, Mich., said she increased her buy for Chanel and Armani, which have done well, but is keeping her overall budget even with last year.

Other strong performers for her store include Escada and Rena Lange, she said.

Love said she was looking for new jacket and skirt silhouettes, especially short A-line skirts, and lightweight transitional fabrics.

She said she would be looking for newer resources, citing Barbara Bui, Apara and Nitan, which she picked up recently and have done well.

At Isaacson's, an Atlanta boutique, vice president Gemma Taylor wants to see more color.

"It's been hard for us, especially in the South. Our customers have adjusted somewhat to muted palettes, but they still like color," she said.

She added that she would like to see slim, basic short skirts, rather than midcalf or A-lines.Taylor said she increased her budget slightly, based on the strong performance of lines like Thierry Mugler.

Color also tops the agenda of Sarah Barton, owner of Barton-Sligh, a boutique in Jacksonville, Fla.

"We'd also like more skirts and fewer pants," she said. "Women don't want pants for dressy or even daytime occasions."

Barton increased her budget for Chanel, a long-standing bestseller, and for Jil Sander, which is a new resource for Barton-Sligh.

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