LAS VEGAS — As local school kids headed back to class on Monday, retailers poured into WWDMAGIC to do their own homework. Their assignment: A first look at spring 2003 and a read on what’s checking in during an otherwise lackluster back-to-school season.August used to be "our big back-to-school month," said Amy Snyder, buyer for Cohoes, a boutique in Cohoes, NY, who looked for items for her growing plus-size junior business. "I see it shifting. A lot of kids wait to get to school to see what their peers are wearing." By spring, retailers anticipate teens will turn to garment-washed corduroy, pastel suede and embellished moleskin — fabrics that have been traditionally fall choices, but which nicely express the market’s romantic-bohemian mood. While low rises continue to dominate bottoms, tops are becoming looser and more lavish. Ponchos, blousons, caftans and tunics with kimono sleeves, lacing or scarf-ties drew interest.To the Max designer Susanna Vangerwin called the longer tops "a reaction to the extreme low rises. People are concerned about being a little covered when they sit."Buyers continue to tighten their game by buying light and late. Most had dollars open for immediate orders — and vendors capitalized by devoting booth space to items currently in stock. "In today’s business, you have to support everyone from the last-minute shops to those buying for next year," said Joseph Kalimian, owner of New York-based sweater resource Kallico. Retailers described the market as "tough," but when pressed they admitted sales have gained between 10 and 30 percent this year versus last through increased vigilance on inventory. Retailers outside of major metropolitan areas, who said the peasant look is just reaching them,expect the look to kick up sales during fall. Meanwhile, buyers in big cities said the look is saturated and focused on new interpretations.William Shoemaker, owner of contemporary label Clue, predicted consumers will yearn for hot, Versace-esque colors next spring as a change from this summer’s "wispy, pale" gauze looks. Shoemaker called customers shopping for b-t-s "hesitant." "They only gravitate toward stuff that’s unique. We can’t give basics away," he said.Noting consumers "have fear in their pocketbooks," Margaret Dellisanti, owner of Main Changes, a hip-hop apparel boutique in Norristown, Pa., has started spending more time on the sales floor. "You have to know how to keep it fresh," she said. She plans to pick up brands such as Dickie’s Girl and Baby Phat, as well as low-rise jeans and denim skirts with a "blasted, antique" finish. Belts — ranging from fringed to patchwork — remain a crucial way to sell bottoms. "Any belted skirt is doing well right now," said XOXO sales manager Chrissel Battaglia. Mudd, which brought its 19 licenses to its 2,100-square-foot booth, hoped for a bullish skirt business. "We see skirts as a big business for spring," said a Mudd spokeswoman, adding that the brand plans to expand the category from 10 to 20 percent of overall business. Asked whether LEI’s sale to Jones Apparel Group tempted him to do the same, Mudd president Dick Gilbert said he was focused on international growth. "I want to become a global giant," he said. "I’m not interested in selling" the company. The brand recently inked a deal with a distributor to open 33 Mudd stores in China this year. Gilbert projected the brand could reach $1 billion in sales in China in three to five years.Misses’ resources, taking a cue from junior trends, showed plenty of looks designed to lure a hipper customer. Jeans jacket-inspired silhouettes in linen, stretch poplin and rayon sported floral prints and contrasting-colored embroidery, while lace and beading dressed up vests, peasant tops, T-shirts and fitted pants.At New York-based novelty-knit resource Susan Bristol, national sales manager Linda Harrison noted the company is now emphasizing its woven casual separates in an effort to attract younger women. Even casual resources like the Signal Hill, Calif.,-based Cotton Stuff jumped on the boho bandwagon, showing gauze peasant tops embellished with crochet along with layered gauze skirts. "The missy customer is getting younger and younger, and these women know more about fashion," said designer Suwon Weaver. "They want cool styles even though they aren’t fitting into a size 2."Show officials said registration for this WWDMAGIC increased 18 percent over the February edition. Exhibitor totals weren’t available at press time. International traffic has also recovered to its pre-Sept. 11 levels — about 10 percent of all buyer registration, according to Camille Candella, a show spokeswoman.

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