NEW YORK -- Despite a surge in fiber prices, dress and suit makers vow they will increase prices on their collections for next spring only slightly -- if at all -- and are turning to other strategies to offset higher costs.

Alternatives include using more blended fabrics and taking a tougher stance with mills. Whatever their strategy, makers say the bottom line -- given the still-skittish consumer -- is that dramatic price hikes would not be prudent.

As reported, in the last 12 months, prices of cotton, wool and silk fibers have risen between 10 and 35 percent. Increases on better-quality linens have been even steeper.

Greg Marks, president of the Kasper for ASL division of the Leslie Fay Cos., which uses a lot of wool, microfiber and viscose for its suits, said he would work hard to negotiate with mills before he resorts to raising prices. He also noted that the increased value of the dollar over the lira also helps, since the company imports fabric from Italy. Its wholesale prices for suits range from $79 to $149.

"You just can't raise prices right now. It just wouldn't take with the consumer," said Larry Levine, president of Larry Levine Inc., adding he has already negotiated with mills for linen and cotton orders for its suit line for spring 1995.

In starting to buy fabric for fall 1995, Levine said he was finding price increases have eased off, although cashmere prices remain high. Dress designer Cynthia Rowley expects the fiber price increases will have minimal effect on her business.

"We use a range of fabrics, from cotton to rayon," said Rowley."If we have to, we'll do more shifting into other fabrics."

Richard Warren, a vice president of The Warren Group, noted that he was "studying the situation carefully," but said he did not think he would raise prices at present.

"We just can't do it right now because it won't take with the consumer," he said. "We'll just have to absorb the costs. If the situation continues, though, we'll have to increase prices." Bob Pitofsky, president of the MMCF division of Mary McFadden Inc., said the price hikes are of concern to the company, but "it was foreseeable.""We've built our business over the past four years around a certain price point and its very important that we maintain that price point," Pitofsky said. "We had knowledge that the price increases were pending, and took an advance position for next spring. If in the long run we have to pay some higher prices, we'll have to absorb the cost."

Some other designers and apparel makers in the higher price ranges were also adamant about not turning to less expensive fabrics for spring.

"The most important thing is fabric, and we will not use any less expensive fabrications or alter our mix to offset the problem," said Richard Gottlieb, executive vice president of YL by Yair Levy, which will still use silk, linen, cotton and lightweight wool in its dress and suit collection for spring. "Our customer is only interested in natural fibers."

Instead, Gottlieb said he "is attempting to toughen his negotiating stance with mills." He added that in the short term, the firm probably would have to absorb some of the costs, but if the fiber price surges continue, he might have to increase prices slightly.

Some companies, though, have been turning to new synthetics to inject fresh looks into their lines and not necessarily because of price.

Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, noted that the major reason the designer made a big push into high-tech fabrics for fall 1994, most notably Polartec, was fashion, but the move has turned out to be an economic boon.

"Nicole Miller wanted to make a modern statement, so instead of making sweaters out of merino wool, she made them out of Polartec," noted Konheim, referring to a fleece-like polyester material, made from recycled plastic soda bottles. "It couldn't have happened at a better time, given the dramatic fiber increases.Konheim noted that the high-tech materials, which also include new rayons and blends with spandex, account for about 45 percent of the fall collection, and he expects to expand that amount for next spring.

The husband and wife design team Tom and Linda Platt has also turned to man-made fibers. "Right now, fake fabric that has a fake look is in," said Tom Platt, adding that man-made fiber fabrics will account for 25 percent of the company's spring 1995 collection.

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