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MILAN — Like the unusually frigid weather in this fashion capital last week, the fall-winter collections here left many retailers cold — with a few exceptions.

Buyers praised Prada, Burberry, Miu Miu, Marni and Missoni among the standouts after a week of runway shows that were often described as flat and lacking newness. But some retailers were reassured when they visited showrooms to see the product up close, detecting innovation and a new direction, albeit a subtle one. “It wasn’t shouting out at you in terms of a new look,” said Anna Garner, head of fashion at Selfridges.

As Michael Fink, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, put it: “Even though the runways weren’t ‘wow’ and high voltage, in the showroom the clothing is incredibly nuanced.”

Still, some lamented that designers played it too safe this season with a sea of black, brown and gray clothes. “If business in general is challenging, I’m not sure that pulling back is the right strategy,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

Retailers mentioned subtle embroidery, voluminous coats, egg-shaped skirts as well as blouson jackets as key trends and most often credited Miuccia Prada as the directional visionary of the season.

“Milan had some excitement, but many of the collections were uneven,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s. “There’s an importance of black for fall. We like the shorter skirts and great coats. There’s less reliance on bling and a lot less glitter in the clothes,” he said, praising Prada’s elegance, Giorgio Armani’s jackets, flat furs at Fendi and cleaned-up, more wearable collections from Versace and Dolce & Gabbana.

“It’s a much more grown up, sophisticated mood,” agreed Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus.

Fink of Saks said Milan forged ahead with new proportions and a “refined elegance” at houses like Prada, Marni, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. His only concern is that some collections were too black-driven. “It [will] be hard on the floor to make the collections pop,” he said.

This story first appeared in the February 28, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Suzanne Patneaude, executive vice president, designer apparel at Nordstrom, appreciated Missoni’s cocoon sweaters and flared coats at Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. Marni and Burberry remained true to their signature styles while in her eyes addressing the direction of the season.

“We think navy looks really new, and we like the idea of mixing silver and gold,” she said.

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, said the Italian collections were much less flamboyant this season, and the “new refinement” on the runways — even in collections known for color like Pucci, Missoni and Marni — would make buying easy. She especially liked voluminous coats, skirts with rolled under hems, men’s wear fabrics, velvets and furs.

Bergdorf’s Burke said he detected a lack of originality and design in Milan, with the exception of Prada and Marni. He was more upbeat on accessories and said that the Fendi bags he saw in the showroom looked great. He was less excited about an “enormously drawn-out week” and all the fur.

“I felt that fur was used as a cop out for design. In lieu of design, [a designer] would put a fur wrap on it or cover it in astrakhan. It was too much,” he said.

Neiman Marcus’ Kaner said she didn’t feel a clear direction in Milan, although she liked the “sophisticated and much more pulled together” Versace, the prints and leathers at Miu Miu and jackets at Giorgio Armani. Marni, Missoni and Etro also piqued her interest.

“There’s a change in shape. There’s lots more volume at the top of clothing,” she said, noting the trend toward blouson jackets and tops.

Barbara Atkin, fashion director at Canada’s Holt Renfrew chain, said “it was a somber season. And very voluminous. It’s just a matter of balance. It’s really going to have to be a skillful buy, more than ever before.”

Her list of must-have items included full skirts, full-sleeved blouses, cardigan sweaters, skinny pants or slim knickers to balance volume up top and a wardrobe of coat variations: astrakhan, belted, voluminous, “admiral” style or a sweater coat.

“This was an amazing, beautiful week with clothes that were commercial but also luxurious,” said Kuwait-based retailer Majed Al Sabah of Villa Moda. “As for trends, coats and colors: black and navy, but this is not your basic black — all the luxurious details and embellishments added a new, different twist. I liked the different, fuller volumes.”

Akihito Naohara, general manager, luxury brand divisions of Takashimaya Co. Ltd., said he thinks Japanese women will embrace balloon skirts and the fine craftsmanship at houses like Bottega Veneta. Shorter jackets and all the fur coats don’t convince him as much, with outerwear sales decreasing yearly in Japan, he said.

Haru Suzuki, who oversees fashion merchandising for Barneys New York in Japan, said she was surprised at Milan’s black, somber mood. She thought it was beautiful, but said it will be challenging to sell it.

“With dark color and minimal design you have to really inspire the customer and tell them how to wear it,” she said.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director for Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford, said she found the Milan season “quite flat,” lacking excitement and modernity, but she found strength at Burberry with pleated voluminous dresses and jackets in Mongolian lamb and leather. She also appreciated the washed finishes at Neil Barrett, the modernity and precision of Prada and will increase her position with Miu Miu.

This season, buyers were coming to terms with their lower purchasing power because of the strength of the euro and increasingly expensive clothes in ultraluxurious fabrics like velvet astrakhan.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of boutiques in New York and Atlanta, said that the strong euro to dollar rate is forcing him to become a more selective buyer, which can be a good thing. His top picks were Marni, Miu Miu, DSquared, Prada, Missoni and Dolce & Gabbana.

“For a season in which so many people are concerned with prices, there are more luxurious materials than ever before,” he said.

Janet Brown, who owns a store in Port Washington, N.Y., said she went over her budget in Milan to compensate for escalating retail prices on the euro-dollar exchange. She liked the black and brown furs at Marni, couture-like touches at Missoni, sexy gowns at Versace, coats at Jil Sander and longer, looser sweaters at many collections.

Cedric Charbit, general merchandise manager for women’s fashion at Printemps, the French department store chain, said that he’s “not very excited about Milan,” but he noted new volumes and cuts as well as ladylike looks evoking the couture and of designers such as Cristobal Balenciaga. He also noted Seventies-era Yves Saint Laurent influences and “pretty glamour” at Blumarine.