NEW YORK — Designers caught their first glimpse of spring 2003 last week at European Preview, the two-day fair held at New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion. Highlights were feminine and soft looks such as Art Nouveau prints and jacquards — largely floral in nature — as well as lightweight blends in both wovens and jerseys.

In terms of color, white was key, especially when used tonally, as were soft pastels, muted midtones and darker, richer hues.

At Bucol — which recently inked a joint venture with Emmanuel Racine, a respected French jersey line that has been out of production for nearly four years — Art Nouveau looks were seen on a variety of the mill’s silk jacquards.

“Art Nouveau has been an important trend for us and we’re going forward with it,” said Francois Damide, president of Bucol’s U.S. division. He added that the market was moving away from the harder-edged looks of the past few seasons. “I have definitely seen a move towards more decoration and more color,” he said.

Carmen Marc Valvo’s design director Donal O’Neill agreed, saying, “What impressed me most about the selections at the show was the feeling of lightness, softness and femininity.”

This feeling, he added, ran across the board from cobweb-like laces at Solstiss and Darquer that were “fragile and beautiful” to sheer, seemingly weightless rayon jerseys at Guigou that were “perfect.”

“After two seasons of very structured looks, I think there’s been a turn towards romanticism. Everything is very light and airy, and I think women are going to respond to the femininity of it all, and the comfort.”

Clerici Tessuto offered a variety of romantic floral prints in soft pastel colors on silk chiffon and crepon, as well as on cotton voile. “Everything this season is soft and washed out,” said Andrea Ambrosini, sales director. “Nothing is too strong in terms of color or fabric.”

Other mills were also focusing on romantic looks from floaty seersucker stripes on cotton, nylon and spandex at Gratacos to both large- and small-scale floral prints on both cotton and rayon and nylon jersey knits at Tesj.

Also important at the show were natural blends that were soft and lightweight. At Luigi Boggio Casero, cotton and rayon combinations were shown with ethnic-like patterns in a range of neutral combinations. “We were inspired by Africa and the Middle East,” said Eugenio Boggio Casero, president.

Crespi showed a selection of blends that combined the fiber with cotton or linen. Everything from tone-on-tone jacquards to yarn dyes with delicate iridescence were on display. “The hemp blends have gotten some wonderful attention,” said Monica Belardinelli, export manager for the U.S., “especially the textured looks.”

At Luigi Botto, Michael Marchese, account executive, showed a selection of nonwool blends in cotton and silk, as well as linen and rayon. “It’s becoming more important for us to show our clients blends that include fibers other than wool,” he said.

Color, meanwhile, ranged from soft tones to deeper hues. At Bianchini Ferier, sales director Patrick Szczepkowski, saw an interest in pastels, while at Weisbrod Zurrer, deeper jewel tones were selling.

Lars Nilsson, creative director for Bill Blass, said colors were “definitely getting softer. There were some beautiful pastels which are perfect for our first spring delivery, but I also saw stronger midtones that were washed out.”

Midtones showed up at both Liberty and at Billon, where sales manager Gera Gallico said that customers responded to their red, cream and blue striped jerseys.

White, however, was everywhere. At Ratti, tonal white looks included soft paisley prints and floral puff prints. “White is going to be especially important for next spring,” said Giancarlo Onnis, export manager for the U.S. at Ones. “It’s clean, it’s fresh and many of our customers have been happy to see it again.”

Geoffry Gertz, design director of modern wovens at The Limited, said he is working more with European mills, since his customer is responding to well-made fabrics, and he uses the show as a key starting point for his collections.

But a few mill executives said designers seemed preoccupied with their fall lines, which debut during Fashion Week here, Feb. 8-15.

Blass’s Nilsson said it’s possible that he might find something to add to his Feb. 12 runway show, “but it isn’t likely.”

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