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With their fresh, researched designs, some using recycled materials, fashion novices set trends at Milan’s women’s apparel and accessories trade shows this season, as young designers struggle to expand their business amid trying economic times.

Milano Pret-a-Porter ran from Feb. 24 to 27, while White Milano and the trio of Pitti Immagine fairs — Touch, neoZone and cloudnine — were held Feb. 25 to 27, amid the frenzy of women’s fall ready-to-wear runway collections taking place in the city.

Environmentally conscious, ethnic, architectonic and embellished designs presented by emerging designers infused the shows with a modern edge. These overshadowed more subdued collections from the fairs’ more established exhibitors, which generally have bigger budgets to buy more exclusive materials and finance international expansion.

Overall, a strong trend developed toward sustainable fashion and organic fabrics, as well as a tendency toward more conceptual, vintage or military inspired designs.

White selected eight designers for its special section dedicated to new talents in international fashion: Andreia Chaves, Angelos Bratis, Anne Sofie Madsen, Covherlab, Gaetano Perrone, Stella Jean, Tommaso Cecchi De’Rossi and returning jewelry maker Mirit Weinstock.

Israeli-born Weinstock, a former intern for Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, said that with only her third collection, her nature-inspired brooches, bracelets and necklaces are now sold in 20 international boutiques. She recently nailed a contract with retail chain Anthropologie.

Brazilian designer Andreia Chaves showcased a line of footwear handmade in Italy that played on sculptural aesthetics, some accented with whimsical gold-plated appliqués made in Ireland.

“In 2012, I will be working to establish my brand so my products can be sold in established stores,” Chaves said at the fair. Her upscale designs are already sold in China, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates.

“The entrepreneurial spirit can now be seen in Milan, young labels as well as stores focusing on emerging talents popping up. This is a vital and promising sign also for production [of] Made in Italy — young Italian fashion brands are their future and we should all support this,” said Not Just a Label founder Stefan Siegel, who last year joined forces with Pitti Immagine to promote emerging talents.

NJAL, which aims to double its turnover this year, said its budget for 2012 has increased slightly. The focus is currently on jewelry and made-to-order pieces that come directly from the studios of designers with a presence on the Web site. About 20 percent of NJAL’s sales are represented by green or 100 percent sustainable fashion. This percentage is increasing, Siegel noted.

White, Touch, neoZone and cloudnine had “green” areas dedicated to designers who combine avant-garde aesthetics with sustainable production.

Vivienne Westwood’s label, which has become the supporter of ethical and sustainable fashion through the project Ethical Fashion Africa Programme, showcased handmade designs from its Handmade with Love in Nairobi project at The Green Closet display at Touch, neoZone and cloudnine.

The Ethical Fashion Africa Programme is an ongoing project offering an income to African craftsmen and women — some of the poorest people in the world — thus promoting a sustainable economy. The bags and accessory collections are carried exclusively in Vivienne Westwood flagships and on in its eco-friendly fashion and design section.

Sales of environmentally conscious accessories are going “very well” for the brand, mostly because the price is reasonable, and even sophisticated emerging market shoppers crave this sort of unique creativity, said Vivienne Westwood president Carlo D’Amario, speaking on the sidelines of a news conference.

The collection’s clutches, totes and handbags, emblazoned with slogans and ethnic designs indicative of Westwood’s bold style, retail for about 200 euros, or $267 at current exchange.

“Crocodile bags are an antiquated sort of luxury. These African women are working with their hands. They have the ability to create a luxury product,” D’Amario added.

U.K.-based emerging designer Emesha Nagy’s namesake label was also present alongside Vivienne Westwood at The Green Closet. Nagy, who has previously worked with Westwood, unfurled a collection crafted with organic materials, felting techniques and digital prints. Designs from the Emesha label retail anywhere from 150 to 700 pounds ($238 to $1,110). Nagy said that high-end eco-concious fashions are still a slow-growing niche market, as many consumers don’t really associate high-end with eco.

“I’m trying to demonstrate that they are not mutually exclusive,” Nagy said.

Making the best out of discarded and industrial materials was Nicholas Julitta, who showcased his collection in Milano Pret-a-Porter’s avant-garde area for emerging talents.

His 100 percent organic line included a series of garments that experimented with fading and patchwork techniques. His collection included mesh steel thread tank dresses and leather coats made with leftover precious hides from animals like Persian karakul.

Italian-born Julitta presented his first capsule collection in 2010 and in 2011; he collaborated with Kiton for another capsule group. He is now selling his products abroad and tapping into one of retail’s fastest growing luxury markets, South Korea, where his line is being carried at 10 Corso Como Seoul.

Shrugging off the prospect of a declining euro zone economy, and a drop in visitors from Spain and Greece, the fairs closed with buyer attendance more or less in-line with February 2011. White closed with 11,000 buyers, while the number of buyers at Touch, neoZone and cloudnine inched up 2 percent to 7,150.

The string of trade shows culminated with the Uma Wang runway show, which was sponsored by White and took place at Milan’s majestic Palazzo Reale on Feb. 26. The emerging Chinese designer’s dark, asymmetric designs garnered international acclaim from press in Milan for fashion week.

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