Just when it seemed that price tags were the biggest fashion problem, a new one popped up this week as New York designers opened their collections for spring.

While consumers burn over prices, designers are fiddling with hemlines.

Following a fall season when many of the clothes shown were long and full, many designers now suggest a hike to shorter hemlines for warmer weather. This news, while not a shock to those who see young women in New York or Paris wearing short skirts, comes as a bit of a surprise in Washington, where the sedate below-the-knee length and even longer prevails.

Still, a few designers, including Perry Ellis, continue an emphasis on longer lengths. Ellis, whose longer lengths have sold well this fall, is not about to give them up, though he did show plenty of short skirts.

None of the designers, however, fears losing customers in a hemline battle. All have provided options, long and short and, as Washingtonians have always preferred, somewhere in between. Even those with a tilt to shorter lengths insist that women should make their own choice, and have provided alternatives.

"Women have to get to the place where they look at themselves and decide what length is best for them and what shape," says Calvin Klein, who favors short lengths but is offering choices. "It is a mistake trying to look like a picture, but rather one should find what is best for herself."

Joining Klein in preferring shorter lengths are designers Donna Karan and Louis Dell'Olio for Anne Klein.

Here's what those designers said on the subject at their shows:

* Donna Karan: "When spring comes and the weather gets warm, all of a sudden the leg gets bare and up goes the hem. But it has always been this way. We showed long skirts for fall with dark stockings and boots and shawls and it all balances out. But when the weather gets warmer, you don't feel like dragging around a lot of heavy fabric.

"I like the look at the top of the knee or above, but we show it shorter on models on the runway. They have fabulous bodies and the spirit to carry off shorter clothes. But it is not a matter of age. I could see Nancy Reagan in this length.

"For resort wear we did a playful, kicky look that was short and full. But spring is our season to be more serious. Executive women like suits that are all pulled together for them in a total look. A suit with a long skirt looks very old. But other individual long skirts, like light linen or suede, will be great, too. Very short, like the old mini, isn't very sophisticated. That is only for active sports.

"And guess what? When fall comes, hems will go down again. I don't think it's anything that we have to be concerned and worried about."

* Calvin Klein: "When I think about warm weather, I think about short lengths . I happen to like skirts a few inches above the knee, but I also like day things at the knee and longer.

"In the 14 years that I have been in the business, whenever we made short clothes we always shipped them longer. We are in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. We don't want to lose the tall customer who might like the clothes longer. So the woman will probably have to shorten the clothes to make them the length I personally like best."

* Perry Ellis: "When I hear everyone saying that clothes are getting shorter, then it is like a chemical reaction. I kept hearing that there was a shift to everything short. I think things can look just as beautiful long, and just as new. That's the premise I worked on. I think it is a big mistake for women to believe that they must wear everything short."

The last time there was a swing to short hems, many women retreated to wearing pants. But this time, pants are not an easy hedge. There are just as many options in pants' lengths.