There was a demonstration here last week against the high cost of clothing. And although the young girls who paraded with sandwich boards were not the major customers for the designers who showed their new spring collections last week, the depressed economy and the high clothing prices clearly influenced what was being shown here.

There may be just as many American stores here making purchases and spending as much money as last season, but many stores are traveling with fewer buyers and spending less time on the road in an effort to hold down expenses.

And designers have curbed extravagances with their clothes, making designs that are less exaggerated, simpler and slimmer.

"I am not designing fashion, I am designing clothes," Giorgio Armani told buyers all week.

Buyers, who finished placing their orders last weekend before going off to London and Paris, found little that was controversial but also little that was new in most of the collections.

Hemlines usually hovered about the knee, as much just above it as below, but that hardly surprised anyone. If they hadn't seen it at home, there were endless examples here of young women wearing skirts cropped above the knee on the chic boutique-lined streets like the Via Della Spiga and the Via Montenapoleone.

The trend toward narrower, more body-conscious clothing is also no great surprise. Mariuccia Mandelli, who has done round-shouldered jackets with wide armholes and fairly slim skirts for Krizia, says: "I simply felt clothes had to become less bulky. It gives more importance to the body."

Rosita Missoni, whose knitted sweaters and dresses are leaner in silhouette than they have been in a while, doesn't think the shift is any more serious than a need for a change, the basic formula in getting people to buy new clothes. About her long sweaters and chemises, in bright color blocks or a print that looks like a flower magnified a thousand times, she says, "It is time for clothes to be neater, simpler and more essential. It is not any more logical than the fact that women need a change."

Although it pains the Fendi sisters to admit that Karl Lagerfeld designs their collection -- "I smell the aura of Karl Lagerfeld, but he does not design the collection," says Carla Fendi -- there is no question that he does. His designs are closing in tight on the body. Skirts have high-rise waistlines that hug the figure like wide belts. And jackets that are often short and shaped like Spencer jackets with wide armholes are worn with blouses cut like a man's vest or waistcoat. "Women want to look sensible, maybe like bankers," said Carla Fendi, as she held up a pin-striped wool suit with a very bare vest underneath. "But they also want to look sexy."

Even the trousers being shown are cut a bit narrower and often are hemmed above the ankle. "It is elegant to show off some ankle," says Laura Biagiotti, who, like others, is showing above-ankle pants with high-heeled or medium-heeled pumps, but not flats.

As designers have pared away the excesses of the past couple of seasons, they seem to be concentrating more and more on that near-endangered species, the dress. After years of creating separate tops and bottoms, most designers have begun to sell a number of simple, easy dresses once again. Aldo Pinto, husband of Krizia's Mandelli, says that the white, box-pleated linen dresses or silk dresses in stripes are among his company's best sellers. "Some of the blouses have gotten so expensive it is often more practical and cheaper to buy a dress for a little more than the cost of a blouse than to buy a separate blouse and skirt," he explains.

Clothing prices for next spring, which have been held steady by the increasing strength of the American dollar against the lire, are not always the major concern of American stores. At Krizia, Mandelli has added the crocodile motif to her menagerie of novelty sweaters this year. Each sweater sells for $1,200 to $1,800, and the stores have snapped up almost all the company can produce.