There's nothing like a few fashion mishaps to get designers revved up with new ideas for the season ahead.
Just as store buyers were completing their orders for spring, government figures confirmed last week what most of them already knew -- that last season was a virtual fashion fizzle.
Overall purchases were down, confirming that many women have rejected the oversized, dark-toned, man-tailored clothes heavily promoted in most stores this fall. Many women found the clothes too similar to what they already owned to be worthy of the high price tags.
"We were androgynous at every price, and not everyone wanted to look alike," says Eileen Abado Mason, vice president of Woodward & Lothrop. "So people accepted a few pieces and then did their own thing."
Few felt much like buying winter coats while the weather was mild through October. Other potential customers have trained themselves to wait for the first -- or second -- markdown, which usually comes just about the time they need to start wearing the clothes.
And even serious fashion shoppers were put off by the mixed messages sent from the couture shows in Europe. "I watched the pictures coming in from the collections in Paris in July and could see that the silhouette was changing," says Irena Kirkland, wife of AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. Because the look was so different from that being promoted by stores here, she decided to postpone almost all of her fall purchases.
As a result, designers have scrambled to find fresh looks to stimulate sales next spring. For some the new offerings are a mere change in proportion from the simply cut, tailored styles now on the markdown racks, handsomely reworked for spring as long jackets paired with short narrow skirts, or short jackets or boleros with slim skirts or pants.
But overall, next spring's clothes move away from the menswear look to a style that is far more body-conscious, revealing the figure through fit and fabric. Store buyers are counting on the reemergence of the female form to revive interest.
"We got out of a menswear look into something quite the opposite . . . clothes that are very body revealing, and often anchored at the waist. Even when they're oversized, there is something about them that is short, sexy and sassy," says Nancy Chistolini, vice president of Hecht's. "I'm short and sassy, so that's a good start toward the new look," she adds with a laugh.
"There is nothing coming in that doesn't show off the figure in some manner or form," says Trude See, the couture buyer at Garfinckel's. "All the waists are nipped in. The figure is there. They show off bust, waist, fanny -- the whole nine yards."
Feminine clothes have been around many times before, but certain recurring themes set the designer collections for next spring apart. Among the changes:
*Some new prints are derived from primitive art. "It's the height of sophistication," says designer Gloria Sachs, "because it is a pattern, but an undefined pattern." Also increasingly popular are huge florals, and the unexpected mixing of very different prints.
*Colors brighten the dull palette of past seasons. Bold pastels are favored, while neon colors are used most successfully as accents or splashed in prints. And navy-and-white is the successor to last season's popular black-and-white.
*Big shirts show up everywhere, as dresses or tunics or overscale tops worn with pants or skirts. Some designers give them a body-revealing look by knotting them tight or shaping them in lightweight or sheer fabrics.
*Short hems -- mostly to the knee -- show up as an alternative to the below-the-calf lengths. Zoran and other designers think women will want to wear long shorts as a way to be more dignified in a leg-baring length.
*Sheer fabrics are another a new way of showing off the body, even when the clothes themselves are cut very large. Calvin Klein, for example, used transparent organza for shirts and blouses that reveal the figure, while Geoffrey Beene used an almost transparent, lightweight matte jersey.
*Sarong skirts drape the body for a sexier look. Though many designers confine their draping to evening styles -- and none better than Oscar de la Renta -- Donna Karan and Louis Dell'Olio of Anne Klein, Ralph Lauren and others pair sarong skirts with tailored jackets for daytime wear.
Many of these themes, popular with designers in Paris, Milan and London, showed up on the runways in New York. But in Europe the clothes were always shown in far more exaggerated form, so that those sitting in the back of huge audiences of 3,000 to 4,000 would get the message as clearly as those in the front row.
"When you got into the showroom after seeing these feminine clothes on the runway in Europe, they never were as tight or as short as they seemed, or the designers said that they expected to lengthen and loosen them," says Harriet Kassman, owner of the shop of the same name. "No one wants to look like a sausage," she adds, referring to the tightly draped, very short clothes presented by some designers.
Buyers are counting on their customers responding far more favorably to the new styles than they did to the clothes offered for fall. "Perhaps we need to educate them that it ain't bad to look like a dame," says See of Garfinckel's. "There are a lot of young women who grew up in clothes that never showed off their figures before. I think they're going to like it."
In fact, she's putting her money on it.