This year's big question mark from the European fashion designers . . . knee pants for fall? Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion intellectual, did them; Valentino, the romantic, did them; the avant-garde and aggressive Claude Montana did them, and so did Milan's elegant Giorgio Armani.

Although they were only one of the ways the designers presented pants, the fact that knee pants were injected by such a range of influential designers makes them worth taking seriously.

"Why not?" asked Armani before his presentation in Milan last month. "The women around me always wear pants. They say they are far more comfortable than skirts." Armani's collection had hardly any skirts and lots of pants, the short ones following the shape of many of the longer styles -- wide at the top with some of the fullness caught in the narrower cuffed bottom.

Another Armani variation changes coming or going: short pants in front with a skirt panel in the back. But he hedges: There are skirts to substitute for the pants used with all the suits.

Almost as many varieties of pants as skirts appeared in this season's collections: pants of every length of the traditional trouser to Bermuda shorts, and many shapes from straight to full-blown. About the only thing missing was last year's skinny-style pants.

Claude Montana's best short-length pants were knickers in loden green leather, covered with a huge sweep of a cape. Valentino liked Bermuda shorts in tweed or velvet but also turned skirts into ruffled culottes. Karl Lagerfeld featured knee pants in a variation on the tuxedo.

And Yves Saint Laurent, who each season trots out a couple of pairs of knickers and zouaves (a full-blown variety), reiterated that fashion message for fall.

Each year a few American designers bring out Bermuda shorts which usually end up on markdown racks, but this season European designers, like Gianni Versace of Milan, showed Bermuda shorts as a way to dress up for work or evening.If even one or two Washington women wear them to the Department of Commerce or the SEC, it may be a clue to the acceptance of knee pants next fall.

And other ideas tossed out from Europe are bound to land here eventually. Among them:

Easier shaping of clothes in tunics, dropped waistlines, tent shapes and blousons.

Ethnic influences from the Tryol, in Peruvian prints and East European-inspired embroideries, ruffles and tiers.

Avalanches of winter white, plus black, brown and loden green.

Velvet as the key new fabric, and a revival of flat surfaces like gabardine and loden.

Ruffled, bowed, laced and muffled and capelet collars, big shawls, opaque hose and flat or low-heeled shoes.

If you want to put your money on just one item for fall, you might bet on a hand-knit sweater, a velvet skirt -- or maybe even a pair of knee pants.