It is hard to resist a soft touch. The hard edges are gone from the clothes. So are the rigid masculine fabrics. Fashion for the season ahead has put on a soft touch that changes the shape of clothes as well as the way they feel on the body.

It starts with shapes that are sensual, sometimes clingy. If spare, they are softened with supple fabrics to take away their stiffness or even with ruffles and capes. The colors, like the shapes, are soft and flattering in pink and mauve tones, a softening of the past's popular strong purples. The soft grays, whites and blacks, special for evening, dominate the color palette.

Pretty and flattering counts a lot. But it is not all. The additional bonus is that these clothes feel good on the wearer's skin. The mohairs and cashmeres, silks and furs, velvets and satins are as pleasurable to those who wear them as to those who see them, not only because of the becoming way they look, but because of their . . . soft touch. The Price of Chic

The bottom line on fashion is no longer the hemline but the price. The question used to be: What's the new length, color or shoe?But now when the phone rings, it's as likely to be about dollars rather than design.

The first question is easier to answer than the second. The increased use of natural fibers has jockeyed the price tags of virtually everything into a much higher bracket for fall. And increases in petroleum-based synthetics are reflected in clothing costs as much as they are in gasoline.

While it may appear that designers and manufacturers have let prices sail out of control without concern, the reality is hardly that. They have only to look at their bottom line (the business accounting -- not their hemlines) to know that retailers are reflecting customer cost concerns.

Two designers, Mary McFadden and Bill Blass, have countered by opening collections with similar looks but lower prices. By opening new divisions they could take advantage of lower labor structures. Others like Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt have shifted their manufacturing largely to the Far East, where labor is cheaper.

The deisigners are even offering ideas to make sure money is better spent. They urge spending more money on fewer items to get long-lasting quality.

Start with shopping your own closet to know precisely what you have to work with before adding new styles. Some clothes pushed to the back of closets or put in boxes years ago many be ripe for reveval. With hems both long and short, pants more traditional in shape, they mix well with the new classics, including blazers kilts, shetland sweaters, sweater sets, oxford shirts -- all part of the mix for fall.

Additionally, buy fewer, seasonless things that go further, consider altering those styles that adjust easily (shortening a blazer is still cheaper than buying a new one), and scout accessories (even in your own closet) that update styles, particularly scarves and shawls and low-, even flat-heel shoes.

Since designers naturally favor buying the things they make best, many of the ideas are worth noting:

Joan Raines, who is now running the show for her mother, Adele Simpson, suggests starting by emptying the closet of all the things you don't wear. If you haven't worn it for six months, chances are it is only in the way. So pack it up or give it away.

Pearl Nipon suggests sticking to familiar quality things:

"Buy fewer things, but buy better. Avoid trendy, offbeat clothes and stick to timeless lines in natural fabrics that provide longevity." c

Kasper suggests women buy more carefully, such as seasonless dresses that can be worn fall and spring, and to be more adventuresome mixing up the clothes they own.

Says Betty Hanson: "The first fall purchase should be one that ties together what a woman owns. The fun and one-of-a-kind items should be purchased thoughtfully to stand alone or to spark up already-existing pieces."

Says Bill Blass: "The short evening dress in rich fabric is a good investment. A woman can wear this design at many evening festivities and always look great."

Mollie Parnis thinks, "A beautiful and ultra-feminine blouse is an absolute 'must' to update any wardrobe."

Alfred Fiandaca, pet designer of Joan Kennedy, offers this advice: "Make a complete costume out of your cloth coat by buying a skirt and shirt to match it. The feeling of being pulled-together in everything you wear will be most important next winter." Washington's Savvy Shoppers' List

They see it first and they buy it first -- this city's store fashion pros who have been checking out the fall clothes since last April when they were first introduced, and even before.

Here's what some of Washington's savviest shoppers are buying for fall:

Barbara Feder (I. Magnin): "The first thing I will go for is a gorgeous soft ruffled shirt. It's one great item that you can add to soften that whole look."

Jane Jeffers (Hahn's Shoes): "I bought two pairs of the new fall shoes as soon as they came into the store -- a pump with contrasting gray trim and an amber kiltie. Both have lower heels that seem to move me around quicker."

Nancy Chistolini (Woodward & Lothorp): "On the top of my list is a white hand-knit wool sweater coat to wear with gray flannel pants and sweater. Also a Rolex watch, But I keep talking myself out of it."

Nancy Latzo (Sweet Charlotte): "I am definitely buying a black Tahari suit; it's the nicest suit for the money."

April Stern Riccio (Saks Fifth Avenue): "I already bought a Perry Ellis divided skirt and his mohair sweater. What I really want is a Yves Saint Laurant gray flannel jacket and black velvet skirt. The worst part of it is that it's right outside my office, and everyday I have to pass it."

Claire Dratch (owner of Claire Dratch): "I've already ordered a Geoffrey Beene red wool gauze dress and a short black mohair jacket with red piping. I plan to wear it everywhere, but I had better lose 10 pounds before I do."

Marialena Hasbrook-Winner (Bloomingdale's): "I love the Perry Ellis Sweater with the cape shoulder and a longer, fuller skirt. I've already bought the Perry Ellis wide-leg pants and a Ralph Lauren charmeuse blouse with lace jabot."

Ruth Lewis (Elizabet Arden): "I was just working with my paperhanger and decided that the plaid wallpaper I've just picked out is exactly what I want for daytime -- plaids. I love wonderfully pleated plaid skirts with ruffles blouses and have already bought one by Renee Wells."

Molly Ginish (Raleighs): "I plan to add to my Evan Picone collection this fall, maybe a mauve-colored velvet blazer to wear with the white wool skirt I bought last year."

Elaine Eull (Ann Taylor): "I've already grabbed up a mid-calf Perry Ellis coulotte in a gray with a matching jacket and have been eyeing a hand-knit purple-y pullover sweater. Those ankle-length coulottes with a full leg are a bit softer and more feminine than your traditional pant."

Mary Ann Lundgren (Neiman-Marcus): "I want a purple suit and have on hold an Anne Klein black skirt with dropped pleats. And I'm not worrying about hemlines."

Lynn Ovelman (Garfinckel's): "I've already bought a black Hapsburg-like jacket by Kasper. I've dreamed up this outfit that I'm knitting -- a sweater that's black and purple to wear with a purple silk shirt and a black pleated skirt. I knit while my husband drives in from Alexandria."

Bernie Lawrence (Hecht's): "I just saw the sweater I want . . . it's blush pink with a boat neck and it looks like a sweater that my grandmother might have knit for me. I also want a purplish western belt."

Rosemary Reed Miller (Toast and Strawberries): "I'm more of a dress person because I find suits too confining with all the stretching I have to do. There's one in a soft black-and-white print that's full-shouldered but without pads so it looks soft and has pleats."

Elizabeth MacKeigan (Lord & Taylor): "The first thing that comes to mind is a kilt with a lacy blouse and velvet cummerbund."

Molly Haines (fashion coordinator, Goodwill): "I'm looking for plum shades, great cloche hats and small silk purse to use during the day, plus a racoon coat, which people sometimes donate."

Wendy Ezrailson (commander Salmander): "A long sweater to cover it all."