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fall fashion // too hot

The fashion forecast calls for nubby sweaters, fur-trimmed suede jackets and textured wool tights.

But in case Seventh Avenue hasn't noticed, we're still sweltering away in Florida. Our true sweater weather is months away, and there might be a week's worth of occasions for which a double cashmere maxi coat would come in handy. Or a maxi skirt for that matter.

What's a style-conscious Floridian to do besides sweat it out or appear hopelessly out of step?

There are ways to adapt Seventh Avenue sensibilities to a tropical climate. All it takes, retailers say, is some fabric savvy and creative selection.

Some styles are tailor-made for Florida's fall. Among them are cotton velour sleeveless dresses and blouses, sheer Lurex blouses and textured "burnout" fabrics. These appeal largely to a younger crowd, and they grace every wall and rounder at the hip Helios boutique on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue.

Owner Lori Johns said her customers are the 14- to 35-year-old crowd. The younger and more daring among them wear these gossamer blouses with a visible bra for club-hopping; others can wear them as a jacket over a white T-shirt.

Light, short-sleeved velour looks "are very, very important for fall," Johns said. "They add texture without the heavy weight."

Look around _ don't forget consignment stores _ and you'll find those have-to-have maxi skirts in cotton, rayon and nylon.

Short-sleeved turtlenecks in silk and cotton knits abound in area stores; they offer a heat-friendly alternative to the look of the moment.

Legwear makes a statement this season, but those Prada argyle tights are just too hot for most Florida days. The good news is that Hanes, Donna Karan and other manufacturers are making lighter-weight versions with striped prints and subtle textures. Fishnet stockings _ if you can stand the waffle imprint it will leave on your legs _ work well, too, especially with that British Bohemian look.

More good news about legs: Statement-making legwear is worn this fall with open-toed shoes (tall and strappy, please).

High-tech fabrics also are making it easier to achieve substantial looks in unforgiving weather. Largo-based Patchington, which designs and sells casual to career clothes in 58 Sunbelt stores, has used tropical-weight fabric for two decades.

It has developed a dozen easy-care polyesters that won't wrinkle. Unlike the double-knit nightmare of the '70s, the new generation of poly is breathable and lightweight, mimicking silks, chamois and linens in texture.

"Certain looks, textures and patterns are no longer limited" to natural fabrics, said Burt Waters, Patchington's president. "Today's fabric technology and weaving technology has changed all that. The new-age synthetics look and feel like fine natural fabrics and do it with much more convenience."

Suede looks can be achieved with brushed woven cotton, silk and synthetics.

When shopping for sweaters, consider adding cardigans and twin sets you can take off in the heat and throw on inside to get a textured look with comfort. Boucle and anything cashmere are popular choices.

Of course, there always are purists willing to sweat it out in wool and leather until spring. And those who feel substitutions are somehow cheating. As anyone who saved her original disco dresses knows, in fashion as in life, good things come to those who wait:

"The big look for spring," said Johns, "is terrycloth."

Cari Downs models a pony-fur polyester jacket ($90) and tough-skin cotton pants ($49) by Free People and a burnout rayon blouse by Awesome ($44)

Stephanie Rehmer sports a cotton suede-look jacket by Free People ($85), floral-print, boot-cut polyester pants ($42) and a long-sleeve cotton blouse by CoOperative ($18).

Stephanie switches gears with a geo-print polyester blouse by 26 Redsurgar ($43) and a nylon interlock maxi skirt ($36).

For those crisp fall days, Cari Downs models a cotton velvet jacket by Free People ($66), Lurex blouse by Wit and Wisdom ($28) and black cotton pants by Bulldog ($44).

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