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AS THE FASHION WORLD CHURNS

For years, clothingmakers have been cranking out as much variety as possible. They have failed to find much of anything the clothes-buying public really loves, but they have succeeded in causing many cases of temporary paralysis. - You know how it goes: You want a good pair of stylish black pants. You go to, say, Dillard's at Tampa's International Plaza. You step onto the second floor, gaze at the racks of clothing packed together like rush-hour traffic on I-275 - bottoms, tops, sweaters, bathing suits, dresses, evening wear. And you freeze. - Why is one aisle dedicated to 54 styles of ivory dresses? Does anyone wear bubble skirts? Where are the pants with a rise that doesn't hit below sea level? Shouldn't there be a map for this layout? - It's fashion overload. You don't know what to do or where to go. After a few minutes, if that, you give up and leave, hoping it will be easier the next time. - And it isn't. - The average woman's fashion needs are few. We want basics, kept stylish and up-to-date; a few well-chosen trends; and a couple of splurges. And we want it all to fit well.

But we look at the amount of clothes, particularly bad clothes, constantly shoved into stores and think that we must be asking too much.

Not to get anyone's hopes up, but as the latest round of major fashion weeks kicked into high gear with Friday's start of New York's fall shows, some designers are finally making noise that we're not.

"What's happening in fashion is like inviting someone to dinner and stuffing them with double helpings. By the time dessert comes around, they can't look at food anymore," Stefano Gabbana told the Associated Press before the Dolce & Gabbana fall menswear show last month in Milan.

"Basta (enough) with overkill," Fendi creative director Silvia Venturini said after her show.

"Everybody is doing everything fast," said Tomas Maier, creative director at Bottega Veneta. "The consumer needs time to understand."

This is a change from the fashion industry's usual response to consumer grumbling: We have only ourselves to blame. Because we love to buy. We get bored easily. And once we got hooked on the fast turnover of styles at chains like Express and Target, everyone from top designers down were forced to crank out as much variety as possible to keep us interested and spending.

The latest twist to this cycle: Net-a-porter.com, which sells designer clothing and accessories, has cut a deal with the relaunching Halston line to begin selling two of its fall runway looks the day after Halston's Monday show in New York.

"Is it right? Is it wrong? I don't know," Hope Greenberg, fashion director of shopping magazine Lucky, said of the fast-fashion climate in general during a phone interview. "That's the reality."

No matter how loud we grumbled about it, the industry couldn't hear it anyway. We were drowned out for a long time by the beeps of cash registers recording healthy sales. But in the past two years or so, that beeping has quieted. And the blah economy isn't the only reason.

Teen and high-end sales have been fine, but women shopping that middle ground have started making their dissatisfaction about quantity and quality known by spending less. The Gap, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne, Chico's and Talbots are among the brands that have seen sales cool, and they and cohorts feeling the same pain have been struggling to find ways to get women excited about clothes again.

Having big-name designers support the "less is more" movement could be significant in clueing in their fashion colleagues. But in the end, it could be only noise.

Designers sometimes talk about how the fast-fashion pace can be brutal, but this sudden group rallying cry seemed to come out of nowhere. It's as if they had a meeting, decided they were tired of talking about too-skinny models and voted to divert attention to another issue - any issue.

"Everyone knows the business is sluggish," Lucky's Greenberg said. "Somehow they have to keep the excitement level up. It's hard for designers to do that. . . . (But) it's hard to imagine changing back to a time when the same clothes are in stores for four months or more."

If designers are putting any effort into producing fewer looks - most do 30- to 50-some each for fall and spring - we might see it now in New York, and in the ensuing weeks in London, Paris and Milan.

Even if that does happen, the reality may be that all of us have created a fashion monster that can never be tamed. All we can hope to do is control it with what we decide to buy, and not buy, when we're not too paralyzed to shop. And hope those decisions make the fashionmakers care enough to really listen.

Sharon Fink can be reached at fink@sptimes.com and (727) 893-8525.

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