One of the problems for fabric buyers today is the changes that are affecting seasonal buying patterns. In Italy, some parts of the trade have even gone as far as announcing the death of fashion seasons as we know them.
The effect on the fabric producers has been huge. Many have found that their ability to plan is adversely affected, given that they must deal with currency fluctuations and also keep high-cost mills in production. The situation is exacerbated by the UK high street where merchandise is drip-fed judiciously onto the shopfloor to maximise sales.
Many retailers, including Marks & Spencer's womenswear team, said they would not be starting work on the autumn 08 season until after the major Milan and Paris fabric shows had taken place, illustrating the importance of trend reactivity in all markets. However, despite the fact that some trends on show at the major European exhibitions will have been spotted and adapted by the fast-fashion sector to cater for its quick turnaround, forward buying remains the order of the day for the bulk of the trade.
For them, they buying season is still a disciplined, longer-term affair, with colours, fibres, blends and finishes paced over a longer timescale. Buyers must choose the best time to order yarn in a volatile market and decide on dyeing to order or for stock, sampling and producing.
Overall, autumn 08's superior blends and finishes are marking a move to quality fabrics for coats, jackets and skirts. Similarly, quality mills are starting to distance themselves from lower-cost producers by offering advanced techniques such as felting, quilting, blurred effects, ruching, brushing, tufting, embossing and twisting. Finishes include frosting, varnishing, oxidising and cross-dyeing.
The main driver behind blends is to achieve warmth without weight, a major feature of the new season. Chunky knits are interpreted in extra-fine merino, acrylics or cashmere, often mixed with linen or cotton, but are featherweight and extremely soft, giving a totally new effect and a more practical garment.
In the knitwear area, very fine, soft yarns have been developed with an almost gauze-like effect in Pima cottons, cashmere, merino and fine linens. Many extra-fine fabrics are destined for new concepts of layering and easy-care, soft draping garments. Blends can include two or three natural or synthetic fibres; linen and cotton, linen and wool and nylon, cotton viscose, cotton jersey with cashmere and angora, silk with linen; many of them traditionally difficult techniques.
Silk jersey is blended with Egyptian cotton and new blends also produce rich effects: viscose for shine, blended with cotton or wool; and linen, nylon or metallic yarns to add the subtle glitter that marks the last remnants of the 'bling' trend. Japanese knitter Hasegawa will present metallic laminates including pure gold at trade show Premiere Vision. New shine includes subtle silver hints in a dark grey knit, or minuscule sequins sewn into jacketing yarns.
Lanificio Montecarlo of Italy uses sparkling yarns for a range of shirt weights, though the overriding feel for autumn 08 is gleam rather than sparkle. A representative from fashion giant Next explains that the retailer is looking for "shine in more subtle forms in all the metal tones, especially bronzes and old golds".
Fancier fabrics include woven and dyed supple fake furs, and quilted and embroidered effects. Pleated organzas and silks, jacquards and adornments on the fabric, such as ribbons, beads and jewels, pompons and braids, give a new, opulent look. Prints include florals, sometimes mixed with geometrics, with a contrast between micro and large designs. Large-scale geometrics are used for jersey, with spots and asymmetric intarsia patterns.
The overall palette remains sombre, but there are also many brights. Dark shades are still popular for both men and women, but are punctuated by bolts of colour, as well as boucle and lustrous threads. Colours favour grey, from cloudy blue-grey to anthracite and black, with shots of red, orange, pink, purple and marine.
The Woolmark Company and other forecasting outfits have already produced colour predictions for spring 2009, summed up by four areas of "contradictory palettes and tasteful juxtapositions, including metallics and stylised brights", so colour remains a question of transition from season to season. Menswear fabrics are light and airy, in extra-fine yarns and natural fibres such as linen and cotton blended with wool and cashmere, silk or viscose. The weights of jacketing fabrics are crucial - they must be light without being difficult to manage during manufacturing, so some yarns have been developed with the core removed. These give a light, airy but still substantial fabric.
Unlined woollens in refined country designs are key: recoloured Prince of Wales checks, Donegals or Argyles are given a different look when woven in soft merino wool and silk, woollen yarns with linen or viscose or even yarns with a slight sparkle. Hand knits for men and women in Arrans and traditional cables are chunky yet extremely soft, while micro designs and small Glen checks give an understated look. The look is now more formal and less country, in Worsted or woollen flannel, yet "with a robust English look" as described by Yorkshire mill Edwin Woodhouse.
Summer's unlined jackets and suits, typified by Ermenegildo Zegna, are still popular, with layered lightweight chunky knits and cashmere overcoats. For the same international market, high-performance fabrics that adapt to weather conditions - such as fabrics from Outlast, Gore-Tex or Swiss company Scholler - are used for lightweight padded jackets and city wear. Scholler's C-change membrane has also been incorporated into gold metallic fashion fabrics.
For formalwear, designers are going back to the archives, finding heritage stitches, complex designs and what one designer calls "retrospective authenticity". He says some consumers can be readily wooed by a "back story". The fact that a certain wool comes from a particular breed of sheep, that viscose is obtained from sustainable forests or that linen prides itself on being the most environmentally-friendly fibre is echoed by the growth of organic cotton, which has already found its way on to the high street.
Many producers are now offering more ethical and environmentally-friendly fabrics. Trend forecasters are predicting a move away from disposable fashion, so the throwaway nature of some cheap clothing is being questioned.
What is clear is that the high street is calling for better-quality fabrics, starting with noble fibres and technical blends and finishes. Quality fabrics with fine yarns, technical dyes and elaborate finishes take longer to produce and, as a result, prove more difficult for high street copycats to reproduce.