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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Designers showed cozy layered looks in New York this week, wrapping thick scarves over chunky sweaters and rugged jackets in hopes that a trend of casual comfort will appeal to consumers coping with uncertain times.
Warm layers of hand-knit sweaters, roomy tweed coats and softly distressed leather jackets dominated the runways at New York Fashion Week, where scores of designers unveiled fall and winter 2010 collections.
"We're cocooning," said Judy Licht, who covers fashion for the Huffington Post. "When everything outside is fairly frightening in terms of the economy, in terms of where you're going to be working the next day, the first thing you reach for is something that makes you feel warm and enveloped and safe."
The woolly scarf could well be the one item consumers will find irresistible and buy for fall, said James Aguilar, spokesman for Prime Outlets stores that carry designer labels.
"People have to feel they can't live without something," he said. "That is what is going to drive the business."
Of course, in fashion, not just any old scarf will do.
"These are rich. They're interesting," Aguilar said. "What we're seeing with all this knitwear is an understanding of texture and proportion and silhouette and technique."
Designers mixed oversized wools with softened tweeds, matte raw silk and knotty boucle. Adam Lippes contrasted heavy scarves over strapless chiffon dresses, and Ralph Lauren paired floral dresses with masculine jackets and long sweater coats.
Yigal Azrouel showed blanket-like patchwork coats, and Calvin Klein put leather sleeves on crepe blouses and dresses. Wool jackets by Nicole Miller also sported distressed leather sleeves.
Mixing textures brings life to monochromatic outfits such as the ever-popular, all-black styles, said Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus.
"It becomes a textural play of matte and shine," he said.
Drawing heavily from tradition, designers used Fair Isle knits, Prince of Wales checks and royal tartan plaids.
Such cozy looks were last popular on the eve of the millennium, when concern over computer systems rolling into the year 2000 hit a frenzied tempo, Aguilar noted.
"That's what happens when times are uncertain," he said. "We want comfort, we want safety and security.
Designers in New York looked to classic styling, in herringbone tweed blazers by Ralph Lauren, trim riding jackets by Geren Ford, and the oxford-styled shoes and Wellie boots in the collection by Ports 1961.
Dresses and skirts tended to be wrapped, with fabric draped across the bodice by Narciso Rodriguez, tucked up at the side by Tony Cohen or at the hem at Luca Luca. Tracy Reese made wrapped dresses of soft suede, and fabric in Nicole Miller's dresses was intricately twisted, stretched and crisscrossed.
Diane von Furstenberg, who made her name with the wrap dress, mixed tweed and velvet and wove metal chains into long cable-knit sweaters. Michael Angel mixed mohair, lace, suede and wool in a look he called "the new eccentric," and Rodarte combined lace, plaids, fringe and crochet.
Pinstripes were popular, and tailoring tended to be masculine in loose trousers by Carolina Herrera and Thakoon, twill riding pants by von Furstenberg.
"It's not fussy, and it's not pretentious, which doesn't work right now," said luxury consultant Robert Burke. "It looks as if you've owned it and worn it before.
"There are no 'ladies who lunch' looks,'" he said.
Store buyers are seeking "classics with a twist" that will entice consumers to add new pieces to their wardrobes, said Colleen Sherin, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue.
"Women are not looking to replace wardrobe basics," she said. "They're looking for 'wow' pieces they don't own."
Leggings appeared in nearly every collection and stockings tended to be opaque, thick and woolly.
Military looks were strong. Tibi cited inspiration from Napoleon Bonaparte and wife Josephine in a collection of belted officer-style coats, pronounced shoulders and epaulets along with chiffon dresses and corsets.
Narciso Rodriguez's coats were loosely cut and asymmetrical. Mackage trimmed roomy coats with ribbed collars, cuffs and leather patches, cinched with wide leather belts.
The longevity of a style is what attracts consumers who are holding down spending in a difficult economy, according to research for Fashion Week by sponsor Mercedes-Benz.
Young affluent consumers want clothing that is "modern with classic design that can be used for years to come," according to the Mercedes-Benz survey. Four out of five said if given $5,000 to spend on clothing, they would buy one or two special items that stand the test of time rather than maximize quantity, it found.
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Cynthia Osterman