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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. recession has changed how people shop for fashion, with an eye for special pieces rather than trusty wardrobe basics, and top retail buyers say this trend is likely to last beyond an economic recovery.
As Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week begins in New York on Thursday, fashion directors from such high-end stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus say they will be on the lookout for eye-catching collections to wow customers.
After a dismal 2009, retail sales have improved every month for the past year, but consumer confidence has been slow to recover and is only half as strong as at the start of 2008. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity and is considered critical to the recovery.
"We have seen a change in the way that customers shop as a result of the economic climate that we have been in, and I see that trend continuing," said Colleen Sherin, fashion market director for Saks.
"Women are not necessarily looking for basics ... they're looking for wow pieces, something that inspires more of an emotional reaction," she said. "They are looking for value. They're looking for quality at a price."
Even classic, basic pieces such as a white shirt are being reinterpreted to appeal to customers, with perhaps a dramatic new collar or interesting cuff details, Sherin said.
More than 90 designers will show at New York Fashion Week's new headquarters on Manhattan's Upper West Side, up about 50 percent from the last two seasons in February and September. Countless more show in other venues around the city. The New York shows are followed by shows in London, Milan and Paris.
The semi-annual event generates more than $770 million a year in economic activity in New York, where fashion is the second-largest industry behind finance. New York is home to more than 800 fashion companies, employing 175,000 people, generating $10 billion in wages and $1.5 billion tax revenue.
Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said while the outlook for the U.S. economy appeared to be improving, customers were still selective when buying fashion.
"She's being very thoughtful when she's purchasing," he said of shoppers. "Even at the most challenging moments in the economy, she was interested in trend.
"She's not interested in basics ... she wants fashion," he said. "The customer continues to respond to what is new and what she does not have in her wardrobe."
While designers are showing collections for next year's spring and summer that won't be available in stores for months, the industry wants to lure shoppers to spend now with a second annual "Fashion's Night Out" on Friday.
The retail initiative launched by U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour aims to get people shopping. Designers and department stores will to lure customers by holding in-store parties with celebrity guests and musical performances.
"The idea of 'Fashion's Night Out,' is really to create excitement in the shops," said designer Diane von Furstenberg, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "We just want people to shop."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference opening Fashion Week on Wednesday that people always need clothes and that diversity in fashion means there was "an opportunity to be well-dressed no matter what your economic situation."
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Vicki Allen