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MILAN (Reuters Life!) - As the global economy climbs out of the worst recession in decades, 2010 is for Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli, "the first year of a new world."
"We have returned to designing, investing in creativity which is always difficult (in such a climate)," the founder of the colorful cashmere brand that bears his name said.
"In all sectors, we do not have inventories, so we need to rebuild them."
Cucinelli is not alone in talking about a recovery. After having seen sales hurt by the global downturn last year, many executives and designers at Milan's menswear shows said they were looking ahead with guarded optimism.
"We are seeing positive signals. The (sales) haemorrhage seen at the end of 2008 and in the first half of 2009 has stopped," Gianluca Brozzetti, chief executive of fashion house Roberto Cavalli, told Reuters.
"In certain geographical areas, there is a recovery but we are cautious looking ahead ... (Compared to the first half of 2009), I confirm there is some improvement. We hope it stays in 2010."
Bain has forecast luxury goods sales to fall 8 percent to 153 billion euros ($220.2 billion) in 2009 and a tepid recovery is seen in global luxury sales this year, experts have said.
During the Christmas and early January discount sales period, Milan -- known worldwide for top fashion names such as Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Versace -- saw Italians and tourists flock to its stores.
"Let's say that it can only get better after coming from a not very enthusiastic 2009," Mario Boselli, head of Italy's National Chamber of Fashion, said.
"The recovery has started but it is still slow."
Observers say orders for spring/summer have been mixed --at times still weak, and therefore a stronger sales pickup is seen in the second half of the year.
Michele Norsa, chief executive of Florence-based maison Salvatore Ferragamo, said he expected "a small growth" this year, led by Asia, and in particular by Chinese hunger for designer goods.
"It would be a mistake to think that we will return to how it used to be," he told Reuters. "People are buying in a more attentive way, but the outlook is for small growth."
He said the first deliveries of the spring/summer goods had "gone a lot better than last year." "At the retail level, the first days of January were all positive days," he said.
Sistema Moda Italia (SMI), the association which represents the clothing and textiles industry, says Italy's fashion sector will emerge from the crisis before others.
"It depends on the market," Gildo Zegna, CEO of menswear brand Ermenegildo Zegna, told Reuters, when asked about this.
He also forecast a return to growth for this year. "We should expect another year of highs and lows so 2010 should be approached with fastened seatbelts," he said.
Buyers said fashion needed to focus on value for money. "Customers don't want excess, they build their wardrobes very carefully," one fashion buyer, who declined to be named, said.
With the cautious buyer in mind, designers looked mainly for practicality in their autumn/winter 2010/2011 lines at fashion week, with casual chic, rather than sharp suits, the key trend.
"I hope that this crisis and what is going on ... will be over and that we will return to something happier," Belgian menswear designer Dirk Bikkembergs said.
Editing by Paul Casciato