MILAN, Italy -- Designers kicked off Milan fashion week on Wednesday with bold collections to persuade Italian shoppers that the worst of the economic crisis is over and it is time to hit the stores again.
"I have great hopes for this country after the political and economic debacle of the last months," cashmere goods maker Brunello Cucinelli told Reuters at his showroom.
The colorful crowd of fashion critics and bloggers descending on Milan will mix this year with Italian voters heading to the ballot box on February 24-25 to choose a new government and decide the country's future economic path.
Italy came close to a major debt crisis in November 2011 before Silvio Berlusconi stood down as prime minister and was replaced by technocrat Mario Monti.
"There is a need to clean up politics and give small businesses the incentives to hire people," Maurizio Modica, co-designer at Italy's brand Frankie Morello, told Reuters.
Sales of Italian fashion goods are forecast to drop 3.5 percent to around 58 billion euros ($77 billion) this year, after falling 5.4 percent in 2012, according to preliminary data by textile and fashion body Sistema Moda Italia (SMI).
Gucci, the first big name brand to show, proposed a fetish aesthetic for its sensual collection, with sculpted dresses in materials such as python skin. Creative head Frida Giannini, who is expecting her first baby in a couple of weeks, was inspired by the idea of a "femme fatale" for her show, which also featured evening gowns with colorful feathers stitched on black lace. For the morning, Giannini showed sporty jackets embroidered with three-dimensional leaves.
Fashion house Frankie Morello presented a "dark lady" for its youthful collection, which featured black blouses covered with mirror shards and stiff fabrics in geometric patterns.
"I am confident that this edition of the Milan womenswear week will confirm the positive signs of recovery that we saw in January during the menswear shows," Mario Boselli, chairman of Italy's fashion national chamber, said in a statement.
He said he expected orders for the autumn-winter collections would improve as the recession eases in 2013.
Foreign markets will make up the mainstay of the revenue, with exports expected to reach record levels in terms of value, surpassing the previous record in 2000. Non-EU countries such as China will outpace EU members for the first time, SMI said.
"These forecasts are based on a scenario that there will be no fiscal shocks in 2013 and the government to be named after the election will couple fiscal austerity with measures to boost spending in the second half of the year," SMI said.
The fashion week, which ends on Tuesday, will also include shows from Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli.
(Editing by Alison Williams)