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MILAN (Reuters) - Italian designers will do their best to grab the attention of free-spending Asian consumers and any remaining luxury shoppers in austerity-hit Europe when they send their autumn/winter 2012 collections down the catwalk for Milan Fashion Week.
Gucci will kick off Wednesday, with Giorgio Armani and Prada also among the 72 catwalk shows drawing thousands of buyers and the fashion press. All will be hoping 2012 will not be a repeat of the 2009 financial markets meltdown which hit the luxury industry hard.
Sales of Italian fashion are forecast to be down 5.2 percent in 2012 from 5.5 percent growth last year, according to the National Chamber of Italian Fashion.
The decline will be the first slowdown after two consecutive years of growth for the 60 billion euro ($79.59 billion) a year fashion industry.
"Our fear is to see again what happened between 2008 and 2009, when fashion sales dropped 15 percent," Italy's fashion chamber president Mario Boselli said this week.
"This time the crisis shouldn't be as bad, because brands have slimmed down their operations and expanded in emerging countries," he said.
Exports outside the European Union are expected to grow two percent this year, offsetting a decline in Europe which has been hit by a euro zone debt crisis that has forced governments across the European Union to slash their budgets, hitting government spending, employment and the consumer outlook.
Top luxury makers such as Salvatore Ferragamo and Prada, who have a global presence, expect to pass through the recession almost unscathed. Both listed in June last year.
But less well-known brands will bear the brunt of the slowdown, Boselli said.
"Many small firms are suffering from limited access to credit," he said.
At his showroom, niche Italian designer Alessandro Dell'Acqua said he was confident about his collection, less so about the economy.
"We need to be innovative, because people who buy fashion have their wardrobes full, so they want something different," said the designer, whose "N21" label has been worn by American actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Dell'Acqua's collections are sold in 180 multibrand stores worldwide, with daily dresses priced at 350-400 euros.
The organizers of the Milan fashion week have tried to balance the presence of top brands and emerging names in the calendar of more than 135 shows between catwalks and showrooms.
Gucci opens Wednesday, with Giorgio Armani effectively closing Monday, in a bid to keep buyers and media in Milan as long as possible. Newcomers will have their catwalks Tuesday, when the fashion marathon will be already moving to Paris.
($1 = 0.7539 euros)
Reporting by Antonella Ciancio, editing by Paul Casciato