By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The newest in technology is driving the latest in fashion this week in New York, where hundreds of designers are unveiling their looks for spring.
From cutting-edge fabrics to wearable smart clothing, technology will be grabbing the spotlight at the semi-annual event that kicked off on Thursday and draws thousands of buyers, media and fans to see the newest styles.
"Technology is what's moving fashion forward," said Ken Downing, fashion director and senior vice president at Dallas-based retailer Neiman Marcus.
This week in New York, Downing said he expects to see romanticized gypsy looks that hearken to the 1970s but are modernized with high-tech patterns or fabrics.
"It's styled with real sensibility of looking forward," Downing said. "It's gypsy with a modern lens."
Silhouettes will be casual and relaxed but made of fabric that has inherent, subtle structure, thanks to technological advances, said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at The Doneger Group, which researches and analyzes fashion industry trends.
"It's a coating. It's a finish," she said. "That's pushing the business forward."
Soft silhouettes were in full force at Nicholas K, the first show held on Thursday at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week tents at Lincoln Center, where many of the week's events are staged.
Evoking a desert journey through North Africa, the New York-based brother-and-sister design team showed draped necklines, loose trousers rolled up to below the knee and shawls worn tied at the waist, looped across the shoulders or twisted hijab style around the head.
Morrison noted that the newest fabrics are making garments, even shoes, stretchy, softer and more comfortable.
"Everything is easy to wear," she said. "Everything moves with the body."
The influence of high-tech fabrics on fashion is huge but to the untrained eye can go unnoticed, said Clare Varga, head of youth, denim, kidswear and active at WGSN, which predicts trends and style for the fashion and retail industries.
"That's the key point here: Performance fabrics are now indistinguishable from non-performance fabrics," she said. "They are both high-performing and aesthetically beautiful."
For example, she said, ripstop fabrics were popular in sport attire for being lightweight, rugged and breathable but have proven to be gracefully diaphanous in fashion.
Laser cutting was developed to ventilate sport garments, but designers use the technique to create lacy decorative effects in silk and leather, she said.
Even higher tech is Intel's introduction this week of a smart bracelet, with messaging and other functions, to be sold at high-end department store Barneys New York.
Ralph Lauren just launched its Polo Tech shirt, which transmits biometric data to a smart phone or tablet, while designer Tory Burch launched Fitbit jewelry this summer that tracks steps, calories and sleep cycles.
Apple is expected to introduce a smart watch - dubbed the iWatch - soon as well.
Wearable technology is attracting attention but has a ways to go, said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research who covers wearable technology.
Unlike the world of fashion, where being new can often be enough, wearable technology reflects the realm of consumer electronics where buyers can take more convincing, he said.
"In order for wearable technology to enter the fashion space, it's going to require a good bit of cultural engineering," he said.
"People have been wearing traditional clothing for thousands of years. To then introduce these new kinds of technologies into the equation, there have to be some compelling reasons," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Doina Chiacu)