By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Grunge and punk are poised for comebacks for fall and winter, say top U.S. department store buyers at New York's Fashion Week, which starts on Thursday, but don't rip up your flannel shirt just yet as the revival will be taking on a more feminine flair.
The return of grunge and punk for autumn 2013 are part of a rock 'n' roll theme experts expect to see in collections by the more than 90 designers showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.
Hundreds more labels will parade collections elsewhere in the city during the semi-annual event, which draws more than 200,000 attendees to New York, from buyers to editors to models.
"There are early indications that people are having a love affair again with the idea of grunge," said Ken Downing, fashion director of luxury department store Neiman Marcus.
The disheveled thrift shop style was embodied in the 1990s by the late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love. Its dark, irreverent looks had their roots in punk styles of the late 1970s.
"When I say grunge, people always kind of grimace, but it's not an absolute interpretation from the past," Downing said. "There's a real girliness to it."
In pre-fall collections shown recently to department store buyers - collections that can set the tone for fall and winter fashion - grunge emerged in looks giving prim schoolgirl clothes some tomboy attitude with menswear-inspired shoes and motorcycle jackets, Downing said.
Newly revived punk looks could get a boost from an exhibit at The Costume Institute entitled "PUNK: Chaos to Couture," which opens at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in May.
"The modern take on punk and grunge will be doing it in a way that will feel more beautiful and feminine as opposed to really tough and harsh, because at the end of the day people still want to wear beautiful clothes," said Tomoko Ogura, senior fashion director at upscale department store Barneys New York.
Buyers pointed to collections by U.S. designer Phillip Lim, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten and French label Saint Laurent as leading the resurgence of punk, grunge and rock 'n' roll-inspired styles.
"When it's a little sexier and a little more tailored, that's going to work better for our customer who might not want to look as grungy," said Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.
"There's a way to do rock 'n' roll where it still has a sexy polish to it, and that's what we will be looking for," she said.
Although New York Fashion Week comes around just twice a year, the fashion industry plays a significant role year round in the city's and nation's economy, statistics show.
Consumer spending -- which includes splashing out on designer clothing -- makes up about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity. The U.S. luxury goods market is the largest in the world, ahead of Japan and China, although China is growing at a faster rate and is expected to become the top market.
After New York's Fashion Week, which ends next Thursday, similar events take place in London, Paris and Milan.
In New York City, where more than 900 fashion companies are headquartered, the fashion industry employs some 173,000 people and generates nearly $2 billion in annual tax revenue, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp.
After several years of dresses playing a prominent role in designers' collections, buyers said they are seeing a move toward separates - jackets, pants, skirts and tops - with a relaxed feel.
"It's not like a sloppy and slouchy sweatpant and sweatshirt, although that might provide the inspiration. ... We're seeing these relaxed, oversized shapes but with a more luxurious spin," Sherin said.
RED NEW 'POP COLOR'
Downing and Ogura said customers liked the casual, wearable spirit that emerged in the spring and summer 2013 collections that are about to be available in stores.
"The more that fashion and function can come together, and there can still in those pieces be a strong sense of creativity and integrity of design, that's when we know the customers really are going to react to those pieces," Ogura said.
When it comes to colors for the coming fall and winter, fashion experts envision an earthy palette of browns and camels, along with orange, purple, plum and magenta.
Downing predicted red will be the new "pop color," with no small credit due to first lady Michelle Obama wearing a red Jason Wu gown at the inaugural balls last month in Washington.
"Red is going to be very important on many of the runways," Ogura said. "Women are very emotionally drawn to red, and it's always very popular."
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Leslie Adler)