NEW YORK -- It's fall in the mall.
Officially, summer has weeks left on the calendar, but retailers have begun the transition from lightweight and lighthearted vacation clothes to the more dressed-up, sophisticated styles that come with fall fashion.
The tricky part, they say, is that while it's good to infuse the excitement of a new season into stores, shoppers can be so enthusiastic about their new purchases they want to be able to wear them right away. That can be a problem when traditional fall looks -- think sweaters, long trousers and outerwear -- might not be suited to the dog days of August.
The solution? Lightweight layers in a deeper, more autumnal color palette.
"The consumer in general is forward looking but wants instant gratification," says Barclay Resler, vice president and head of visual management for Esprit.
You can do that with a pretty chiffon blouse, he suggests, or a short-sleeve knit dress, maybe with some buckle detail at the waist.
Lisa Axelson, head designer of Ann Taylor, has already worn her sleeveless trench -- with a silk blouse and cropped black pants -- but it'll go with flannel trousers and long gloves later. It is "the perfect wear-now-and-layer-later piece," she says.
Fabric choices are very important, says Banana Republic creative director Simon Kneen, a fan of tropical-weight wool. "It's designed for tropics. It's airy, and the weave is more open, but it will look refined. It has a hand touch that drier and cooler, but you can have it in a dress, trouser, skirt, jacket -- and those are the foundations of your fall closet."
Lightweight chambray denim serves the same purpose for more casual pieces.
Navy is a favorite transitional color for Resler because it plays crisp and clean against white pants, but more luxurious with high-waisted trousers in gray, camel or brown. A ruffled, navy-and-white dot blouse in stores now has it all, he says, a cheerful vibe to finish out the summer, but ladylike enough to carry through the rest of the year.
Warm shades of orange, amber and green are trends at Kohl's for fall, but they're not dark colors, either, so they fit into a variety of weather landscapes, says David Hacker, vice president of trend and color.
Kneen says Banana Republic -- and he imagines other retailers, too -- has learned to work in the mindset of many mini-fashion seasons filled with versatile pieces instead of sweeping in with major changes twice a year.
As a children's retailer, The Children's Place switched to its back-to-school merchandise in the middle of July to capitalize on the shopping-spree days before kids go back to class. However, says Michael Giannelli, senior vice president of design, all he needs to do is walk outside to be reminded that "fall is really a summer delivery."
A tiered, sequined skirt that pairs just as well with a tank top and flip-flops as it will with a sweater, tights and chukka boots a few months from now -- even into the holiday season -- is blowing out of stores, Giannelli says, but the No. 1 selling footwear item right now is a slouchy suede boot that really looks more like a fall item.
"Those emotional, fashion-y pieces will sell out, so people don't wait to buy it. They're willing to wait to wear it if the item is so special."
Still, he adds, he's seen quite a few girls around wearing those boots with their shorts.
Trendy items don't have to be limited to a single season, and it's those more lasting looks that are on the floor at JCPenney right now. "We're sticking with bright color," says director of women's trend Cynthia Washburn-Nester, ticking off skinny jeans in saturated shades of red, yellow and green, and sleeveless tops with feminine details as top choices.
A chunky fisherman-style or shaker-knit sweater will evolve that look into full-on fall, she says, and, really even now, a lighter, open-weave sweater isn't a bad idea living in this very air-conditioned world.
"People aren't necessarily looking at `fall' and `spring' wardrobes. It's about evolving things into the next season. You give something you've loved and worn a new life by wearing it with something new," Washburn-Nester says.
Hacker of Kohl's sees the gauze or crochet-style ponchos that have a lot of real estate in stores as swimwear cover-ups for August, and then as the perfect introduction to outerwear in the early fall. You'll need a heavier knit eventually, he says, but ponchos -- even two of them -- are pieces you'll get a lot of use out of: They are a key item of the season.
"You want to update, not redo your wardrobe," Hacker says.
Also, he adds, don't underestimate the shorts you've been wearing for months. "Most people think of shorts as a summer thing, but, especially in Europe, and with the advances in legwear to add texture and color -- you can even layer legwear with tights with socks on top -- that this is something that can go into fall," he says.
"Based on the economic times, people are learning to adapt their clothes from season to season," he adds.
Looking ahead, some stores will have even more shorts, including tweed ones, heavier denim and sturdy earth-tone cargo styles.
"Probably no one is happy to see the end of summer come, but the fabrics of fall are so rich, and things can layer so well together, there is definitely something coming from customers that's a high interest in fall," Resler says.