Evening wear and daytime dresses are the main attractions at two hotel trade shows here. Nothing unusual about that. But a less tangible matter – the the challenges faced by specialty stores – is also a subject of spirited discussion.

Stores like these are empty.

Pinched by the prowess of department stores and the price-cutting of some discounters, specialty stores aim to beat their competitors with selections that consumers won’t see everywhere else.

As a result, the two hotel shows – Designers at the Essex House and American International Designers at the Waldorf Astoria – have taken on greater importance for some specialty stores that are hard-pressed to find salable looks.

Traffic at the shows, which began April 9 and end Wednesday, was lively last week.

“At the hotels, our stores have been finding things off the beaten path from Seventh Avenue,” said Marsha Posner, a principal at JP Associates, a buying office here. “They’re happy if they find one exceptional line or even one unusual style that will sell.”

Gabriella Arango, San Carlin, Skinz, David Hayes, Lili Butler and Lane Davis, which introduced a new eveningwear line, were among the standouts at the show for the nine specialty stores that work with Posner.

Evening wear was high on the list for several of Posner’s clients. However, aside from a new day-into-evening dress collection from San Carlin, there continues to be a lack of silk dresses and daytime styles that retail from $400 to $1,000, she said.

On a positive note, several stores reported April sales are more than 10 percent ahead compared to the same period last year, Posner said.

“There was a time, around the beginning of the year, when we knew not to risk the stores. `How’s business?'” she said. “March was soft, but now they’re saying April has been terrific.”

At the Essex House, Ira Berg, owner of the 9,000-square-foot store that bears his name in Toronto, said he was looking for “wearable, comfortable, ladylike” clothes – not ” forward, young, editorial” clothes. He said he planned to spend at least $150,000 at the shows for fall eveningwear and daytime dresses.

Berg said he was shopping the hotel shows because some of his resources – Armani, Genny and Ralph Lauren Collection, for example – have not been catering to the middle-of-the-road customer who prefers more traditional looks.

“We’re just getting back into this market,” Berg said. “We’ve had delivery problems and price increases with some major designers.”

After writing a $25,000 order at Gene Roye, Berg said he planned to find some new resources.

Danielle Fagnani, buyer for Boyds, a 75,000-square-foot specialty store in Philadelphia that eaters primarily to men, said the store is now offering more women’s apparel. The retailer expects to pick up customers who previously shopped at Nan Duskin, which closed in January 1994 and “left a void in the city,” she added.

In 1993, Boyds began offering women’s apparel to accommodate wives and girlfriends shopping with men.

“We thought, why not offer the women something?” she said. “The market was here already.”

Now the store aims to expand the business with more “understated, sophisticated evening separates and dresses,” retailing from $1,000 to $2,500. Neil Bieff, Varunee and Gabriella Arango are among Fagnani’s favorite resources.

“A dress can’t really be timeless if it’s too dressy,” she said. “I’m looking for items that women can wear to one, two or even three occasions without feeling like, `Oh, there’s that dress again.'”

By listening to customers, requests for merchandise and improving customer service, the retailer’s women’s business is 15 percent ahead of last year, Fagnani said. Not everyone is satisfied with the state of business. Tired of dealing with specialty stores with poor credit, Olga Kvitko, designer and owner of the firm that bears her name, said she decided to do the Essex House show to find a more reliable customer base.

At other shows, she said, many small specialty stores had problematic credit status.

“Those who I could ship to couldn’t pay on time,” she said. “Even Barneys filed Chapter 11 – you don’t know who is safe anymore.”

As the owner of a small firm, Kvitko said she can’t afford to carry other people’s debt or late payments.

“Designing isn’t difficult. It’s dealing with the stores that’s shaky,” she said.

Another newcomer at the Essex House, E. Felix Papadakis, whose eveningwear line is called Papadakis, said he plans to work closely with specialty stores.

Having been an attorney representing fabric mills, converters and other firms in the fashion industry for the past five years Papadakis – who said he attended night, school at the Fashion Institute of Technology to learn designing – emphasized the importance of designers knowing the business aspects that affect their retail accounts. He also said it was important that retailers understand how their POS systems can provide them with an easy way to track what is selling in fashion retail.

Trunk shows, he said, would be an effective way of launching his nine-piece line, which wholesales from $700 for a long, four-ply silk column dress with velvet trim to $1,000 for a Duchesse silk satin short dress with a lace bodice.

Shopping at the Waldorf Lenore Sill, who runs a buying office here bearing her name, said she planned to review lines at Lane Davis, David Hayes, Neil Bieff and San Carlin.

She acknowledged the challenges facing specialty stores today.

“Unfortunately, in this American market we’ve catered to the price thing,” Sill said. “We once had fashion in this country. We don’t any more. They’re looking for deals all over the place.

“Good specialty stores cannot exist in shopping malls because there is too much sameness. Malls have become the meeting place for Middle America,” she said. “Where is the fashion?”