OF the world's estimated 50 million active skiers, two-thirds are Western Europeans. Winter holidays have always given summer a run for the money in Europe, and if your sport is skidding down a mountain on two skinny slats, France offers some of the world's greatest resorts. A midwinter getaway on some unpolluted, snowcapped peak often takes priority over the sun-kissed sandy beaches. There are almost as many schools of thought for snow gear as there are for skiing. In Munich every year, the professional trade salon for sports equipment (known as ISPO) displays the wares of more than 800 exhibitors from 31 countries. There is also a French salon at Grenoble devoted exclusively to ski togs, and there, within a few kilometers from the Alpine slopes, many important trends make their debut each winter for the following year.
For the coming season there's a big comeback of the skin-tight stretch pants that made their appearance in the 1950s. An elastic band beneath the arch of the foot keeps the trousers fitting snugly. There are jumpsuits that zip apart at the waist, with the sleek-fitting tops worn beneath a bulky parka or padded anorak. Many of these reverse and feature bold color contrasts.
The ``bulkies'' continue as popular as ever. There are padded cottons or quick-dry synthetic blends for jumpsuits and separate pieces, amazingly warm and comfortable; featherweights in bright new color ranges and winter pastels that bloom like Christmas roses in the snow. The only drawback is that all that padding, quilting, lining, and inner lining tends to lend an unwelcome effect of overpowering bulk, an optical illusion suggesting that even the slimmest femme has suddenly gained 50 pounds.
An ideal compromise is the ``half and half'' look; string-bean skinny from the waist down and lots of bulk at the top. This look pairs streamlined stretch pants with the padded parka, the latter often styled with removable sleeves that unzip beneath flanges extended out over the shoulders.
At high altitudes the winter sun can be surprisingly strong, and many a skier comes back from the slopes with a better tan than in summer. Layering is an ideal solution for every weather contingent, and several thin sweaters are warmer than one heavy outdoor pullover worn beneath the parka.
Elegance, a well-known German fashion firm, brings layering down to the bare essentials with its color-coordinated anoraks and printed cotton jersey shirts with matching bras for sheltered sun bathing in the snow.
There is an even wider array of after-ski wardrobes. Again, the bulky, padded coats and jackets are right in focus. Hermes, the century-old, super-deluxe leather-and-high-fashion company on the Faubourg Saint Honor'e, even does such a coat in pure silk, a wonderfully cozy bundle-up entirely quilted and printed with a flock of wild birds.
Figuratives are also in the limelight on the Scandinavian-inspired sweaters, with typical wintery motifs in jacquard patterns, giant snowflakes, pine trees, and the influence of the Austrian Tirol in whimsical little hearts and dolls.