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Asia Watch: SARS scare … Still Expanding … China World …

SARS SCARE: In the first apparent apparel industry-related fatality from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, the International Labour Organization said Monday that one of its senior officials died Sunday morning while traveling in...

SARS SCARE: In the first apparent apparel industry-related fatality from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, the International Labour Organization said Monday that one of its senior officials died Sunday morning while traveling in Beijing. The ILO said in a statement the cause appeared to be SARS. The official, Pekka Aro, had been traveling in Asia for the past three weeks in preparation for the China Employment Forum, which had been scheduled to run this week but was postponed due to the outbreak. Juan Somavia, ILO director general, said in the statement, “We know little about this new and devastating illness, for which there is no vaccine, no cure. But for us, it has truly hit home.”

Hysteria over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) continues to mount in Hong Kong and southern China as the World Health Organization says there now are 2,601 cases and 98 deaths in 19 countries. A hoax on April Fools’ Day announced that Hong Kong would be declared “an infected area,” which led to panic-buying of rice and other staples. Surgical face masks, donned by about 70 percent of the population, are selling for 10 times their normal price — when they can be found — as WHO last week warned travelers against visiting the area.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is affecting industry shows. As reported, Swiss government authorities stipulated that the organizers of this week’s Basel Watch Fair must ensure that all exhibitors neither “employ nor engage” people who were in affected areas after March 1. The edict affects 317 exhibitors and has enraged the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which is seeking legal advice. Hong Kong’s pavilion is second in size only to the Swiss at the fair. Another fair that has been affected is the Asia Pacific Leather Fair. The spring event features some 3,000 exhibitors showing both finished products and raw materials and was scheduled to take place in April. Organizer CMP Asia has moved the date to June 26-28.

— Constance Haisma-Kwok and Scott Malone

STILL EXPANDING: Louis Vuitton Japan has added its 45th shop in the country, in the city of Kochi on the southern coast of Shikoku Island. The two-story store has a total floor space of 5,000 square feet and showcases the full line of Vuitton products, including bags, other leather accessories and men’s and women’s shoes.

Kochi has a close connection with Louis Vuitton as it is the birthplace of Shojiro Goto, one of the revolutionary leaders of the Meiji Restoration who brought down the Shogun to establish the modern Meiji government more than a century ago. He also was Vuitton’s first Japanese customer.

The exterior of the new shop, which is Louis Vuitton’s third directly operated facility in Japan, was designed by Kumiko Inui. Its facade is composed of square limestones, while interior walls feature Vuitton’s distinctive checkered pattern. The shop interiors were designed by Isao Higo, who has designed many other Vuitton shops in Japan.

— Koji Hirano

CHINA WORLD: World Co., a major Japanese apparel producer, is establishing a joint-venture company in China in May with leading Chinese apparel manufacturer Ningbo Rouse Group Co., based in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. The joint project, to be named Ningbo Balharbor Fashion Co., will start with a capital of $2.6 million, with Rouse holding a 51 percent stake and World, 49 percent.

With the number of middle-income earners on the rise and the diversity of lifestyles growing in China, there is increasing demand for fashionable casualwear in that market, a spokesman for the Kobe-based World said, noting that a growth is also anticipated in the Chinese market for sportswear with the Beijing Olympics coming in 2008. Men’s wear to be produced by the joint-venture firm will be sold under the Balharbor brand, with plans to open three directly operated shops in the first year of operation.

World, headquartered in Kobe, is a leading manufacturer of women’s, men’s and children’s wear with sales of $1.72 billion last year. It employs 2,181 people. Rouse, with a chain of about 1,000 stores throughout China, is engaged in the design, development, production and sale of men’s wear. It posted sales of $106 million in fiscal 2001. It had 3,521 employees as of August 2002.

— Tsukasa Furukawa

BIGGER IN FOOD: Aeon Group became the nation’s largest supermarket chain last year, with sales on a consolidated basis for the fiscal year ended March 31 of $25.7 billion, a 5.2 percent increase from a year ago. Operating profits from Aeon’s GMS and other retail store operations rose 14.2 percent to $445.8 million, while operating profits from its developing operations increased 18.8 percent to $101.7 million. The group started in 1758 when Okadaya, forerunner of the national chain JUSCO, was born in Japan. Aeon Group consists of 142 companies and runs 316 GMS stores, 433 supermarkets, 1,332 drugstores, 64 home centers, 2,010 convenience stores, four department stores and 2,456 specialty stores, as of February of last year.

— K.H.

PICTURE TALK: According to the Telecommunications Carriers Association in Japan, more than 80 million cell phones were in use in the country as of the end of March, up 1.7 percent from the previous month. Photo phones have become the latest rage in Japan; the country’s top cell-phone operator, NTT DoCoMo Inc., said Monday that its photo-phone users now number more than 9 million, threatening the number one spot in the domestic photo-phone market held by J-Phone Co Ltd. As of March 31, photo-phone users at J-Phone totaled 9.015 million, while DoCoMo said its camera-phone subscribers exceeded the 9 million mark on April 5, without citing an exact figure. And the market should get a further boost in June, when photo-phone makers are expected to introduce phones with better camera functions.

— K.H.