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Eyes on China at Hong Kong Fashion Week

Overall business and the upbeat mood point to lots of potential in the region.

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Overall business and the upbeat mood point to lots of potential in the region.

This story first appeared in the February 19, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Now the second largest event of its kind in the world, and already the largest fashion fair in Asia, Hong Kong Fashion Week drew nearly 24,000 buyers and more than 1,700 exhibitors to the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. The event, encompassing both fashion week and World Boutique (which showcases designer and brand-name fashions and accessories), filled every available space, including the foyer, in the HKCEC.

The Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which organizes the fairs, professed optimism at the outset of the exhibition as the industry here has been on an upswing with exports of clothing and accessories increasing by 1.8 percent, to 205 billion Hong Kong dollars, or $26.3 billion, in the first 11 months of 2007. And while news of a possible recession in the U.S. tempered some of that optimism as the fair progressed, most exhibitors here were already looking elsewhere for business, specifically to China.

Anne Chick, senior events manager for the HKTDC, said that it’s no surprise that, rather than thinking too much about the U.S., companies here are jockeying for position in China. “It’s still too early to know whether the slowdown in the U.S. will have an effect on exports or not — we’ll have to see. But [the increase in Chinese spending power] is a trend that’s been growing for the past few years. There are certainly more and more Mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong every day — and we can see that they are in the market for sophisticated goods. A cup of coffee in a nice cafe in Shanghai now costs the same as it does in Hong Kong.”

Chick says that the fair itself has been adapting to the changes — this year, for example, four of seven seminars (including those about the American and Korean markets) were about trends and all were simultaneously translated into Putonghua to accommodate Mainland Chinese visitors.

“It’s easy for Mainland buyers to come to Hong Kong now. They want to see what the region and the world have to offer. This is not just happening here, but all of the trade fairs — and it will continue,” Chick said.

The HKTDC reported that 5,387 Mainland Chinese buyers attended fashion week this year; there were 613 buyers from the U.S. (although that number is deceiving because many American companies send buyers from their Hong Kong sourcing offices.)

Last year, the HKTDC conducted a survey that found that 69 percent of exhibitors had plans to explore new markets for sales and to diversify manufacturing bases in anticipation of future protectionist measures against China by the European Union and the U.S. Such measures have certainly caught the attention of eveningwear maker Matini. Yahia Matini, general manager of the 45-year old company, which originated in Damascus and now has three factories and its headquarters in China, said that hedging his bets is looking like a wise move.

“I am definitely looking at diversifying and I am studying places like Vietnam,” he said. “I have to protect myself — I can see what’s happening. The U.S. will definitely extend its strategy [of protectionism.]”

Still, many makers expressed less anxiety about trade issues than excitement about China’s potential. For Los Angeles-based manufacturer H&S Elna International, which produces all of its up-market IDI brand shirts in the U.S., the temptation to cut costs exists but has so far been offset by the marketing opportunities a “Made in America” tag possesses. Company president Matthew Hekmat said, “Yes, our prices are higher, but so is our quality. And really, we’re looking at selling in China as an upmarket brand.”

Hekmat sees so much potential that he recently opened a satellite office in Hong Kong. “When you go to Beijing or Shanghai, all the major European brands are there. We think there is definitely room for American brands, too,” he said.

While it might be obvious that American and European labels want to expand into China’s burgeoning market, the same is true for Chinese brands. “Fifteen years ago, we had little competition,” says Ying Liping, manager of Zhejiang Zhongda Exports. The Hangzhou-based manufacturer is a former state-owned enterprise now listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and owned primarily by its workers. “Suddenly there are so many firms doing the same work. Competing with other countries is not a problem, but competing with other Chinese companies is. We hope to expand our own brand, Sendi, which has existed for a while in men’s but is new to women’s wear. It’s not easy.”

One clear indication of how important the Mainland market is to exhibitors here is the predominance of China-inspired fashions, accessories and materials. Although the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing this August, will be over by the time any of the fashions being presented here hit shops, Hong Kong’s designers still demonstrated a clear case of Olympics fever. Local favorite William Tang, known for wearing and designing all-black ensembles, produced a startlingly different collection that pays homage to the colors of the Olympic rings as well as to Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please collections of years gone by.

Likewise, Indonesian-born designer Ika Butoni created a subtle collection called 8, inspired by the number considered so lucky in Chinese culture that the Games are slated to begin on 8/8/08 at precisely 8:08:08 p.m. She also offered dresses reinterpreting national flags.

Not to be outdone, shipping company UPS promoted its delivery and supply chain services with a special collection by Dorian Ho. The designer, whose ultrafeminine eveningwear is a staple at Lane Crawford, admitted that designing in the company’s colors — brown and gold — proved a challenge. “I was a little worried,” said Ho. “My customers know that brown is not my usual color, but I thought about the equestrian events [to be held in Hong Kong during the Olympics] and it all came together.”

Ho’s gilded riding outfits caused quite a sensation, as did the presence of Japanese designer Tsumori Chisato and Maria Luisa Trussardi, president of Fina SpA (the holding company of Trussardi Group), who both served as judges at the Hong Kong Young Fashion Designers Contest.

“I have never seen such aggressive — and I mean that in a positive sense — creativity,” said Trussardi. (Trussardi, ahead of most European luxury brands, already has 15 points of sale in China, many in second- or third-tier markets.)

Chinese influence could also be seen in other ways — from the return of silk as a popular fabric choice and the reemergence of the qipao silhouette to lots of traditional symbols. Designer Ameber Leung created a range of clever two-in-one Yin-yang handbags, and jewelry designer Rose Poon introduced her Culture Republic collection of contemporary jewelry based on traditional Chinese symbols.

But not all buyers were from China or looking for China-inspired products. For Vivienne Francine, who owns a namesake boutique in Cairns, Australia, and wants to expand, Hong Kong Fashion Week was an opportunity to find something new, including a possible design partner. “We design our own garments and sell other labels as well,” she said. “I am always looking for a new point of view and more directional pieces.”

She and other buyers found obvious trends for fall. Outerwear, for example, is shorter, shinier and slimmer. Jackets have lost some of their puff, with volume in the sleeves, which were shown ruched, quilted, top-stitched or decorated. Woolen coats are shorter, mostly hip-length, tailored and belted. Fur jackets, although drawing protests from naked PETA members, were popular — cropped, dyed in a host of colors, and embellished with jewels and embroidery.

Denim was also strong at the fair. Designer Eric Cheung, for one, showed metallic and distressed denim under his Brittany label. Cheung, like every other casualwear designer, also demonstrated through his collection that low-rise is on its way out. Waistbands were much higher and often accented with wide belts (or layers of skinny belts) in bright colors.

As for color, fall looks to be a somber time, with brown, charcoal, black and petrol gray dominant. A pop of color comes in accessories, including bright orange high heels, lime green belts and mustard yellow handbags. There was also a lot of color in eveningwear, which showed an enormous range in gold, blue and enough red to satisfy all the buyers in China.

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