HONG KONG — Nervousness about the atypical pneumonia outbreak affecting Hong Kong led buyers to shy away from Interstoff Asia, the region’s most important textile fair. Many heeded the words of the World Health Organization, which advised travelers not to visit the territory unless necessary. As of Monday, there were 530 reported cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Hong Kong and 12 deaths. Authorities here closed all schools for a week and issued a quarantine order for those who have any symptoms of SARS.

For organizers, the effects on Interstoff Asia were devastating. They had been expecting about 10,000 visitors, but by the third day of business it was clear that the number of overseas visitors would be down between 30 percent and 40 percent. Final figures have not yet been released.

"We expected that with the outbreak of war, there would be fewer visitors from the U.S. and Europe, but after [the SARS outbreak], we just didn’t know what to expect. The number is certainly an all-time low," said Katy Lam, general manager of Trade Fairs for Messe Frankfurt (HK), which organizes the event.

Buyers weren’t the only no-shows. Nine exhibitors pulled out of the event as well, seven of them from Thailand.

"Everybody got so scared that the boss had to come!" exclaimed Phongsak Assakul, president of the Thai Textile Manufacturing Association, referring to himself. He added that the flu, combined with war in the Middle East, was causing considerable trepidation in the region. "I watch CNN and BBC and the war is getting longer and longer. People just aren’t sure what’s happening."

Despite the significant drop in traffic, there was a concerted effort to conduct business as usual. Sammy Chan, director of Black Peony, which has an office in Hong Kong and its factory in China, said that she had received numerous "e-mails from buyers saying they weren’t coming because of the flu. We are a little bit worried. The situation is pretty clear — we will have to travel to the U.S. to see our customers."

She added that in spite of current events, the company, which specializes in denim, has been expanding its China operations in the run up to 2005, when quotas on textiles and apparel will be dropped by the 145 nations of the World Trade Organization.Expanding business in the region and looking for local partners was the dominant theme of Interstoff Asia. China’s enormous growth potential had a big influence, with buyers and manufacturers alike jockeying for position and partnerships.

Jeffrey Edelson, executive vice president of Westchester Lace Inc. of North Bergen, N.J., said, "The war and the flu won’t last very long, but economies will."

Edelson added that he was on his first visit to Hong Kong, looking for different fabrics and "new vehicles to print on."

"We are always looking to the future," he said. "You have to be aware of what’s going on in Asia. Economies are moving very fast and if we are to continue manufacturing in the U.S., we have to move even faster. We have to be able to turn over quickly, so we need good partners in Asia and everywhere. You have to be in all four corners of the world."

An executive at the U.K.-based company Cloverbrook agreed with Edelson.

Mike Tiffney, export manager for the brand, said Cloverbrook had just signed a joint venture deal to manufacture its high-performance fabrics in South Korea.

"It eats into profits to do everything in the U.K.," he admitted. Tiffney said that Cloverbrook chose a South Korean partner because "the technical fabrics we make just aren’t in China at the moment — and we believe that the people we chose in Korea are as good as we are."

Tiffney envisions buyers sourcing fabrics from whichever factory is closest to where they plan to manufacture garments.

"We can have quicker response and shorter lead times," he said.

Becky Bennet, material development manager for Berghaus, a U.K. performance-wear brand, applauded Cloverbrook’s move: "If they can keep U.K. quality but reduce the cost by manufacturing in Korea, then we’ll definitely buy their fabrics again."

Bennet, who buys many fabrics from Taiwanese companies, was looking for performance fleece and waterproof material for outerwear. It was such demand for high-function fabrics that gave non-Chinese companies hope, and many of them were touting their research and development skills rather than price.Joy Hsiao, sales manager of Taiwan’s Strong Light Enterprise, said, "In China the prices are so cheap that it’s hard to compete. We’re developing fabrics that are different than what comes out of China."

His firm specializes in Formotex, which he describes as "similar in tension and hand feel to Tencel [lyocell], but much cheaper."

In the meantime, a strong Indian contingent set up a seminar to promote India’s textile manufacturing capabilities. Devangshu Dutta of industry vehicle Creatnet Services asserted: "The comparison between China and India is unfair. They both have a place. Even after quotas go away, buyers will still want diversity."

Thailand’s Assakul agreed with the assessment of China’s current capabilities.

"We can compete with a place like China," he asserted. "Its industry has not consolidated — they are more horizontal than vertical."

Assakul is leading a group of Thai textile producers in a venture called Thai Tex Trend. The partner companies hired an Italian consultant to help them predict future trends.

"For years we did what buyers told us to do, but now we are proactive rather than reactive. The government has been supportive — this takes a lot of time and investment," he said. "Local designers are beginning to realize that we can produce great fabrics in Thailand. We have to change our way of thinking. Thailand only produces 2 percent of the world’s fabrics. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves for a share of the 2 percent, we need to go after the other 98."

Also going after its cut was Ingeo, the new brand from Cargill Dow.

Martin Vintner-Jackson, head of global marketing for Ingeo, said that Ingeo had already found representatives in Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul.

While Ingeo’s use of natural starches to produce fibers caught the imagination of some visitors, so did a few major trends. Here are the most noteworthy:

Denim continues its strong showing in Asia – especially in indigo, which was favored by buyers and manufacturers alike.

Ethnic prints, particularly those with African or Asian influences were popular. Masai trim and Indonesian batik both made appearances.Floral prints were very strong. Most were delicate and had an Asian bent, with lots of peonies, butterflies and grasses. Silk was the fabric choice across the board for these prints.

Nautical looks also came on strong. Cotton in bold colors like navy blue, white and yellow, played a big role as did "techno" interpretations of nautical stripes.

In terms of color, Interstoff was awash in washes. Tie-dyed cottons came in melon, strawberry and lemon. Printed silks were in pretty pastels — most ranging from pink to brown to sage, although there was a strong showing of rich chocolate tones, deep red and charcoal gray as well.

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