ROME — After a debilitating period marked by the SARS epidemic and terrorism, Italian fashion executives and leading Asian merchants and distributors spoke positively about 2004 during an Altagamma roundtable held here last week.

While sales in the region are up, industry leaders stressed that future growth depended significantly on how well fashion brands understand the intrinsic challenges and needs of individual markets, whether in Japan or China, Singapore or South Korea.

Consumption of luxury goods throughout Asia registered double-digit growth in the first five months of the year, according to a new index compiled by Altagamma, the Italian consortium of luxe brands, and American Express. Sales rose 21.5 percent in Japan, 55.1 percent in Singapore and 56.2 percent in Hong Kong.

While the latest preoccupation is China, Bulgari’s Francesco Trapani said the Japanese were still the reigning consumers of luxury goods.

“Let’s not forget that Japan is still the largest luxury market,” Trapani said. “It’s an enormous market that in some ways is mature. It’s sophisticated and Japanese clients are not only buying products but really buying a concept, a lifestyle behind it.”

Japanese retailers and industry executives agreed that unlike the Chinese, Japanese shoppers were out to buy much more than a bag or piece of jewelry.

“Japanese consumers are creating their own lifestyle and really understand what is good for them and bad for them,” said Paul Tange, president and architect of Tange Associates.

At Isetan, a leading Japanese department store, management said its primary objective is to fulfill the need for beauty and culture that their consumers look for in products.

“The mood of consumers is changing,” said Nobukazu Muto, president and chief executive of Isetan. “It no longer depends on product and price but really the cultural background of a product.”

Muto said sales of Italian products were up 10 percent this year compared with 2003, but hedged when it came to predicting next year’s growth. “It’s difficult to make a forecast, but there’s real hope growth will continue in the long term,” Muto said.

Trapani, upbeat for the remainder of the year, also expressed moderate optimism for 2005. “The market is definitely more dynamic and fluid in the U.S. and Asia,” Trapani said. “Of course everything also depends on terrorism and the war [in Iraq]. With such factors it’s difficult to give good, precise guidelines.”

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