HONG KONG — Slowing retail sales made buyers ultraselective at the China Sourcing Fair for fashion accessories, underwear and swimwear here.

This story first appeared in the November 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

More than 900 exhibitors showcased their offerings at the show that ended its three-day run Nov. 2 at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld Expo. Close to 70 percent of exhibitors were from China, though there were also vendors from India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Natural fibers set the tone for the underwear collections. The highlight was on fabrics such as organic cotton, bamboo, Modal and Tencel, said Ria Stern, director of global marketing and brand for South Korean firm Hyosung’s Creora spandex performance unit.

Emeline Chamoux, a French designer at Maidens Limited, a Hong Kong-based underwear manufacturer, said the use of treated bamboo, Modal and rayon in this year’s range was just the beginning.

“Eco-textiles make perfect lingerie, drawing together beautiful, high-quality fabrics that are comfortable and functional,” added Chamoux.

The natural theme continued to underscore fashion accessories. Glass, wood, bone and horn were widely used in chunky bangles and necklaces.

High-performance fabrics with emphasis on a subtle dry surface, UV protection and shape and support defined swimwear, added Stern.

There was a plethora of offerings with booths packed full of the latest underwear collections, high-performance swimwear, yoga and fitness apparel, synthetic leather handbags, luggage, hats, scarves, belts, footwear and costume jewelry. However, the focus remained on the economy, with few exhibitors able to convert buyer interest into sales.

“Buyers are always more choosy when the market is slow,” said Neerag Gupta, owner of The Balaji Creation, a jewelry and accessories exporter in New Delhi. “We are not getting any spot orders. Even if there are items they like, buyers will go away and discuss it with their management. All the buying decisions are taking much longer than usual.”

Jacqueline Smith, a buyer for Dutch fashion accessories wholesaler Versteegh who was sourcing synthetic leather handbags, was exercising caution even though her company had yet to experience any slowdown.

“We are more worried about the future, which is why we have begun buying in smaller quantities, cutting average orders for bags from 200 to 300 per color to 80 to 100,” she said.

U.S. buyers were being prudent.

“The economy is hurting everyone,” said Ramon Karessa, director of global sales for Bubbles Bodywear, a South Carolina-based seller of shapewear. “There is no doubt the U.S. market is looking for good deals. It is tough to stay competitive.”

Higher labor and raw materials costs, inflation and tighter regulations may have driven up China’s manufacturing costs by some 25 percent in recent years, but buyers agree it remains the best place for competitive sourcing, despite cheaper markets posing an underlying threat.

“China is one of the most competitive sourcing markets in terms of delivering good and consistent quality,” said Karen Jones, owner and president of Bubbles Bodywear. “There is certainly no other place that can produce as quickly with turnaround time at 45 days, half that of other countries.”

“China has been and will continue to be the largest source for me,” added Wonita Lightfoot, a buyer for Pier 1 imports.

Chinese swimwear manufacturer Quanzhou Karrack Sports Goods, which also sells to the Chinese domestic market, is hopeful it will be protected from the global downturn.

“Our overseas business may be slower, but we are not worried about our performance because the Mainland Chinese market is very strong and shows no sign of slowing,” said Celine Lin, a merchandiser for the company, based in China’s southeastern province of Fujian. “China’s economy has not been as exposed to the global financial crisis.”

Over 70 percent of its swimwear, yoga and fitness apparel is sold to China.

Helen Li, a sales manager at China’s Huludao Derong group, a veteran swimwear export business that began producing its own line five years ago, said diversification is more important than ever.

“It is risky to look only at the export market because you are dependent on the business of your client,” Li said. “Developing your own brand and selling to the domestic market is the way to go in order to achieve business growth.”

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