A European Selection pavilion, featuring 49 exhibitors from Germany, Greece, France and Italy, also returned for the seventh season in a row to the 31-year-old fair, billed as the largest apparel trade show in Asia.
While buyers from throughout the world scoured the trade show’s aisles for stock, many also made time for the 15 fashion shows during the four-day event that drew the most attention.
More often than not, the upcoming designers touted their home turf in highly imaginative styles. Los Angeles-based Cynthia Vincent, for example, had models strutting in cowboy hats and skimpy, body-hugging designs.
The show took on added significance thanks to the continuing economic gyrations in Asian markets. Indeed, many officials at Hong Kong’s Trade Development Council consider the fashion shows a key strategy in maintaining Hong Kong’s booming apparel industry, which is trying to make the move from manufacturing center to design capital. Dr. Victor Fung, Chairman of the Trade Development Council, said that the strategy has been validated by the recent Asian economic crisis, which has left manufacturers buffeted by fluctuating currencies throughout the region.
“We have witnessed sharp devaluations in currencies across the region, while Hong Kong retains its linked rate to the U.S. dollar,” he noted during the trade show’s opening ceremony. The linked rate, coupled with Hong Kong’s higher cost of living, has put apparel manufacturers within the Special Administrative Region-as Hong Kong is known since its shift last year from Britain to China-at a severe competitive disadvantage against other Asian exporters, whose apparel prices have plummeted along with their currencies. Only changing to a high-quality, fashion-oriented industry will allow Hong Kong to compete effectively against its lower-priced neighbors, Fung explained.
While the international fashion press has yet to give Hong Kong its full attention, the event’s 15 fashion shows certainly highlighted its burgeoning design talent. The second annual Asian Pacific Young Fashion Designers’ Show, a contest featuring 14 young designers, helped raise awareness of the Pacific Rim talent pool. The show was an eclectic mix, ranging from traditional, glamorous eveningwear (Anthony Leigh Dower of Australia) to avant-garde styles, such as New Zealand-based designer Karen Walker’s collection of deconstructed masculine suits, many of which still had tailor tacking sewn along the pant leg or stitched down the back of the blazer.
The most surprising entree was Gao Wei, a designer from mainland China who showed a lovely mix of romantic, ethnic-inspired designs done in rich autumn hues and cashmere knits, pleated cottons and sheepskins. However, Maki Kanda of Japan snagged Best Collection for her line of feminine, whimsical knit dresses detailed with chunky embroidery yarns and borders featuring Swiss cheese-like holes.
The more established designers were just as creative with their collections, continuing to marry elements from the Far East with a decidedly Western influence. Jennifer Kwok presented a line of steely gray uniformlike blazers and coat dresses detailed with mandarin collars, while Virginia Lau introduced a collection that included long-sleeved, saronglike dresses and ethnic prints. Hong Kong-based apparel manufacturer Jaycow Couture went to the Asian extreme with kimono-styled dresses.
On the more subtle end of the spectrum, Walter Mu showed a Chinese red sleeveless knit dress adorned with spiderlike webbing knitted into the skirt and Lu Lu Cheung featured almost Japaneselike simplicity with her knit tops and long, slim skirts with florals embroidered on sheer overskirts.
Plush, lush fabrics with a touch of shine were also popular throughout the shows. Silk, a fiber with roots in Chinese culture, showed up in nubby shantungs and raw silk. Lu Lu Cheung’s bronze metallic tops combined with tapering knit skirts showed a bold use of shine, as did Henry Lau’s coppery iridescent dresses. Lucy Shih chose a more subtle approach, presenting glimmering evening gowns, ranging from a sugary pink satin sheath to iridescent organzas over satin and velvet dresses. Designer Flora Cheong-Leen drew from all the elements with a stunning ensemble that included a black velvet halter bodice and brightly painted silver satin skirt designed with a black crinkled organza overlay.
Shine was also created through beadwork, metallic threads and bold splashes of aluminumlike paint. Encyco showed perhaps the most dramatic creation, with a sheer sheath that combined a see-through bodice in stiff organza and a fluid, gold Lurexlike skirt painted with gold. Sheers were prominent in more than one eveningwear collection. Florence Tse introduced a see-through black sheer detailed with embroidery, while Benny Yeung designed a glamorous black lace and beaded sheath and attached sweeping, floor-length scarf.
Of course, glamour was created in other ways as well. Velvet, fur and feather trims were notable. Hong Kong manufacturer Fast Base Enterprises Ltd. trimmed a basic knit ensemble with brown ostrich feathers, and designer Ika added floaty boa feathers to the neckline of a basic Chinese tunic.
On the sporty front, leather and suede were popular. Rowena U designed some of the best, including a simple zip-front suede top matched with a mid-calf slender black leather skirt. Knits and high-quality wools were also important for the sportswear category. The standout in that category was Lawrence Tang, who presented a collection of austere yet cleverly constructed asymmetrical blazers in slate gray that easily bridged the gap between sportswear and careerwear.
Many once-bold merchants are flying blind in Asia these days, jittery and suffering from Jakarta to Seoul.
On this side of the Pacific Rim, though, it’s more a case of California cool, with companies throughout the apparel industry showing a willingness to wait out the ongoing Asian financial tumult with neither panic nor a bargain hunter’s gleam clouding their outlooks.
Instead, moderation is the byword. Retailers may see fewer tourists spending money in their U.S. shops, but few expect it to be a major hit to their top line. Both retailers and manufacturers could actually benefit by getting cheaper goods from Asia, but few in either camp expect a windfall to the bottom line. And contractors don’t think they’ll lose much business; instead they expect general wariness about Asian markets to outweigh the attraction of less-expensive goods wrought by devalued currencies.
“I don’t think there’s any significant concern out there,” said George Aba, vice president and controller of Fortune Fashions in Commerce, Calif., which has a limited sourcing network in Asia. “I think everybody is watching and waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
The Californians’ patience stems from three main factors:
- Only 20 percent of the state’s apparel industry does business overseas, which does not include licensing agreements, according to the California Fashion Association in Los Angeles.
- Many moved production and shifted sourcing from Asia to Mexico over the past two years. (Mexico has been a bargain, thanks to its own financial and currency crisis).
- California manufacturers specialize in quick turnaround orders for fast-changing tastes-a role that Asia is not positioned to supplant even with devalued currencies.
Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern California, conceded that Asian countries may use their devalued currencies to “export their way out of trouble.” But he doubts the worst will come.
“That would be an invitation for our manufacturers to source over there-but that’s the worst-case scenario, and I just can’t conceive that’s going to happen.”
Local textile executives echo such cautious optimism. “The selling points for the Los Angeles [region’s] textile industry are that deliveries can be made quickly and the quality of fabric is superior,” said Tony Souferian, a partner in Shara-Tex in Vernon. “Many people will be hesitant to do business with Asian countries at a time when their economies are so unstable.”
Some textile companies could see exports pinched, but it’s likely to be a small dent. And recent drops in prices for Asian textiles haven’t drawn a stampede of buyers.
Indeed, some industry boosters said they see the Asian financial rigmarole as a break for most of California’s apparel and related industries. “It makes California more attractive to the universal retail community,” said Ilse Metchek, CFA’s executive director “We are here. We are consistent. We have a labor pool, and sooner or later people do realize the cost of labor is only one part of the equation.”
Tim Harmon, president of Anaheim, Calif.-based Pacific Sunwear, which sources much of its estimated $85 million in annual private-label sales in Asia, said the situation is probably a break-even case for U.S.-based retailers sourcing in the region.
“[Manufacturers’ and contractors’] labor costs are going down, but a lot of raw materials those countries use to produce product are imported, and those are always priced in U.S. dollars,” Harmon said, adding that he expects no significant added costs or price breaks in the near term. Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C., said the overall impact on retail sales will be “kind of small.”
“I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the effect,” she said. “There are pluses and minuses-on the positive side, it could benefit retailers because some of the merchandise they sell will be imported at lower prices.” Even players with stronger ties to Asian contractors and manufacturers are holding steady.
Richard Hirsh, CEO of Los Angeles-based manufacturer John Paul Richard, said about 70 percent of the company’s revenue touches Asia, either through imports or from offshore contracting there.
“Given that we have good agents who keep abreast of how companies are doing, then there are definitely opportunities out there, especially in Korea,” Hirsh said. “I wouldn’t characterize it as bonanza. The short, get-rich-quick [approach] in the Orient is very hard.” Hirsh said his company also can balance Asian contracting arrangements with domestic contacts if needed.
“These days to survive, one has to be flexible.” Still, for California companies, it appears that confidence is the key. “We’ve been in business for 100 years, and we have a reputation for supplying a quality product and delivering it on time,” said Shelley Hendler, a partner in Los Angeles textile manufacturer Hyman, Hendler & Sons Inc. “So there’s no reason to panic.”