HONG KONG'S STREETS will be awash in a sea of black this autumn as women adopt a more sophisticated look. But while the fashion-savvy are busy adding to their winter wardrobes, industry insiders are looking ahead, with the ready-to-wear women's shows for spring/summer 2006 starting in New York this weekend. Similar shows will follow in fashion's main capitals of London, Milan and Paris.
For many Hong Kong buyers, a lot of the work for the new season is done before the shows begin. 'Our market research is a continuous thing,' says Harvey Nichols director of merchandising Zarina Kitchell, who's been a buyer for more than 10 years. 'I'm always reading magazines and keep close contact with our buying offices in New York and Paris. We keep updating each other on what's up and coming or if we've found anything interesting on previous buying trips.'
Most buyers will have already been privy to private previews of colours, fabrics and trends that will be hot for the season, but many still have a lot of pre-planning to do. 'I present the themes and trends to the buying teams as they should expect to see them on the catwalks,' says Sarah Rutson-Pang, fashion director at Lane Crawford.
Many orders for spring/summer stock have been placed before the shows even start, even though they often won't hit the racks until December or early January.
Nonetheless, the catwalk shows are an integral part of the buying process, because many stores wait for the shows before placing final orders. 'I've placed orders for resort wear, but for spring/summer we'll only know what's happening after the show,' says Lane Crawford general merchandise manager (fashion) Andrew Keith.
In each city, styles are as varied as the designers themselves. 'The lifestyle in each city has a big impact on their fashion,' says Rita Chau, womenswear merchandising manager at The Swank.
Because fashion is constantly changing, buyers can't predict where they'll do the most buying, or which collections will be the best that season. There are the usual favourites and established brands that draw them back year after year. Each capital has its strengths and weaknesses, and work together to form a variety of looks: New York is known for its contemporary casual wear, London for its feminine looks and Milan for the classic and formal, while Paris focuses on clothes that are chic and creative.
'Brand names are important,' says Kitchell. 'But we need wearability. It's more about the clothes than the name. I'm confident in bringing new brands as long as there aren't any flaws with tailoring and fabrics.'
Here's what three top buyers from Hong Kong's major high-end department stores will be looking for in each city, the differences between them and what the local market wants.
Womenswear merchandising manager
New York 'We look for contemporary city clothes that are casual. For spring, a Vera Wang evening dress is a must-have.'
London 'This is for more eccentric and eveningwear brands. We tend to be selective because quality is a concern. Britain has lots of talent, but not good production to support this.'
Milan 'I'll look for something more avante-garde with good workmanship.'
Paris 'Chic and stylish with good quality clothes, many with a couture feel. This is a place for creativity.'
Local favourites 'Roberto Cavalli [in Milan] is becoming popular, as is Andrew Gn in Paris.'
General merchandise manager - fashion
New York 'It's a strong contemporary market with up and coming designers such as Phi and Proenza Schouler. We also look for established brands such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Rebecca Taylor. I'm also interested in seeing Edun Bono's new eco-friendly brand.'
London 'We source London for directional new brands. Because of the hectic calendar it's difficult to get there so we make the appointments in Paris and New York for brands such as Roland Mouret and Luella. We also source street-inspired brands in London. It's edgy.'
Milan 'It's consistent because it's about established Italian brands. Milan tends to reflect major trends, and is about powerhouses such as Armani, Etro and Miu Miu.'
Paris 'It's about hot designer labels of the moment, such as Chloe, Lanvin and Givenchy. But we pick up edgier new-generation brands such as Sharon Wauchob and some of the Belgian designers. Paris encompasses a lot of things and is very creative and individual.'
What the local market wants 'Hongkongers love trends and always follow what the rest of the world loves. What does well in Paris or Milan will do well here. It's universal. Chloe and Lanvin are big worldwide and Hong Kong is no exception.'
New York 'It's important for contemporary wear - it's the biggest market. For commercial sensitivity, it's also the best. We look for young designers and also choose big brands with continuous collections. I like J. Mendel, Tuleh and Matthew Williamson.'
London 'There's lots of new talent, but the schedule is difficult. I like to look for accessories here - handbags and jewellery.'
Milan 'It's integral because it's home to all the big collections. It's an establishment, where you find a safe haven of brands such as Dolce & Gabbana. As a buyer you feel protected in Milan. Even if it's not so inspirational, it still works out.'
Paris 'It's great for inspiration and creativity. It's not the easiest city to work in, but it's got better over the years.'
What the local market wants 'Louis Vuitton and Dior. Locals also love colourful clothes. They see black and everyone cringes. They're more experimental and love novelty clothes.'