Strike up the brands
Last Monday in the Convention Centre in Wan Chai, a bevy of leggy models from Eastern Europe took to the mile-long catwalk wearing clothes by Barney Cheng, a renowned designer whose clientele includes celebrities and some of the wealthiest women in the region.
Cheng's edgy designs wouldn't look out of place on an international catwalk, but the event overall failed to deliver the same buzz you would expect from a similar show in Milan or Paris. Truth be known, half of the seats remained empty despite the stellar line-up.
Hong Kong Fashion Week, which ended last Thursday and celebrated its 42nd anniversary this year, is one of the most commercially successful fashion fairs in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the Trade Development Council (TDC), it's the second-largest garment fair in the world (after the Magic Show in Las Vegas) and attracted some 1,731 exhibitors from more than 23 countries and regions this year.
In contrast, the concurrently held World Boutique, which is solely dedicated to showcasing fashion brands and designers, is a much more modest affair. Now in its ninth year, it's billed as the 'the first independent show in Asia dedicated to promoting brands ... from around the world', although it welcomed only 270 exhibitors from 14 countries - a fraction compared with the main fair.
Despite this, World Boutique always boasts a packed schedule, including group designer shows, seminars and the high-wattage Young Designer's Contest, which has welcomed high profile judges over the years such as Ennio Capasa, founder and designer of Costume National, and French designer Martine Sitbon of Rue du Mail. This year the event was even bigger.
'We've added more trend elements in addition to the series of seminars and catwalk shows,' says deputy executive director of the TDC, Benjamin Chau Kai-leung. 'We increased the number of stages from one to three. They are smaller stages for brands with smaller collections, allowing us to showcase more talent,' he says.
While this sounds on par with any other international fashion week, World Boutique still struggles to attract the right mix of designers, buyers and retailers. As a result it's not high on the list of must-attend events for fashion media or buyers - a growing problem for young brands coming here for exposure.
'I don't think people outside of Hong Kong would look at it as a fashion week - it's really a trade show,' says fashion entrepreneur Jimmy Chan, and one of the judges at the Young Designer Contest.
'I would probably consider it a second-tier fashion week, in the top five definitely. But most of the designers on show are not up to par with cities like Paris.'
Cheng, who participated this year after an absence of more than 10 years, agrees: 'When the top tier international buyers come then it will be able to measure up, but right now we are making a lot of effort that is wasted as the important opinion makers are not available to be wowed by us.'
Another perpetual problem is the lack of quality brands and design talent - a spectre that haunts World Boutique year after year. Indonesian designer Ali Charisma has been showing at World Boutique since 2005, but has yet to see an improvement in the calibre of designers on show.
'Even mainland retailers who come are looking for much better quality than we have here. In the past two years they have moved to European fairs rather than come here because they don't see what they want. People come to Hong Kong looking for manufacturers, while people go to Europe to establish a brand,' he says.
'World Boutique needs to promote the design aspect more. Without good designers, it won't bring in good buyers. We don't want to be manufacturers all the time; we want to sell our brand.'
Chau sees Hong Kong's position as one of the largest garment exporters in the world (according to the TDC, in the first 11 months in 2010 Hong Kong's garment exports reached HK$171.4 billion) as a double-edged sword. Its reputation as manufacturing hub brings in plenty of buyers but most are not interested in promoting young brands or design. This is something he is seeking to change.
'In the past Asian countries served as production bases but now they represent a significant market for Western brands, given that the economic centre of gravity is shifting from the West to the East.
'For those Asian brands coming to showcase their designs, we work hard to attract retailers, or even companies that are capable of being their agents and supporting the brand to build its presence in a certain market,' he says.
With all the criticism, it's also easy to forget World Boutique's strengths. It is an ideal training ground for young designers looking for international exposure, but who are not ready to make the leap to Europe or America. In addition, the business opportunities on offer cannot be ignored.
'We saw the Vivienne Westwood fashion show last year and realised Hong Kong was very into fashion, so we applied to attend the fair this year,' says Tito Mohamed, a designer for Middle Eastern brand Soucha Haute Couture.
Soucha's glamorous yet edgy gowns are inspired by erotica and S&M, and are light years ahead of the commercial designs showcased at World Boutique. In spite of this, they chose the fair as the place to debut their brand in Asia because of its potential for business.
'We have found it very professional and would definitely come back. It's not just about putting on a show; it's an opportunity for business which is what we like,' says Mohamed.
'Hong Kong is a great place to learn how to prepare before you get to be a big brand. All the sources and production are here; you learn about products and deal with overseas customers. It's a great learning experience,' adds Charisma.
Chan says: 'The government support is amazing, and they are willing to bring in designers outside of the region and work with retail partners. Hong Kong has all the ingredients which is good, they just need to work on certain aspects.'
So the question remains, what changes can be made to World Boutique to maximise its potential? Firstly, more distinct or separate venues for each fair would benefit both the designers and attendees.
'In Paris and Milan they make use of different venues, and sooner or later we would love to adopt this model because it is more interesting,' says Chau. 'More international names are also key. We invite international designers to lift the event's profile. They sometimes showcase their clothes, like Westwood did last year.
'My objective is to grow and improve the fair not in terms of quantity but it terms of quality. Already international brands are starting to debut their latest collections in Asia before the rest of the world so, hopefully, they will make use of our World Boutique event to make the noise even bigger.'