ATTEMPTING to convince an entire generation of Japanese to forget their obsession with European designer labels long enough to look to other sources is quite a challenge. But it's one the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), in association with Japan's leading fashion importers, has decided to take on. This season, Hong Kong's biggest fashion names have been formally recognised by the Japanese, with a chain of boutiques devoted almost entirely to them. Consumer goods conglomerate Kanebo Ltd has set aside prime space in Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama for a string of boutiques called Maison de la Khan. The chain will bring together 'the best of Europe and Asia under one roof'. Hong Kong fashion names William Tang, Peter Lau, Pacino Wan, Lu Lu Cheung and Blanc de Chine will have a constant presence in the Japanese market through Maison de la Khan. Their designs will be sold with European accessories, an in-house brand and lesser-known French labels in what has been described as a store 'with a very Asian concept'. According to Kanebo director Noriaki Mochizuki, Hong Kong designers have the potential to be hugely successful in Japan's market. Earlier in the year, Kanebo representatives attended the HKTDC's Fashion Week to see what the territory's designers were doing - and liked what they saw. Two months ago, the council organised a six-day 'Hello Hong Kong' promotion with the Sogo department store in Osaka, which included a fashion show by 17 designers and manufacturers. The catwalk event was so enthusiastically received that Japanese retailers are beginning to take a chance with Hong Kong labels. 'We wanted to introduce new designers to the Japanese market and looked towards Europe and the US,' said Mr Mochizuki. 'But we found Hong Kong designers produced a quality and price that was suitable for our market.' For the catwalk extravaganza, William Tang showed lace and quilted satin confections; 'bad boy' Peter Lau presented see-through dresses in bold and brassy colours; Allan Chiu showed neat multi-textured ensembles; Benny Yeung opted for frou-frou tulle skirts with plenty of embellishment and Pacino Wan stuck to young and contemporary dressing. Kanebo, which has licensing deals with Christian Dior and Fila, said promoting Hong Kong designers was a new direction, but Mr Mochizuki said Japanese consumers were ready for something new and felt Hong Kong could provide it. 'The Japanese love designer labels, but they don't just look at the brand. They have to find something behind it they like. It's not easy in any business to change people's buying habits but because these Hong Kong labels have good designs, reasonable prices and high quality, that has become possible,' he said. A softening in Japan's once-overheated retail sector and a general downturn in the economy has forced the country's fashion consumers to look around for 'moderately-priced merchandise', said Mr Mochizuki. William Tang said Japanese store buyers tended towards 'safe' designs, but that the Maison de la Khan venture was a 'great opportunity'. 'I have sold to Japan before, but this is a more organised and systematic way of going about it,' he said. The decision by Kanebo to set up an outlet in three major Japanese cities almost exclusively for Hong Kong designers will give a sense of permanence to the HKTDC's Japan fashion promotions. All too often, overseas shows generate a positive response and a reasonable number of sales, but there's little continuity and follow-up. 'Hong Kong is becoming very strong as a fashion source, with the right styling and price for Japan's market,' said Takuya Kawauchi, the managing director and general manager of Sogo in Hong Kong, after the Osaka show. Sogo began placing orders for Hong Kong labels for its Japanese stores, and the Hong Kong branch is considering setting up a merchandising centre to distribute Hong Kong fashion throughout Japan and other parts of the world. Japan's fashion industry insiders are equally responsive. 'Hong Kong designers have reached a higher level of creativity and originality,' said Yoko Tsujimoto, a lifestyle and fashion writer with the Yomiuri Daily. 'I think the collections we've just seen are even better than those of some of Japan's young designers, who may be overtaken by Hong Kong designers.' Indeed, trade figures show Japan's interest in Hong Kong fashion is mounting: last year, the country imported garments and accessories worth US$2.2 billion (around HK$17 billion) from the territory, an increase of 16 per cent from the previous year. All of which means that - with enough hype - shopping-crazed Japanese will soon be queuing outside Maison de la Khan, just as they do with their favourite French and Italian brands.