Four years after Leo Fan walked away from a career as a neurologist in a Los Angeles hospital and started learning how to slice yards of silk into curve-caressing cheongsams, he says he has never looked back. Certainly, the young and gifted designer has much to look forward to: since launching his own-name collection earlier this year, Fan has become the newest in a small group of Hong Kong couturiers who are slowly stealing some of the business away from the big international labels: where, only a few years ago, tai-tais and socialites would have cringed at the thought of wearing Hong Kong-designed and made clothes, they are now seeking Fan out. From his spare yet tastefully-outfitted studio just off Hollywood Road, where the recorded strains of traditional Chinese string music blend with the cool Oriental interior, Fan meets his growing band of private clients, many of whom come to him for the upscale, reworked cheongsams and Chinese-motif infused suits and dresses for which he has become known. Fan concedes that his current profession is a far cry from what he was originally trained to do; he studied medicine in Boston, did his clinicals in Chicago and became a neurologist in Los Angeles. But fashion, he maintains, was always his first love. 'When my parents asked me what I wanted to do, I told them my first choice was to become a fashion designer. But because they didn't accept that, my second choice was to become a doctor.' Hong Kong-born Fan moved with his parents to Abidjan, on the Ivory Coast, when he was three. At 15, he emigrated to New York with his family. But even while immersed in his medical career, he continued designing dresses for the society events his mother attended. 'Eventually, she kind of liked it,' he said. 'After a while, I knew this was it. It was time to pursue my first love.' Fan flew to Paris, rented a tiny apartment near the Gare Saint Lazare and attended Esmod, one of the capital's finest fashion institutions. After a one-year intensive course he found internships with the likes of couture houses Jacques Fath and Thierry Mugler, and with middle-range ready-to-wear company Zapa. And in 1993, Fan decided it was time to come home. 'Although I hadn't lived in Hong Kong since I was three, I felt that this was where my culture was. Also, I knew I would have so many more opportunities here,' he said. Understanding that fashion is as much about business as it is about colour and fabric, Fan went to work in Esprit's sales and marketing department, did a stint at Nike as a merchandiser. Finally, he decided he was ready to go it alone. The next several months were spent sourcing fabrics, locating production possibilities and streamlining his signature designs. He created a small private collection, word of which slowly seeped out to the territory's fashion-lovers, and Fan began selling one-off suits and dresses to clients. In June this year, he held his first catwalk show. Very much in step with the current vogue for all things East-meets-West, Fan says his designs 'have a touch of the Orient with Western flair'. He achieves this by combining fine Italian fabrics, cut in a contemporary silhouette, with subtle oriental effects: a neatly-tailored jacket in taupe, beige or grey comes with delicate brocade, upturned cuffs and a dash of lining at the pockets or a cropped top in silvery raw silk with slim cigarette pants belies its Western appearance with a frog-closing on one side. Tunics are sheared almost to the waist, Vietnamese-style, or a pearl grey cotton ottoman dress comes with a bold brocade waistband. And owing to a resurgence in demand for cultural dressing, Fan is doing quite a trade in chic cheongsams; he believes that in the changing political climate and as Hong Kong parties become more Chinese, a spiffy silk cheongsam will look more at home than a little black dress. Fan demonstrates by showing off a lilac satin cheongsam with embroidered piping that dates back to the 1930s, a wedding dress in shimmering ivory silk brocade styled as the conventional Chinese costume, with the added glamour of a golden-shot tulle train, or a cheongsam cut off at the knees and paired with palazzo pants. Fan is designing an exclusive collection for Lane Crawford from next spring - quite a coup in a city where big-name retailers prefer not to take on a local designer - and is negotiating with other outlets in the territory and the rest of Asia. 'Things are changing a little in that Hong Kong women are much more open now to newcomers and local labels. I take their ideas of what they want and combine them with my own,' he said. Fan says his parents 'have taken my new career well'. They probably had little choice: in the same week that the designer walked away from the neurology department in Los Angeles, his two brothers, also doctors, did exactly the same. One now has a contracting company in Calgary while another is in the import-export business in Hong Kong. The way Fan looks at it, that in itself is another one of life's little coincidences.