Italy's Trade Commissioner for Hong Kong, Michele Scuotto, is a busy man. He heads the fifth busiest office in the world in terms of Italian promotional events and fields 30-40 requests a day from Italians wanting to do business in the region. 'Italy is putting more importance on Asia and Hong Kong is the centre for promoting Italian footwear in Asia,' Mr Scuotto said. To emphasise the importance of the 'Made in Italy' shoe label, a special Asian footwear desk was set up in April last year at the Trade Commission's office, in collaboration with the Italian Footwear Manufacturers' Association. The desk is manned by three of the office's 18 staff who act as a bridge between Asia and Italy and aim to raise the awareness of Italian footwear among importers, consumers and the media. A newsletter, Scarpa Italia, is mailed to more than 5,000 shoe trade professionals throughout the region. The major highlight for the industry is Hong Kong's Asia-Pacific Leather Fair. 'This is the most important exhibition for Italian companies in Asia and the biggest group participation outside of Italy,' Mr Scuotto said. Nearly 200 Italian companies, both established and new, are attending the fair. The Italian leather industry produces 500 million pairs of shoes a year - of which between 80 and 90 per cent are exported. The country is the leading exporter of shoes in the European Community. Asia is an important market for Italy, particularly sophisticated markets such as Hong Kong and Japan where brand names have impact and consumers are ready to pay top prices. Hong Kong last year imported US$176 million worth of Italian footwear, an increase of 7 per cent over the previous year. Exports to Asia as a whole are increasing by 10 per cent each year, according to the Trade Commission. The strong attributes of Italian shoes, and indeed most Italian products, are design and quality. 'Design is not external to us: we are born with design. From the way we think of a product, it's inherent to us. We have to like the design and the colour. Italy is the leading country from this point of view,' Mr Scuotto said. He also praised Italy's technology in footwear manufacturing - the way the material was processed, raw skin treated, the colouring process and the way it was stitched. 'We set the trends and are the leaders in high- to medium- range footwear,' he said. Mr Scuotto said Italian shoes did not have to be costly. Italian companies were now bowing to consumer demands for 'real' quality shoes at medium prices. 'Italian companies are flexible and understand market requirements. They are becoming more export orientated, particularly to Asia. There are a growing number of companies approaching us and there is a more openness to the market than has been apparent in recent years,' he said. Italy was now looking to countries such as China, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia where increased consumer purchasing power and fashion awareness made the import of high-end Italian shoes possible.