IT is not often that you find the pages of a business newspaper adorned with the images of fashion. Business is about bottom lines, men in suits and the gritty realities of economic life. It is cerebral. Fashion is flighty, ephemeral and brainless. It is also a multi-billion dollar business, often shrouded in mystery, the workings of which are crucial to the people of Hong Kong. The modern industrial age began with fashion: it was in the cotton mills of northern England that modern industry was spawned - churning mass-produced clothing for the new working class. The mass clothing market has driven industrial revolutions all over the world, and in no economy has its contribution been more profound than Hong Kong's. As recently as 1990, the textiles and apparel industry in Hong Kong - which feeds upon the fashion industry - employed more than 300,000 people. Today, there are fewer than 90,000 earning their living in the rag trade. While this is a story common to all Hong Kong industry, it has some deeper ramifications. With unemployment running at 5 per cent, or about 150,000 people, the thought of losing more jobs in any sector is galling. Unlike other sectors, however, manufacturing jobs, once lost, tend to be lost forever. More importantly, once the skills base is eroded, it is nigh-on impossible to restore it. And look at the type of people who are being 'hollowed out'. The average age of a worker in the textiles and apparel sectors is 52. They earn, on average, about $7,000 per month - below the Hong Kong mean. These people are not spring chickens, ready to bounce back into a new career. They represent a social challenge to the administration. The saddest thing about the industry's decline is that it was not inevitable. Had Hong Kong stayed on top of the game, technologically, it could have moved into the higher value-added sectors now dominated by Taiwan and Japan. Instead, we did what we have done so often: took the easy option of exporting our problems north of the border, while treading the path towards becoming an industry service centre. Cheap mainland labour is not the answer.