IT MUST have broken the heart of the pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental hotel to be asked to provide tea for the function in the Jasmine Room last Thursday. For each of the 12 tables he obliged with a delicious and tempting spread of finger sandwiches, cakes, fancies and scones. But at afternoon's end hardly a pastry had been nibbled. Not that the chef would have been surprised, this was after all the preview of the Chanel Autumn-Winter Boutique Collection, the fashion house's new ready-to-wear offerings with make-up and accessories attended by 100 tai tais on the VIP guest list. When you are drooling over the thought of spending up to $40,000 on a Chanel suit the last thing you need is an eclair, the mere thought of which might propel a size 36 into the untamed wilderness of a size 38. For the past two years, Chanel has offered the cream of its high-spending Hong Kong customers a twice-yearly preview of the house's latest offerings. Last week Penny Bartley, Amanda Beraha, Suzy Bussman, Teresa Bee, Candy Lo, Eunice Lam, Lisa Lai and Catherine Tse were among those gathered to watch the first of the preview shows, although the territory's best-known Chanel wearer, Baroness Dunn, was not present. The proceedings began with a 20-minute video of the new collection, filmed at the Paris show with the modelling team spearheaded by Lagerfeld muse Claudia Schiffer. To the sort of unflinching attention a teacher would kill for, Chanel's Judy Yip and Alice Tong told their audience how the new season's look was essentially still the long, body-hugging dresses in earthy tones of green and brown, and classic black and navy jackets teamed with the big white cotton blouse that can take the wearer through from the morning right up to cocktails and dinner. ''It is quite a casual, layered look this year,'' Ms Tong said. ''It is a younger look, more subtle and more versatile. The idea is to team things with accessories. We can show our customers how to put things together,'' she said after the presentation. As Chanel's Hong Kong boutiques merchandising manager, Ms Tong travels to Paris six times a year to buy stock for sale in the territory. Thanks to the company's policy of not flooding the market, she effectively decides who will be wearing what. Once the video presentation ended, the black-clad assistants working in the territory's four boutiques moved to the tables, spotting their regular customers and handing them order books so they could put their marker down on the clothes. Once the pieces arrive in Hong Kong the women go to the boutiques where they are fitted to allow them to decide if they really suit those grey leggings with Chanel's own basketball boots that looked so good on Schiffer, and to show them how to put together the pieces they do buy. While she did not use the term herself, Ms Tong explained how Chanel operated a sort of sartorial apartheid to preserve the exclusivity of the label and to make it as difficult as possible for six tai tais to turn up at a Christmas cocktail party wearingthe same thing. ''We are always exclusive. If we know we can sell 100 of one item then we might order only 80 to preserve that exclusivity, especially with things like evening dresses. We have to protect the market,'' she said as a rack of sample jackets with a price tag of around $13,000 each was being genteelly mauled at the other end of the room. Chanel operates on a first-come-first serve basis, according to Ms Tong, meaning the women who attended the two previews last week have the initial choices all to themselves since there is only a finite number of garments on offer, and Chanel never holdsanything as vulgar as an end-of-season sale. The paradox of the ready-to-wear collection is that the customers still have to be fitted into the clothes once they arrive in Hong Kong in batches throughout August. Advertising manager Cecilia Tsang said: ''They have to know how the clothes are cut. If someone is a 38 and the jacket they want is a wide cut they could move down to to a 36. ''The short-waisted jackets could be worn one size below the normal one without it hurting that much. But unless someone comes into the shop it is difficult to judge.'' Such is the need for the company to preserve the exclusive cachet of the Chanel name that desiring part of the collection, and having the wherewithal to buy is not sufficient reason to own it. Ms Tong said: ''If customers try on something our staff knows to be unsuitable for them they will suggest they wear something else by saying: 'I think this looks even better on you than this'.''