HIS CRYSTAL-ENCRUSTED cocktail dresses have earned him the name of 'the new Barney Cheng', and his beaded masks paraded on the catwalk during Australian Fashion Week recently bagged him headlines - and controversy. Yet Dorian Ho, the rising star of Hong Kong fashion, wants the world to know: there is no such thing as an easy ride. In the competitive world of fashion, where 20-year-old hopefuls crop up at the end of every school year, it takes more than design talent and publicity stunts to survive the fickle arena of frocks and gowns. For designers, the ability to deliver must-have collections, season after season, is the true test of staying power, something Ho is acutely aware of. 'You need to be pragmatic even when you are in the design business,' says the 32-year-old in his showroom. 'As a designer, you need to be constantly evolving and thinking ahead of everyone else.' Being the leader of the pack is the designer's motto, a philosophy that has helped him win rave reviews and international coverage in the three years since the launch of his Dorian Ho label. Ho has been steadily making an impact on the international fashion scene with his signature hand-beaded 1920s-inspired collections. As fashion entered a new millennium, his elegant gowns were a refreshing alternative to minimalist chic and coincided with the return of nostalgic glamour that has made his dresses red-carpet favourites among the likes of model Qi Qi and actress Karen Mok Man-wai. They have also appeared in the fashion pages of Vogue, Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar. 'It's been very busy for us,' says Ho, who has just returned from Australian Fashion Week. 'We've been overwhelmed with orders and while feedback has been encouraging, things have also been stressful.' The Dorian Ho label is being sold in Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. In addition to managing his label, the designer also oversees his secondary lines Doriano and DSC, while juggling design projects for the Miss Hong Kong pageant and designing uniforms for beauty brands such as SKII and Oil of Olay. 'I love being on the go,' says Ho of his demanding schedule. 'I am very outgoing and believe in seizing opportunities.' After graduating with a degree in marketing from Boston University, Ho returned to Hong Kong to take over his family's garment-making business. 'It came naturally because I was the eldest in the family and have always loved design, whether it's fashion, interior design or graphic design,' he explains.'I'm grateful that my family is involved in fashion and not some other business like toy-making or running a steel plant or I'd be in trouble.' Ho started in the business at 21, launching his Doriano label, featuring mid-priced executive wear. 'You can have the grandest aspirations but fail if you don't have the necessary financial means,' he explains. 'I wanted to establish my bread and butter first in China and Doriano helped me do that.' Doriano has expanded rapidly: it has 50 shops on the mainland, generating an annual turnover of $40 million. His success was helped by Asia's market boom at the time but as regional economies dipped into recession in 1997, the designer encountered some rough times. 'There was a point when I was on the brink of bankruptcy,' he says. 'Competition in China was intense and inventory control was problematic. We were not operating through franchisees. It was one big headache.' The prospect of bankruptcy rattled Ho, and in an effort to reverse the situation he restructured his business. He adopted franchise contracts and launched a rebranding campaign starring Qi Qi. 'Qi Qi was a great friend during a time of financial turmoil,' says Ho. 'She volunteered to do the campaign despite the low pay and the ads were amazing. Things started to look bright again.' The designer unveiled his Dorian Ho label in 2000 during the Australian Fashion Week and his signature hand-beaded gowns and sensual chiffon skirts have proven popular with the local and international press. 'Having made my bread and butter, I could now go on to do what I love - high-end fashion,' says Ho. 'Evening-wear is a good publicity vehicle and I wanted to stage my collections on an international platform and that's why I showed my work during Australian Fashion Week.' Ho believes the high-end designer line approach is a good one. 'From a retail angle, you need to diversify your investments and it's always safer not to put all your eggs in one basket.' Inspired by elegant, romantic dressing, his feminine collections soon became favourites among women in their 20s and 30s who wanted a contemporary style at a reasonable price. 'For between $4,000 and $9,000, women can enjoy wearing couture-like dresses without blowing their budget. It's really a mix-and-match collection with versatile beaded tops, feminine chiffon skirts and contemporary cocktail dresses.' For a man who loves change and challenges, he is always trying to strike a healthy balance between creativity and marketability. 'Design is all about innovation, but you also need to cater to market demands.' And Ho's latest range of beaded masks on the fashion runway did just that. The designer managed to send photographers into a snapping frenzy when he sent his models down the runway wearing crystal-beaded face masks. 'The phone didn't stop ringing. The press went wild asking me what the idea behind the collection was,' he says. 'And seriously, I did not expect that.' Although the response to his mask collection was generally positive, he was accused of exploiting the Sars outbreak. 'I didn't expect such a negative response from the Hong Kong media,' says Ho, shrugging his shoulders. 'I just wanted to highlight Sars awareness on the runway. While Hong Kong people have been aware of what has been happening around us in the past few months, there are people out there who are much less informed. I've also received a lot of requests from customers asking me to design pretty masks. 'It's frustrating when your designs generate bad press. You're putting your work out there and people just take it the wrong way.' So what makes it all worth it? 'I love beautiful things and I enjoy challenges and change.'