Behind the bright lights and glitz of the catwalk, there is a very un-glamorous side to Hong Kong Fashion Week. It is a place where high heels, champagne and svelte models are replaced with rolled-up sleeves, chain-smoking and the well-versed sales pitch. One floor below the fashion shows and seminars, exhibitors segregated into hundreds of booths ply anything from sequined evening gowns and fur coats to nylon pyjamas, diamante buttons and rotund mannequins. Hall 2 of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre is where the local rag trade rolls out the calculators and order forms, and hopes to fill up spreadsheets for the coming year. This year, 402 exhibitors from Hong Kong have been joined by the 365 overseas companies who decided to take up a slot at the trade fair, which runs until Friday. The orders placed at the event may not be on a massive scale but there is much talk about quotas. More precisely, Hong Kong companies are pondering their position on the garment landscape post-2005 - once global textile quotas have been abolished under a World Trade Organisation agreement and China's lead in apparel production has enjoyed an expected lengthening. Traders such as Lung Kin-sang, managing director of Jiaxing Jialong Fashion, feel an uptake in business is a given. His factory in the Jiashan economic development zone supplies women's designs to major department stores in the United States. Mr Lung has just returned from New York and is positive about interest from his buyers. 'I believe the business, the quantity will increase,' he said. The downside, however, is that 'already, they are looking for a lower price'. The US is Hong Kong's biggest garment buyer, accounting for 37 per cent, or $66.76 billion worth of clothing exports and accessories last year totalling $180 billion, according to figures from the Trade Development Council. Once quotas are abolished, demand from the US is expected to increasingly move from Asian countries such as Thailand or Bangladesh to China. 'It's not that my customer is going to have his total turnover in the Far East increase,' says Michael Murjani, director of knitwear manufacturer Tridelphia, 'it's that there will be a shift in buying'. 'Right now, 95 per cent of our production is in China, so I'm looking at a substantial increase in business,' he said, putting this figure at as much as 'a good 50 per cent'. At the same time, he expects prices to go down by about 20 per cent. It is the longevity of this phenomenon that has some Hong Kong garment companies worried. Royal Gate Holdings chairman Abdullah Kaheel has been in the trade for 27 years, relocating to China from Italy to take advantage of low production costs. His factory in Chaozhou is staffed by 1,200 people, who produced US$31 million worth of evening wear last year for retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's. 'I feel I will sell more but I feel it's only for one year,' he explained. The edge he has over the home-grown talent in China is looking less certain as competition is set to intensify after 2005. 'After that, things will change. It will be like someone selling apples on the street.' He pointed to a couple of mainland buyers at the trade fair. 'They don't come to buy; they come to copy.' This sentiment is shared by Mr Lung, who pointed to his order sheet. Of those mainland buyers who do bite, the quantity is relatively thin. 'I think Hong Kong is like a fashion centre in China,' he said. 'They [mainland peers] can see new stuff.' Mainland garment manufacturers are attempting to up the ante, shifting from blanket wholesale production activities to a more design-driven focus. This, however, requires experience of US and European tastes. Buyers from the US or Europe who are not just looking for generic manufacturing rely on garment companies for design ideas. Some of these are bought straight out while others are tweaked before they end up on the shop floor. The same applies to fabric design and colour. 'I have experienced taste,' said Mr Kaheel. 'I know how to choose colours [for the US]. In China it's not easy ... you must have the fashion. Even if they want to copy, they copy styles from last year.' This lag benefits Hong Kong's designers, however. 'They [mainland manufacturers] need more brand concepts,' explained Kevin Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Fashion Designers Association. 'There's very big demand for design consultancy from Hong Kong because we have experience with overseas buyers.' China-trained designers were, in contrast, 'very green', he said. There is no shortage of reconnaissance work going on, however. 'We get a lot of mainland people who come over and try and copy items, get an idea of what's selling ... and mass market it in China,' said Tridelphia's Mr Murjani. While there may be shortcomings in creativity and design, production was a no-brainer, he stressed. 'In terms of being able to copy and produce, it's almost like they put it out yesterday.'