Editors, actresses, socialites, sports stars and other celebrities were out in force recently, trend-spotting at New York Fashion Week. At 80 shows in a giant white tent in Bryant Park and elsewhere, they will have noted the ladylike look continues to rule the runways for spring/summer 2005. The mood, they will have seen, is romantic and feminine, eclectic and whimsical. Hemlines, they will have observed, can be almost any length; key colours are white, metallics, red and turquoise; florals are back; soft jackets, cinched waists and big skirts are the new silhouettes. They will have spotted big-name stars Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton in the front row at the big-name designers; and spied actress Amanda Peet and Olympic gold-medallist Michael Phelps at the shows of lesser-known names alongside that champion of new talent, Vogue editor Anna Wintour (and her three bodyguards). And they will have raised their eyebrows at another of this year's notable trends: the number of young Asian designers taking their bows. This month, about 10 ethnically Asian designers held shows in New York, compared with three - Vera Wang, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam - in 2000. The newcomers are creating quite a buzz. American-born Derek Lam, 38, made his debut in March 2003, grabbed headlines when his carnation-print dress was worn in Vogue by actress Scarlett Johansson, and is on the racks of fashionable luxury retailers Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York. Last week, his feminine silhouettes and ethnic prints attracted so much attention an Asian woman tried to videotape the show - possibly to have it copied - and then karate-chopped security guards who tried to stop her. 'It was like a scene from Kill Bill,' reported NewYorkMetro.com. Other prominent new Asian designers showing in New York include Hong Kong-born Jeffrey Chow, who made his debut in September 2003, and American-born Peter Som, 33, who launched his own line in 1999. Both claim to be influenced by Asian aesthetics in subtle ways. Chow's conservatively sexy collection included a bolero jacket sequined with recycled metal from cola cans. Som, whose clothes have appeared on the fashionista's favourite TV series Sex And The City, says he draws on the simplicity and geometry of Asian costume. This season, he sent out models in floral prints and romantic dresses with fitted tops and flouncy skirts. Like Lam's, their shows were hot tickets among the fashion pack, pulling in Wintour and Vanity Fair fashion editor Elizabeth Saltzman, as well as buyers from upmarket retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus. Other Asian up-and-comers include Korean-American Doo Ri Chung, 31, Thailand's Thakoon Panichgul, 29, and former TSE designer Richard Chai. Following his debut collection of ladylike silhouettes with a techno edge - think ethereal pencil skirts in layered organza - Chai was named as the 'designer to watch' by New York magazine. These new Asian designers share more than an ethnic background: they have a similar design philosophy, preferring subtle, feminine, wearable fashion, according to Harvey Nichols' buying consultant Elizabeth Eubank. ''Pretty' is very fashionable right now,' she says, 'and there appears to be a certain sensibility that is consistent among Asian designers - for example, their use of fabrics, their subtle colour combinations, their interest in the feminine silhouette, and a certain level of softness and lightness - which is very much in keeping with the trends. I haven't seen another group of new designers that I am as excited about.' But what lies behind this flowering of Asian fashion talent in New York? Lam points to the large number of ethnic Asians now studying fashion at the city's Parsons School of Design. He says when he was there in 1990, 15 to 20 per cent of his class was Asian. 'Today when I ask my interns from Parsons what the breakdown is, they tell me it is about 90 per cent Asians,' he says. 'A lot of the Asian students at Parsons when I was there came from families who were involved in textile manufacturing, whether they were from Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. Perhaps their families encouraged their children to study design and fashion so they could bring these skills back to the business.' Lam himself comes from such a family: his grandparents owned a bridal-gown factory in San Francisco and his father was in the garment trade. Like many of the new Asian designers, Lam has a strong business focus, which he sees as a legacy of the survival skills his parents developed as new immigrants in the United States. 'Maybe it is not so much unique to Asian culture as it is to immigrant culture,' he says. Chow is equally business-minded. 'While creativity is very important, we don't just want our shows to be a presentation; a means of shocking or surprising the audience,' he says. 'We want to grow a business. I think this practical approach to fashion is perhaps something that is quite Asian, since our parents instil practicality in us from an early age.' As for the apparent similarities in their fashion sensibilities, Lam puts this down to another key part of the designers' mutual heritage: a background in Asian art and aesthetics, which lends itself to a keen appreciation for beauty and design. 'Chinese history especially provides us with such a wealth of references that goes beyond the cliches and stereotypes of how western people perceive Chinese art and culture,' he says. 'I was fortunate in that, from the age of nine, my parents would take me on their trips to China and I would spend my summer holidays in Hong Kong, so I was exposed to this Asian aesthetic from a young age. 'Growing up as a Chinese in America, I had a sense of displacement that I always thought of as a disadvantage,' Lam says. 'But now this mixture of cultural influences is always incorporated into my work, and maybe this dichotomy is one thing that people can identify with. Very few people these days are just from one place.' Chow, who grew up in Hong Kong, graduated from Central St Martins in London and is now based in New York, is also aware of a duality in his work: 'I think that my European education, coupled with the opportunity to work in the US, has enabled me to design clothing with a certain American sensibility, which is sportswear, but elevated - it has a couture feel.' But he also perceives Chinese influences in his collection. 'In terms of shape, my clothes tend to be a bit more conservative. There is a sexiness, but it is more subdued and hidden,' he says. This Chinese conservatism towards clothing appears as subtlety in the work of the new Asian designers, which matches the current refined vogue. 'My mother instilled in me that dressing appro-priately is important for a person to function in polite society, and that dressing should not just be for the sake of self-expression, which is perhaps a more western way of thinking,' Lam says. 'So my work is a balance of that. I design for the woman who wants to dress well, but at the same time uses her clothing to project her own personal style.' It's a philosophy in keeping with the apparent consumer shift, identified by several retail buyers in New York, towards individualism and away from the big-name brands. 'People are moving away from the mega brands and are looking for clothing that speaks to them in a more personal way,' Eubank says. Hong Kong's Joyce Ma, who founded Joyce Boutique, was among the buyers spotted in Lam's showroom after his presentation. She sees women hunting out new designers such as Lam and Chow. 'The collections of the established fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Gucci can be found in every major city today,' she says. 'So people are looking for new talent and new designers. They do not want to dress like everyone else; instead they seek to express their individuality through their fashion.' But there's another factor at play. This search for new designers is not purely consumer driven, points out Scott Tepper, fashion director at luxury store Henri Bendel, New York. 'In the mid to late 90s, mega international flagship stores began to set up in New York, and this major build-up made it redundant for multi-brand retailers to be carrying their products. So they had to start looking for new designers and new brands,' he says. For business-minded Asian designers hoping to launch their own labels, this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. 'The timing is right for new designers,' says Doo Ri Chung, who launched her own collection in 2001 and held her first runway show a year ago, 'which was not the case even just five years ago when a lot of my friends who were highly talented tried to launch their own labels, but were unable to succeed because the market was not ready. There are very few top, established American brands that young designers can go to work for in the US,' she says. 'The choices are fairly limited, so it is more difficult to find work with a top brand or designer who shares your fashion aesthetic. I think this is one of the factors that lead young designers to start their own brands.' Malaysian-born, US-based Yeohlee Teng opened her own fashion business in 1981. She has seen a sea-change in the industry in the past few years. 'When I first started there was a fashion establishment, for example, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, John Anthony,' she says. 'There still is, but the boundaries are less rigid today. Before, the emphasis was on your track record, your experiences, your history, your name; today, the focus is on the new.' However 'new' the young Asian designers appear, they hardly lack experience. Most have spent years working for major fashion houses or alongside well-known designers. Chow began his career with Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis, and has worked for Tommy Hilfiger and Pucci. Lam worked at Michael Kors and Hong Kong's G2000. Som also worked for Kors, as well as US fashion stalwarts Calvin Klein and Bill Blass. Chai worked for Marc Jacobs and TSE. That they chose to launch their own lines in New York, rather than London, Paris or Milan, is owing to a number of reasons, not least of which is that the US is a vast and wealthy market. But there are less tangible factors that make the city attractive to young designers. 'The European tradition of a new designer coming into an old house to dust it off is a distinctly European phenomenon,' Som says. 'The history of fashion in the US is much shorter, the burden of tradition isn't as strong, and there is this 'Go get 'em' mentality in the US, all of which lead people to embrace new talent.' Among those who embrace this talent most warmly are fashion editors, constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. Joyce Ma says that while European magazines are also keen to promote new talent, American Vogue and Harper's Bazaar are particularly powerful. Yeohlee recalls how Wintour helped young designers at fashion week in 2001, which coincided with the World Trade Centre attack on September 11. After the Bryant Park tent was abandoned because of security issues, Wintour helped to organise a venue at the Carolina Herrera headquarters to ensure the shows - all-important to new labels - would go on. But no matter how much support the press gives young designers, how creative they are, or how business-minded, success in fashion requires incredibly hard work. Like all young designers, the Asian newcomers need a strong work ethic. 'This is something we all have and share through our culture and upbringing,' says top Asian-American designer Vera Wang, who began her career as a bridal-wear designer in 1990 and is now one of the world's most successful Asian designers. She offers this advice to the new generation: 'It takes a strange confluence of talent, timing, money, a work ethic that is insane and an ability to sacrifice. And it also takes a willingness to evolve, to work at your craft because things are changing so rapidly.' Then she adds: 'On top of that, the biggest component is luck.'