TWO YEARS AGO, local fashion designer Cheung Mei-yi went to Beijing with just six of her own designs. She had almost no idea about the fashion industry on the mainland, but wanted to try her luck. After plenty of hard work, and several trade fairs, Cheung will open her own shops in Beijing and Shanghai this autumn, and plans to set up in Fuzhou and Harbin next year. Cheung says her 16 years in design and sourcing for foreign brands helped her catch the eye of mainland investors, who view Hong Kong designers as essential to the development of China's fashion industry. Cheung met many of the investors at Style Hong Kong, an event sponsored by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council that helps promote local designers on the mainland. It also creates a platform for Hong Kong companies to show their latest collections to mainland buyers and link them with potential investors and franchisees. Cheung is one of the second generation of local designers who trained at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. Many went on to work for Europe-based brands in the late 1980s, when Hong Kong was developing as a garment-making centre. But whereas many Hong Kong designers focused on evening gowns for the mainland market, Cheung and her peers are charting new territory by creating ranges of casual wear. Their lines are often innovative and fresh. Cheung says her investors have been pleased with the results. 'I didn't expect them to be so open-minded,' she says. They're familiar with Hong Kong brands such as Giordano's casual wear and Moiselle's more elegant range. 'But they need daywear that's easy to mix and match.' Cheung says her demanding work for foreign brands has been crucial to her success. 'A lot of foreign designers just draw and sketch,' she says. 'Hong Kong designers were asked to offer the entire package - from design and sourcing to manufacturing. Having worked for European brands meant we were ahead of trends in China. There's always a time gap between what hits Europe and the mainland.' Designing for the mainland might be lucrative, but it sometimes involves the sacrifice of personal style or quality. 'When I first worked for the European market, we offered some hidden value [such as fine fabrics],' Cheung says. 'But for the mainland market, the details can't be subtle. They don't understand the beauty in torn edges. They'd think they're wearing old clothes. The design has to be more outspoken, so they think it's worth the value.' Nonetheless, Cheung says the mainland is definitely the market for ambitious designers to target. 'If you want to stand out in Hong Kong, you probably need to do something very alternative,' she says. 'The market is too mature. On the mainland, it's easier to find investors and even shop spaces because of the rise of big malls.' Hong Kong designer Henry Lau Chi-wah also sees big opportunities over the border. His label, Spy, is sold in five outlets on the mainland, where he says buyers are more open-minded than in Hong Kong. This suits Lau because Spy is known for its elaborate and extravagant use of colour and fabrics. 'Compared with Hong Kong people, mainlanders are more confident of themselves,' Lau says. 'They're more willing to accept avant-garde designs. The mainland is more like Japan and Europe, where each customer sticks to a single style. Hong Kong people's tastes are jumpy. They're easily influenced by media. Perhaps they get too much information.' Lau decided to go into partnership with established companies such as LCX and AO2 that have shops in Shanghai and Beijing. 'I've had some bad experiences in China,' Lau says. 'They don't understand much about intellectual property rights. Once I told them about my ideas, they just copied them before even signing a contract.' Despite his push into the mainland, Lau hasn't abandoned his customers in Hong Kong, where he founded the brand in 1996. 'A lot of mainlanders still follow trends in Hong Kong,' he says. 'That's why we can't give it up as our base.' Cheung also wants to maintain her base in Hong Kong, and hopes to have her main store here. 'When my brand is recognised in China, it's probably the right time to open a store in Hong Kong,' she says. 'It will be the symbol of my brand for both the mainland and Asian markets.' Veteran designer William Tang Tat-chi has enjoyed the advantages of establishing himself on the mainland in the early 90s, when manufacturers over the border knew little about fashion and were influenced by Hong Kong fashion. 'In the early 90s, they made a lot of money by selling the same style of pants for several years - they didn't even know what Lycra was,' says Tang, who participated in Chic in Beijing last month. 'Hong Kong designers introduced the idea of a fashion collection to them. When the factories started to earn more money, they hired Hong Kong designers.' Although many mainland companies are willing to pay as much as $1 million to hire a design consultant, many of the mainland media prefer to feature international designers rather than Hong Kong names. 'It's all about connections,' Tang says. 'If you're not well connected, it's hard to get featured in the media. The culture has changed. You have to fight with big brands. Since 1997, they've become more like Hong Kong and are going after European designs.'