THE spotlights above the catwalks have long been turned off, the super-models have headed towards the next multimillion-dollar contract and the spectacular clothes - stripped of their magic - hang lifelessly on racks in showrooms across Paris. This is what the fashion world is all about - not what you see paraded in front of you as you tap your feet to Right Said Fred and shield your eyes from the glare of flash-bulbs. It has nothing to do with what Elsa Klensch says on CNN or rave reviews by the omnipotent fashion editors of Vogue. Instead, it centres around cold coffee and rubbery veal on lunch trays, ego-managing and personality clashes, and making decisions that could, if consistently wrong, get top people fired and propel once-healthy companies towards the liquidators. The fashion industry is all about the delicate balance of taste, marketing, common sense and business savvy. In Hong Kong especially, where the comparatively small size of the high-fashion market and consumer whims can leave even the most adept fashion buyer confused, knowing what to buy can be as uncertain as pulling down the arm on a jackpot machine. And nowhere near as much fun. In the first place, the way a dress might hug the faultless figure of Naomi Campbell is nothing like the way it will look on women whose faces and bodies are not their fortune. The second thing to remember is that Hong Kong women do not generally like revealing too much cleavage and are almost certain not to touch the transparent chiffon blouses that are all the rage on the Paris catwalks. Breasts, it would appear, are a no-go zone. Then there is the problem of length: given the general 'petiteness' of Hong Kong women, pants that are too flared or high-waisted and over-sized jackets are a big no-no. Some fabrics are too thick for Hong Kong's humid summers, some styles just a little too outrageous. White's great, but not too much black, please, and an overdose of one colour - especially if it is a bland navy or beige - will turn customers away before they even come in. So what's left? Not a lot unless you know what to look for, says Eileen Bygrave, general manager in Hong Kong for Imaginex, which later this month re-launches the Yves Saint Laurent label in the territory. It plans a 2,000 square foot shop, The World of Yves Saint Laurent, in Times Square for the secondary line, Variations, and the more up-market Rive Gauche boutique in The Peninsula hotel. 'If you take away all the glamour and accessories, and the clothes stand alone as beautiful pieces, then you buy. But it's quite hard to do,' says Mrs Bygrave. The rule of thumb is to know your market: in the case of Yves Saint Laurent it is 'film personalities and TV actresses as well as the wives of corporate leaders - people who do the cocktail-party circuit'. 'They are the people who love beautiful clothes and will buy them no matter what the cost is. But as buyers, we have to ask ourselves what the function of a garment is, where it can be worn. Some things look fabulous in a store window, but many customers say they will never find any place to wear them, especially in Hong Kong. And at the end of the day if something doesn't sell, that's all our money sitting there. It gets pretty depressing,' says Mrs Bygrave. Essentially, it all boils down to money. Ask Angelina Bleach, general manager of Lanvin in Hong Kong, who has 2.5 days to spend the kind of cash that would buy a small flat, and which has to be spread equally between Lanvin in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Bangkok. When buying for the spring/summer season next year, she sits with her buying team around a table in the showroom above Rue du Faubourg St Honore, striking a delicate balance between her roles as boss, diplomat and fashion connoisseur. In the large room are other tables around which are seated buyers from Singapore, Japan, the US and other parts of Europe. They all have their own set of criteria to deal with. 'Cabin models' as they are called - perfect showroom measurements yet without the pizazz needed to make them hits on the catwalk - try on clothes for inspection. And after a lot of fabric-feeling and polaroid-taking, important decisions have to be made. Typically, many of the ensembles seen on the catwalk and on the covers of international fashion magazines are not for sale, used only as tools for making an impact. The Lanvin team scrutinises what is left - in this case an unusually high 85 per cent of what was shown on the catwalk - and, after much debating and laborious punching into a calculator, makes decisions. With final retail prices going possibly as high as$55,000 for an evening dress, they cannot afford to make mistakes. 'To make a mistake in style or colour is possible. But to make a mistake in sizing is unforgivable,' says Mrs Bleach. Hours are spent deciding whether pants should be 86 or 114cm wide while on the other side of the room, a tug-of-war takes place between national buying teams to see who gets to use the cabin models next. It turns out they were both taking a nap anyway. 'You have to be methodical and have a strong fashion sense that includes a sense of proportion, colour and style,' says Mrs Bleach. 'Buying women's wear is much tougher than buying for men because the clothes have a much shorter shelf life. And most boutiques should aim to sell at least 50 per cent of their stock before sale-time.' In the Yves Saint Laurent showroom on Avenue George V, Hong Kong retail manager Lisa Tsai was looking for what she called 'hanger appeal' in an environment fraught with tension. 'Anything but polyester,' she said. 'I want only 100 per cent natural fabrics or viscose knits.' Even though Saint Laurent had a sparkling runway collection, the clothes on its racks now look unceremonious at best. But Ms Tsai is trying to be detached about it. 'I want to create a story with groups of clothing in the boutique. So I have to envision what the boutique will look like and then buy accordingly.' This is Ms Tsai's second buying trip for Yves Saint Laurent, and therefore her most difficult. Her first - for autumn/winter this year - has not been hung on hangers yet. 'During the first trip you are blind. During the second, you still have no history. If you've done it wrong the first time, you have no way of knowing yet,' she says. 'Every time I buy something, I have to think about who will want to buy it from us. But it's hard knowing that if we do something wrong, we can't come back and change it. We're stuck with it.' Until summer sale time, anyway.