WOMEN don't wear dresses during the day anymore. Separates and suits, that's the way to go, insist the fashion pundits. Radhika Galardi-Este has been hearing that solemn pronouncement for a decade and it never fails to make her smile. Extraordinary how it's managed to succeed in the face of such widespread aversion, observes the power behind the Cotton Collection. With a territory-wide chain of 25 shops and regional expansion already taking off, Galardi-Este can afford to indulge in a little irony. After all, the cornerstone of the Cotton Collection is the humble frock. ''We are a niche business, people come to us when they want a dress,'' says the canny entrepreneur, who correctly identified a gap in the market and, to the relief of thousands, moved swiftly to fill it. Almost to the point of overflowing - visit any of those small, cheerful outlets and you will be struck by the amount and variety of garments. ''Our customers are spoiled for choice,'' says Galardi-Este. ''About every 10 days we add something new.'' There will be an extra surprise with the arrival of the Cotton Collection's spring-summer 1994 stock. Still the usual profusion of mostly floral dresses, plus a new range that is likely to cause much lip-biting among Hong Kong's upmarket fashion retailers. ''We've called it Global Village and I'm tremendously excited about it,'' says Galardi-Este. ''We've done three main colour stories - spicy tones, neutrals and indigo - and the ecological feeling is reflected in the fabrics and styling. ''Take this dress in linen and cotton-viscose,'' she says. ''Look at its detail - the hand-done cross-stitching, the jute lacing, the carved bone buttons - and tell me how much you think it would cost if it had a big-name label.'' Galardi-Este loves playing the hypothetical game. She also has the answer, multiply the Cotton Collection price by about three - at least. She's not far wrong. With its clean-cut look, emphasis on natural fibres and handcrafted details, there is not much separating the Global Village line - perfectly in tune with the new season's back-to-nature mood - from the glamour-label brigade. It also comes with massive inducements: prices starting at $295 for separates and dresses ranging from $495 to $680. ''People don't want to spend crazy amounts for clothes,'' she insists. ''They don't want to spend a fortune caring for them either, which is why everything we sell is hand-washable and made in durable fabrics.'' The Global Village clothes include some in pure cotton, though as usual, most have been made from blended fibres. ''In that sense, Cotton Collection is a bit of a misnomer,'' admits the boss, ''but I never intended to do just clothes in cotton. It may work fine for some things like shirts, but if you want a garment to drape, forget 100 per cent cotton. Besides, thisis not a homespun business.'' There is certainly nothing homespun about this elegant mother of two. The daughter of an Indian diplomat, she was 14 when she moved with her family to Tokyo and had a fine arts degree by the time she left. By then, Galardi-Este was also fluent in Japanese - a gifted linguist, she also speaks French and Italian - and was one of Tokyo's top models. ''Hanae Mori discovered me at a tea-party I went to with my mother,'' she says. ''She'd just done a collection in Indian fabrics and wanted me for her show, but it took some persuading. I was only 17 and still at a convent school.'' The moment she left, the offers came pouring in. ''I worked with Issey Miyake when he first came back from Paris - that was in the mid-70s when Japanese fashion was just taking off - and also modelled for most of the Paris designers showing in Tokyo - Dior, Saint Laurent, Nina Ricci, I did them all. ''I made a fortune modelling - right through my university years and for a couple of years after graduating - but it bored me stiff. All those fittings weren't wasted though. You can learn a lot through observation.'' The doe-eyed beauty had also made excellent use of her summer holidays while still at school. At 16, she was taken on as an apprentice by celebrated woodblock print artist Yoshitoshi Mori and the following year, she worked at a handscreen-printing mill. ''I didn't quite know where it was all leading,'' she recalls. ''As a teenager, I thought I might like to be a textile designer. I've been fashion-conscious for as far back as I can remember.'' She married, moved to Hong Kong and suddenly everything fell into place, but it came unstuck almost as rapidly. ''I started a wholesale menswear business, but it never really took off,'' she says. ''It was an expensive experiment - and the best business school imaginable.'' With her hard-won knowledge, she opened a tiny basement shop in D'Aguilar Street, stocked it with floral print dresses by France's Rene Derhy and called it the Cotton Collection. That was in June 1984, just three months after the birth of her elder daughter Oriana (named after the Italian writer, Oriani Fallaci). By the time her second child Sonalie was born, the business was flourishing and it has never slowed down. ''Nine months after starting the Cotton Collection, I opened a shop in the Ocean Centre and things just kept growing from there. ''Sogo and Times Square are the latest additions and now we're poised for major expansion throughout the region. There are already 10 Cotton Collection shops under franchise in Taiwan - by the end of the year, there will be 20 - and prospects in China are really exciting. ''We already have an outlet in Shenzhen and I'd love to open a shop in Shanghai.'' By ''we'' Galardi-Este means her 150-strong team of employees, including two full-time designers, though there's no doubt about who runs the show. ''I'm the design director and merchandiser,'' says the woman with the sharpest dress-sense in town.