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Asian fashion sophistication challenges traditional brand domination: HKTDC: Spring/Summer Fashion Week

Photo: Spring/Summer Fashion Week: seasonal glamour hits the catwalks.
Spring/Summer Fashion Week: seasonal glamour hits the catwalks.

"Back in the 1980s and early-1990s, three quarters of the people in Hong Kong and Singapore dressed in one style. Those days are gone…" These were the words of Michael Leow, founder of Creative Trends Services, a Hong-Kong based fashion trend forecasting consultancy. Leow was addressing a packed seminar at this year's HKTDC Spring/Summer Fashion Week and his message was clear – a new sense of sartorial awareness is emerging across the Asian markets.

Warming to his theme, he said: "People in Asia are growing more sophisticated in when it comes to dressing. This is the one macro, cyclical change we see coming through. The fashion industry these days is quite fractured – largely because the public is more fractured.

"The market is now more taste-driven. People have their own tribes – the youth-driven tribes, the skateboard tribe and the surf tribe. We see less overall harmony and a less homogenous market."

Photo: Macau style: high-profile presence.
Macau style: high-profile presence.

This year's Fashion Week proved the ideal opportunity to see just how widely Leow's words were borne out. Now in its 20th iteration, the four-day event welcomed 1,268 exhibitors from 20 different countries and regions, all keen to showcase their designs, international fashion concepts, accessories, and all manner of fabrics and sewing supplies.

A number of the national exhibitors – notably those from Canada, Poland and Russia – were first-timers, while there was also an impressive showing from Fashion Week stalwarts. Pride of place, of course, went to the pavilions – this year featuring China, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, India and Indonesia.

In total, the event attracted more than 17,000 buyers from 76 countries and regions, a rise of 3% on the 2012 figures. Tellingly, attendance from many of overseas markets also recorded significant growth. Canada, with a 46% increase in representatives saw the most marked upturn (though probably from a fairly low base), while territories closer to Hong Kong also showed a noticeable rise in attendance – including India (up 18%), the Philippines (up 22%), Singapore (up 12%), Taiwan (up 24%) and Thailand (up 22%).

As part of the event, the HKTDC had organised 88 overseas buying missions, bringing close to 5,000 buyers to the show. These included representatives from renowned brands, large-scale chain stores and distributors.

Among the key emerging market players in attendance were Brazil's Cavalera, China's VANCL, Poland's Top Secret, Russia's Ledi Sharm, South Africa's Truworths, Vietnam's CT Retail and the UAE's Namshi.com.

Toward an Asian aesthetic

Along with the feeling that greater sophistication was in the air, there was a concurrent belief that the time was now right for distinct, local fashion identities to emerge, particularly in Hong Kong, long a territory apt to ape the best styles originated elsewhere.

Citing the need for local creativity, Greer Hughes, Trend Director for Stylesight, an international fashion forecasting and trend analysis company, said: "The idea now is to create and solidify your identity as a brand or manufacturer by creating that point of difference. Even if there is less integrity on branding, you have got your own integrity to fall back on. That way, you are not repeating what others are doing and you are bringing in your own sense of innovation."

While acknowledging that Hong Kong remains light years ahead of the mainland, Hughes believes it still has a long way to go when it comes to establishing its own distinct look. She said: "There is definitely a Hong Kong aesthetic, but I think the city has a way to go in terms of expressing its own identity in that respect."

Photo: MacNab: 'keen to be unique'.
MacNab: "keen to be unique".

This bid to establish a singular aesthetic is not limited to Hong Kong, however. Indeed, according to some commentators, it is very much a pan-Asian preoccupation. Catriona MacNab is the Chief Creative Officer of WGSN, a London-based fashion intelligence service. Her presentation during Fashion Week emphasised this change in priorities, particularly with regard to the mainland market.

She said: "There is a move towards less of an emphasis on branding. It is now less about bling and the I-am-wearing-a-luxury-brand factor. There has been a well-documented shift in Chinese consumer attitudes."

MacNab, a regular visitor to the mainland over several years, said that the trend there was now towards uniqueness and self-expression, rather than brand expressions. As part of her presentation, she recounted her experience with one of the country's emerging brands.

She said: "I met a guy from the UFO clothing brand and, according to him, the company has very much changed direction in light of new developments in China. The company is keen to be unique; that is their mantra."  As part of this new direction, she said, there was now far more emphasis on original, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind bespoke goods.

MacNab's view of these new priorities was echoed by Aurora Corpus, a director of Notepad, a Hong Kong-based fashion consultancy, and a Fashion Week veteran. She, too, believes that Hongkongers – and consumers in the wider Asian market – are gradually weaning themselves off the slavish brand loyalty that characterised the 1980s and 1990s.

She said: "Hong Kong firms need to look more at going back to the basics, creating handcrafted, unique, limited edition stuff, in order to establish a niche. I think that is the only way to move forward.

"I noticed that there a few young graduates exhibiting here who are doing just that – rediscovering handcrafted fashion; clothing with a twist, trends and accessories that are handcrafted onto the clothes themselves. I also noticed some very small stores where young designers are producing and designing their own T-shirts.

"Hopefully, this is a sign there will be more unique goods, instead of the mass-produced, simplified merchandise that is found practically everywhere else in the world."

Despite these signs of the emergence of a grassroots movement aimed at creating a distinctly Asian style – and one with potentially international appeal – there remains some scepticism as to the global potency of such a look.

Photo: Leow: Asian fashion still driven by Milan, Paris and London.
Leow: Asian fashion still driven by Milan, Paris and London.

Addressing the issue, Creative Trends' Leow said: "A lot of trends in Asia and the West are driven by what is happening on the runways of Milan, Paris, New York and London. Until we have designers that genuinely rival the ones working in these cities, I don't think anything is going to change.

"Although some Asian designers are now able to show their work in New York and other leading fashion centres, it is still an opportunity open only to a small minority."

Celebrating heritage and home style

Perhaps counter-intuitively given the drive for internationalising Asian fashion, one of the other recurring themes at the Spring/Summer Fashion Week was the growing demand for garments and accessories that evoked both domestic heritage and homeliness.

Highlighting this development, MacNab said: "Things that are traditional and look as though they have been handcrafted are very much in demand. Consumers are also looking for something that has a worn and loved appearance, something that has an obvious heritage.

"This is particularly apparent in the more affluent Asian societies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where there is growing cultural pride and a desire to reconnect with your roots. Added to that, there is an element of not wanting to be seen as imitating others.

"While there is still a tendency to look to the West for influences, particularly Paris and Milan, there is also a great desire to wear something in keeping with your own heritage. This is particularly true on the mainland. While it is still important to have an awareness of the New York shows, Asian designers are also keen to reflect what is happening in their own world. They do not want to copy anyone else."

Perhaps understandably, given the eclectic influences that govern the contemporary fashion scene, there is a lack of consensus as to just what will determine the future Asian styles. Leow, for one, sees Japan and Korea emerging as counterweights to western influences, notwithstanding the fact that those two markets have their own penchant for European and US stylings.

He said: "Frankly, Chinese aspirations are always entwined with overseas concepts. Talk to any young people on the mainland and they are looking to Korea and Japan, countries which, in turn look to the West. Nowadays, the Chinese also look to European magazines and TV shows, with cultural influences flowing around the world amazingly quickly."

The Japanese and Korean influence was also cited as a major factor by Corpus. She said: "Young people in Hong Kong and on the mainland are very Japanese- and Korean-oriented and their influence is set to continue for a long time. While there is not so much emphasis on the couture and designer labels of the two countries, per se, there is a definite influence in terms of accessories."

Photo: Hughes: 'distinct style'.
Hughes: "distinct style".

Ultimately, Stylesight's Hughes sees Korea and Japan as offering proof that Asian countries can create their own distinct style. She said: "A lot of young designers in Hong Kong and on the mainland are looking to Japan and South Korea thinking: 'If they did it, we can do it here too. We can create our own identity and our own look'.

"There's still huge potential for change and Hong Kong, in particular, may yet develop its own version of Tokyo's famed Harajuku district – an area long associated with creating national and, in some cases, international fashion trends."

The ascent of the mainland and the decline of the West

Moving away from the trends likely to reshape the Asian fashion industry, the overall feeling was that this latest instalment of Fashion Week was constructive, while retaining a suitably playful edge. The event's over-arching theme – 'sweet treats' – also met with widespread approbation.

Leow said: "It lent a very playful mood and helped create a fun environment. As usual, the venue was excellently dressed throughout."

The environment and the theme aside, however, a number of attendees felt one thing was noticeably absent from the event – the usual western contingent, with mainland and local firms predominating.

Leow said: "While there were high-profile delegations from India and Taiwan, it was more of a HK-centric-affair than usual. In the past, there were more Western faces. On the other hand, there were certainly more mainlanders this year."

According to Corpus, the sense of a greater mainland presence was partly down to improvements to the organisation and structure of the event.

She said: "The Spring/Summer event was definitely better organised, especially in the case of showcasing the mainland participants. This time they had an entire, dedicated hall, as opposed to being scattered chaotically around the show.

"There were, however, fewer Australians, New Zealanders and Europeans. Southeast Asian designers were also not fully represented. Previously, Indonesia has always had a strong presence here and it would be nice to see more designers from Thailand. The big accessories contingent from the Philippines was also noticeable by its absence."

Photo: India: big presence, small range.
India: big presence, small range.

By way of some compensation, the India pavilion was considerably larger than in the past but, despite this, some found its range of offerings a little disappointing.

Leow said: "I would have liked to have seen more diversity coming out of India; there were only two shirt vendors present, for instance. There is more diversity in India than just shawls and scarves, the two categories that featured most heavily."

Corpus, too, would have liked to see more from Indian designers saying: "Where were they? They are creating beautiful things, but the world will not know about it unless they make their presence known."

The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Hong Kong Fashion Week for Spring/Summer 2014 was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 8-11 July 2013.

from special correspondent Ajay Shamdasani, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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