Designing a dreamcoat

by Felix Chan

William Tang, fashion designer

Although the economic downturn has obviously impacted all sectors of Hong Kong, when it comes to the issue of apparel, local fashion designers continue to find their latest creations in hot demand

Years of exposure, expertise and a high awareness of what fashion design is about place Hong Kong designers in a better position than many of their overseas counterparts. But, while they have the potential to achieve great things, the market in Hong Kong is small and competitive.

However, although there may be fewer openings locally, the mainland has been rapidly taking on more Hong Kong fashion design talent. "They are prepared to pay at least Hong Kong levels and these are opportunities that can be exploited," says leading local fashion designer William Tang.

As many popular brands can be purchased in Hong Kong, ordinary customers have a wide range of choice. "They don't show particular loyalty to home-grown designers," says Mr Tang. "Hence, local designers are facing a major problem - a diminishing customer base."

While much depends on how powerful designers are in areas such as design, relationships and star quality, Mr Tang admits that he greatly appreciates the Trade Development Council's efforts to make HKSAR a better-known fashion centre by holding trade fairs overseas and fashion shows and competitions at home.

"Indeed, it is not an unreachable target. Hong Kong has a strong manufacturing background and its designers' abilities are the best in the Asia Pacific region, behind Japan," he says. "What is lacking is that Hong Kong designers tend to place overwhelming emphasis on promoting clothes that already have a market, whereas Japanese designers, through proper backing, can afford to develop their own culture and style."

Hong Kong has a strong manufacturing background

Fashion designers rely on not only their talent but also a good rapport with garment manufacturers, explains Mr Tang. Manufacturers should produce their designs systematically, professionally and long-term and an outstanding promotion machine must be readily available that promotes goods not just locally but internationally.

Rather than simply meeting orders, manufacturers could benefit from operating and selling under their own labels. However, Mr Tang does not see this happening. "The Hong Kong garment industry is mostly made up of manufacturers who are content with taking in orders and exporting finished items. They are not too bothered about developing their own labels, whereas their mainland counterparts have a more positive attitude to this area."

Fashion design courses are offered at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Institute of Vocational Education. But where a fashion design degree is obtained is irrelevant; gaining a firm foothold in the profession can only be achieved with excellent design skills, says Mr Tang.

"As for personality, it depends on which road [the designer] chooses to go down. If he wants to create his own line of clothing, he must be creative by nature. Otherwise, if he's working for someone, a good grasp of his boss's expectations [and] the market he is designing the clothes for will be handy,'' he says.

Mr Tang estimates that there are about 3,000 to 4,000 local fashion designers, but says it is difficult to calculate how they are spread across the industry. The general starting pay for a fashion design graduate is around HK$8,000. Those with lesser experience can join as assistant designers - taking about two to three years to become designers proper.

Even if a fashion design graduate cannot find employment as a fashion designer or finds the work tough, the qualification is not wasted. Many can acquire other design-related jobs, becoming film art directors, television costume designers and marketing and promotion officers.

Taken from Career Times 19 September 2003
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