There are growing signs that Hong Kong's garment and fashion industry is approaching a serious crossroad. Increasing numbers of mainland Chinese manufacturers are taking over Hong Kong's role of mass-producing quality fashion items at reasonable cost.
As a result Hong Kong manufacturers must now look for a new niche by producing higher quality and better designed fashion products, leaving their former market to the fierce competition that has emerged among indigenous China suppliers. But to reach this higher plane the Hong Kong industry must remake and revitalise itself.
Anthony Keung, managing director of Fenix Hong Kong Ltd, confirms that the competitive advantage of Hong Kong's garment and fashion industry previously enjoyed in producing "cheap yet quality" fashion items for overseas markets is now being seriously threatened by mainland manufacturing centres such as Shanghai and Tianjian, which can match the quality but under-cut prices.
With quota restrictions on mainland manufactures likely to be further relaxed by the European Union and the US in the next two years, Mr Keung anticipates that the present role of Hong Kong as the bridge between the mainland and these markets will completely fade out. In consequence, he considers the Hong Kong garment and fashion industry should raise the bar higher for itself by producing quality higher apparel of upgraded design.
"European countries are now facing the problem of ageing populations, so that the productivity of their workforces is going downhill," he explains. "As a result, some high-end fashion companies are gradually switching their production lines to the mainland. This gives Hong Kong the opportunity to leverage on its favorable location adjoining the mainland to offer joint venture deals with such companies and move on to better quality products."
Several years ago Fenix switched its focus to producing high quality fashionable items at a reasonable cost, anticipating that the time was ripe to lead the way forward. In 1994 the company had created its own brands, including Anteprima, to target higher-profile female customers.
Establishing a brand in the world of fashion is a tough call, says Mr Keung. Only a few Hong Kong brands have fully established themselves. Fenix's experience with the Anteprima brand involved much time and effort to establish it as a high-end Italian product.
Meanwhile, in line with the company's philosophy for the future, Fenix is now looking for six to eight more merchandisers while retraining its existing 60, to handle its markets in the US, Japan and Europe for sweater, woven, cut and sewn products.
"While experience in the industry is preferable but not essential, they should be knowledgeable in fashion and textiles, plus marketing and business administration, and speak and write English and Chinese," he says.
Fenix considers each merchandiser a "unit boss". Therefore, recruits will receive comprehensive fashion production training including such basic aspects as dyeing and clothing materials.
Merchandisers' duties include overseeing every stage of production, from research and development of the original concept to ensuring that the product reaches the customer on time and in sufficient quantity. They are also responsible for developing marketing strategies, business expansion and market diversification for their respective units.
"We believe they should be versatile in different areas of the industry and alert to significant changes," adds Mr Keung. He admits that a merchandiser's job is both demanding and rewarding. Long working hours are part of the job, as are overseas trips. Success is not based on seniority but on the individual's work performance and the business growth of their units. High flyers can even get the opportunity to set up their own divisions.
As part of a quest for dynamic new blood not only in the merchandising division but in its operations section, Fenix is seeking to enlist six or seven university graduates, whose talents would be used to uplift its retail business brand image and promote better customer services. They, too, would be given a full background in the apparel industry as well as undergoing the company's management trainee programme.
While there are no specific requirements for such graduates, they would require a passion for fashion, and good communication skills. Those majoring in business, marketing, textile and clothing are welcome to apply.
After completing the management trainee programme they would have the chance to be stationed in a Fenix retail store in Singapore or mainland China to familiarise themselves with regional markets and gain greater experience of the group's operations.