For many people any mention of fashion immediately conjures up images world-famous designers, catwalk shows, glamorous supermodels and outrageous creations. Admittedly, that is an integral part of the business, but it only accounts for a small portion of a multibillion-dollar industry which fills the racks of department stores and retail chains on every continent. People working in the sector determine high-street trends rather than spotting them and require both design ability and business acumen to be able to come up with new concepts and colour combinations for every season.
In this, fashion merchandisers play a leading role and are often the main decision-makers in a fast-paced environment where innovation and excitement are never far away. To perform effectively, they must have a sound knowledge of all the basic materials used in the manufacture of textiles and clothing, including fibres, yarns and fabrics. In addition, a good grasp of the latest manufacturing technologies is essential. Without this, it is next to impossible to understand the scope of the industry or speak with authority about design options, cost items or production efficiency, when dealing with factories or international customers. Clearly, the merchandiser needs intellectual and creative ability plus excellent communication skills.
In Hong Kong, the fashion and textile sector is a major contributor to the economy in terms of domestic production, international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). According to Stephen Cheng, programme leader for the MA in Fashion and Textiles at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), local companies still run a large proportion of the fashion and textiles operations, especially in the Pearl River Delta region.
Apparel manufacturing plants there have easy access to suppliers of textiles and accessories, and can respond quickly to customer demand. In many cases, though, the production, merchandising, quality control and marketing are managed from Hong Kong. This business evolved over the years and has subsequently been used for expansion into countries in Southeast Asia and to Mauritius. "Hong Kong has now established a reputation as a global centre for merchandising and sourcing garments," Dr Cheng says.
Even so, those in the sector must continue to keep up with advances in technology and to enhance their professional skills and expertise. For this reason, PolyU's Institute of Textiles and Clothing (ITC) has been offering specialist courses and has regularly updated each programme to incorporate the very latest developments. This flexibility has allowed students to focus on the most practical aspects of the profession in the areas of fashion technology, fashion merchandising and, more recently, in global fashion management (GFM).
This latter speciality was developed in cooperation with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Institut Francais de la Mode in Paris. "Students of GFM programmes will be able to visit New York and Paris during the course of study in order to broaden their horizons," notes Dr Cheng. The aim is to give students a global perspective, which is crucial for understanding trends and maintaining a competitive edge in today's fashion business.
"The underlying premise is to produce professionals in fashion and textiles who have an advanced understanding and mastery of their specialised area of study. They should view the programme as something which can provide a vital contribution for their career and for personal growth," Dr Cheng adds.
The three-year programme leads to either a postgraduate diploma or an MA in fashion and textiles depending on the number of credits attained. Whatever their intended stream, students are required to take four core modules: fashion retailing, research methodology, information technology for textiles and clothing industries, and international fashion and textile design. The electives which follow are tailored to allow students a certain amount of flexibility to pursue individual interests.
As one of the largest academic centres of its kind in the world, the ITC has lecturers and professors with expertise in everything from textile chemistry and apparel technology to design, quality assurance, merchandising, and fashion retailing. This makes it possible for MA holders to go on to do further research leading to either an MPhil or a PhD.
Looking ahead, Dr Cheng believes the fashion and textile business is almost certain to become even more competitive in future. "China is likely to pose a threat for professionals in Hong Kong, since so much of the manufacturing of the world's of the world textile and clothing industry is now located in the mainland. The contacts and the number of direct deals between suppliers and overseas buyers is set to increase," he explains.
However, he emphasises that the ITC's programmes will provide students with the knowledge, technical skills and management ability to cope well in this challenging environment. He also notes that the role of a merchandiser in the fashion and textile business is quite different from that in other industries such as toys or footwear. "Fashion mechandisers are expected to possess a very wide range of skills and, for example, must understand the details of which manufacturing technologies can be used for each type of material," Dr Cheng concludes.
Field of fashion
- Fashion merchandisers must possess sound knowledge of materials used in the manufacture of textiles and clothing
- The fashion and textile sector is a major contributor to local economy in terms of domestic production, international trade and foreign direct investment
- Hong Kong has a reputation as global centre for garments merchandising and sourcing