The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) is positioning its trade show Centrestage as the annual signature event for western buyers and brands looking to expand to south-east Asian countries, and vice versa.
Now only in its second year, the show has set out to prove that, despite having a population of just 7 million, the territory is teeming with talented designers. Running on 6-9 September, the four-day show took the theme “Nouveau Playhouse”.
The icy air conditioning at its site in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, in commercial district Wan Chai, provided a welcome respite from the 32° humid heat enveloping its brands and visitors.
Around 210 exhibitors displayed a mix of luxury and ready-to-wear ranges across the hall’s three zones: “Glam” for international brands, “Allure” featuring upmarket designs, and “Metro” hosting sporty metropolitan brands. Roughly 80 exhibitors were based locally, while first-time exhibitors came from countries including Spain, Lebanon, Sweden and Singapore.
HKTDC organised 34 buying groups to visit the show, drawing in buyers from more than 1,000 companies based in 25 territories. Organisers said those in attendance included locally based buying teams from UK retailers such as Arcadia, Sainsbury’s and Harvey Nichols, as well as US retail giant Walmart. Michael Hadida, founder of Parisian trade show Tranoï, also visited.
With staff wandering around tapping portable xylophones as a five-minute notice for catwalk shows, and others diligently signposting directions to the show with hand-held placards, Centrestage was clearly planned down to the letter, barring one arguable exception.
The show’s scope from an international buying perspective was somewhat limited by being held in September, since many would already have placed the majority of their orders for spring 18, not to mention its clash with New York Fashion Week. Nonetheless, they displayed an appetite for understanding the Asian fashion scene and future dealings.
John Reid, owner of Bristol boutique Garment Quarter, said: “We were invited by the council and came here to look at product with an open mind. It’s been interesting to come in and see things from a different angle. If we weren’t so brand-orientated and had a bit more space for them, there are some clothing brands we could certainly see alongside what we offer.
“We’ve also already spent most of our spring 18 budget – we only have around 10% of it left. But there are potential opportunities for collaborations. [Meanwhile] quite a few businesses do their own production as well, which has made for some really good conversations.”
We’ve also already spent most of our spring 18 budget – we only have around 10% of it left
John Reid, owner at Bristol boutique Garment Quarter
Jean Colin is vice-president of global expansion for fashion at Samsung C&T, which represents one of the designers exhibiting. She agreed that the show’s September launch was “not the right time” for international buyers, making it tricky for brands that want to be seen on a global scale: “A lot of Asian [businesses], when they go outside their own countries, don’t know how everything works, because of cultural differences and also different scheduling – for example, when international buyers come and buy. These things cause a lot of confusion.
“Retailers need to have money to buy your brand but, if you are going after they’re done with buying for their season when they have no money left, [it results in] a lot of missed opportunities.”
Despite this, several exhibitors reported “productive conversations” with international buyers as well as taking orders, predominantly from mainland China.
Mainland China-based agency Tudoo, which represents more than 30 international brands including UK fast fashion label Glamorous, said it spoke to 20 prospective customers including French department store Galeries Lafayette.
Tudoo brand assistant Vicky Zheng said: “We’ve been taking orders and have seen a lot of interest from department stores and concept stores based in Europe and the Middle East. Everyone has been very curious and interested, and keen to stay in touch.”
UK leather accessories designer Cindy Zhang, who splits her time between London and Tianjin in China, was exhibiting at Centrestage with her eponymous couture and ready-to-wear ranges.
“In my opinion Hong Kong is a great gateway into the Chinese market,” she said. ”Chinese buyers see Hong Kong as a place that’s in tune with trends in London, given its historical ties and the fact that the younger generation tend to go to the UK to study fashion.”
Zhang added that she saw “a few quality buyers” from department stores and boutiques, from markets including mainland China, California and South Korea.
Buyer interest was piqued by the fair’s catwalk shows running throughout the four-day event, and showcased exhibitors’ latest collections.
Seoul-based menswear designer Juun J and Hong Kong brand Ffixxed Studios, who were the star names at Centrestage, closed the first day of the trade fair with runway shows displaying their spring 18 collections.
The fair hosted 20 fashion shows altogether, as well as 40 events including seminars and the 41st edition of the Hong Kong Young Fashion Designers’ Contest, held on the final day (9 September, when the show also opened to the public).
Still in its early years, Centrestage shows promise but has some teething problems. As a platform for up-and-coming designers, it has successfully showcased the talent that the market has to offer. But while it holds potential as a gateway for business between brands and buyers from Europe and Asia, which is growing as more people target expansion in overseas markets, it must reconsider its timing to become the quality fashion trading powerhouse it aspires to be.
Sophia chong hktdc headshot
Show insider: HKTDC assistant executive director Sophia Chong
Hong Kong Trading Development Council (HKTDC) assistant executive director and trade show organiser Sophia Chong speaks to Drapers about its push to strengthen ties between Southeast Asia and retailers in the UK and beyond.
What opportunities does Centrestage offer the UK market?
We aim to act as a two-way platform for the UK and other European companies where brands can also exhibit here, especially SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) that have fewer resources but aspire to promote their brand to the ever-growing middle-class consumer in this part of Asia.
Aside from Japan and Korea, which have very well-established fashion markets, middle-class consumption is growing for ASEAN regions, as well as awareness of fashion and lifestyle. [But many SMEs] have yet to establish fully fledged connections with international fashion platforms.
Many of these go directly to the west, but Hong Kong is much more conveniently located for the vast majority of multi-brand mainland Chinese stores. Around 8,500 buyers attended this year, predominantly from Asia, and many are looking for information sharing and trends. Hong Kong has always been a trendsetter for the [Southeast Asian nations], particularly in lifestyle.
We have interesting historical ties with the UK, so we are more familiar with the UK than anywhere else in Europe. That’s why UK companies are best positioned to take advantage of the Hong Kong market and do further trade with mainland China and beyond. A lot of SMEs usually go directly to China for this, but some have had to scale back because it is such a vast country.
What makes Centrestage unique?
We’re particularly proud of our one-on-one business matching service, which is very labour-intensive. A team led by three co-ordinators pools resources across the council and our 42-strong overseas office network to gather research on each buyer to match them with brands and pre-arrange appointments.
Equally, we take buyers who are keen to see Hong Kong’s retail scene out after the show to facilitate site visits and trips to local department stores. We think these tailor-made services make us unique, and make buyers feel like they are getting the most out of their experiences.
What feedback have you been getting from exhibitors?
Exhibitors have told us that they found our one-on-one business matching service particularly conducive to discussions and negotiations for further collaboration with different distributors and importers. So business sentiment is looking very positive.
Our fashion shows have also been very well attended – there has been double-digit percentage growth in our fashion show attendees, with more buyers than last year going in to look for pieces on the catwalk. Hosting business matching services after them has also encouraged follow-up discussions with designers.
Why is the last day of the show open to the public?
Nowadays, when we talk about B2B, the ultimate targets for lifestyle products are the consumers. We wanted to open the show to the public on the last day so that they can also access the latest trends and designer collections to promote brands. Not every brand has retail capacity, so these can also take the opportunity to sell onsite.
This way, we can give them some freedom and the option of doing some direct-to-consumer business. The public can also appreciate being able to interact with up-and-coming designers, hear their stories and understand their product.
What are your ambitions for Centrestage?
Our objective is to position Hong Kong as a platform for fashion brands that want to come into Asia and vice versa. We aim to become the premier, must-attend show for Asian talent, and for international buyers to see Hong Kong as a convenient one-stop shop to scout a variety of Asian brands, rather than going to each individual market. For Asia, the shows in Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai cater much more for domestic markets, so Centrestage is more internationally focused.
Retailers such as [Hong Kong luxury department store] Lane Crawford have told us that they find it very convenient that we can bring these quality prospective brands together, otherwise they would have to send their merchandisers to one particular region and spend a lot of time and effort on scouting brands. It also saves costs.
We started with around 100 brands when we launched last year so we have now doubled in size. But the curation of our brands is of utmost importance. We are looking for exponential growth in quality, not quantity. As a petite show, we’re about being small but beautiful.