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The Times Shopper



HONG KONG — I'm not exactly someone you'd describe as "born to shop."

My basic wardrobe revolves around six pairs of black palazzo pants (hey, they'll be back in vogue eventually), and although I occasionally update the top half of my ensemble, I detest spending time inside fitting rooms--especially when the weather is beautiful and I'm in some exotic foreign country.

But there I was in the land of the 24-hour, custom-tailored suit, the world's designer-discount capital. How could I resist a Hong Kong shopping spree?

If it is true that the average Hong Kong shopper spends $400 a day, as one tourist guide maintained, I did not quite hold up my end. After 14 days, my tab was about $500. But I had bought more clothes than in any other two-week period in my life.

Once I found the well-worn (but easily missed) path to the best bargains, I was flinging purchases into my hotel closet faster than Imelda Marcos on a Ferragamo binge. Leather, silk, wool, jackets, blouses, sweaters, scarves, earrings, watches--I barely remembered them all when it came time to repack my suitcase.

Almost everything in Hong Kong is somewhat cheaper than anywhere else. Most imported goods are duty-free. There is no sales tax. Production costs are low and fierce competition further keeps prices down.

Many major designers have manufacturing operations in Hong Kong or contract with factories in China, where labor is even cheaper. Outlet shops sell overruns, returned stock, samples or quality-control rejects.

Pirated goods and knock-offs of everything you could think of also abound, so buyer beware! But the knock-offs are pretty sensational, too.

Savings--usually 50% to 66% off the price that one would see in a big American city--may not pay for your trip, but it may come close to doing so if there's a lot of family buying to do.

As for tailors, there seems to be four per block in Kowloon, plenty more elsewhere around Hong Kong.

I had heard so much about Hong Kong tailors that I arrived with my suitcase half empty, expecting to have a few favorite blouses and jackets cloned for next to nothing.

After talking with a few tailors, however, I found out that they are geared to cranking out suits for men (and for women in a limited number of traditional styles). The blouses I wanted with dolman sleeves, a pair of culottes and a drop-sleeved jacket each would have been about $150, all much more than I was willing to pay unless I could get exactly what I wanted.

And the more we talked about the designs, the more my distinctive styles seemed to be turning into the tailors' tried-and-true patterns.

Some tailors have better selections of cloth or let you supply your own (there is one whole street in Hong Kong's central district with shops selling bolts of material). Two tailors recommended to me were Johnson Dong in the Omni Hong Kong Hotel arcade and Sam's Tailor in the Milton Building, corner of Nathan and Granville roads.

It takes more than 24 hours to have anything made, though, now that so many 747s full of shoppers from around the world arrive in Hong Kong. Expect two or three fittings over perhaps a week. Suits go for about $300 to $500--about the same for men or women.

There are a few secrets to getting the most out of a Hong Kong shopping trip:

--Get a good idea of prices in various retail stores for such clothing as dresses, blouses, knitwear, silk, leather, down coats and jackets.

--Don't waste time in the glitzy American-style malls, where, at best, the savings are only a few dollars off brands that are found at home.

--Spend $6 for an indispensable paperback by Dana Goetz called "The Complete Guide to Factory Bargains," available in bookstores. It has information on every discounter, plus tips on how to tell the designer markdowns from the fakes (e.g., good stuff frequently has mother-of-pearl buttons, which feel cool when you touch the underside of the button to your bottom lip).

--Familiarize yourself with the lay of the land and plan your shopping excursions to outlying areas; do not wander aimlessly.

--Carefully look over everything you buy. Some garments are final sale, and some discount shops are poorly lit. Shops that display the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. logo stand behind their products, but don't necessarily avoid those without it. Just don't expect every designer label you see to be authentic.

--Take a shot at bargaining everywhere except department stores, and always ask if there is a discount for paying in cash.

I found the best values in four areas: the Central district on Hong Kong Island, the industrialized Kowloon districts of Hung Hom and Lai Chi Kok, and in Tsim Sha Tsui, the main hotel district of Kowloon.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, I liked three shops in the Sands Building, 17 Hankow Road.

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