GOAL: EUROPEAN QUALITY WITH ASIAN SENSIBILITY : EPISODE IMITATES LIFESTYLE OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS

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Hong Kong-based clothing retailer Toppy's got the international urge just 10 years ago, but has already adopted a sophisticated approach to global marketing. Fashion magazine ads for the family-owned business feature glamorous models Isabella Rossellini and Linda Evangelista posing as worldly, no-nonsense career women with no time to shop-except at Toppy's of course.

The oddly named Toppy's empire, founded by entrepreneur Jeffrey Fang 20 years ago, adapts the same lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous look for 240 shops in 19 countries.

Worldwide consistency seems to work. Revenues have grown from $5 million in 1985 to $250 million in 1995 with a few false starts in tough-to-crack foreign markets such as the U.S.

Proving its global bias, Toppy's combines European designs and U.S.-style merchandising and promotion with low-cost Asian manufacturing using silks from China, novelty fabrics from Italy and fine wool from Japan.

"A lot of people don't think it's Asian because it's got such a European image," said a Toppy spokeswoman. "In Europe they think it's European and in the U.S. they think it's American."

Like a lot of successful global fashion houses, Toppy's markets more than one brand to reach a variety of potential customers. Toppy's flagship brand Episode-named after Mr. Fang visited New York and compared the tantalizing shop displays to suspenseful U.S. soap opera episodes-is a loweprice alternative to designers such as Calvin Klein. The casual-wear label Excursion is likened to A-line Anne Klein, DKNY Jeans and Ellen Tracy.

Episode Studio is functional and relaxed, Jessica has an all-American girl appeal and Colour Eighteen is for the young and budget-conscious.

Toppy's offers one collection for each label but local merchandisers can select different styles, colors and sizes. For example, Hong Kong store managers don't carry such items as long skirts, long line jackets or earthy tones, which are unpoplar.

"I think Toppy has been one of the most successful retailers in Hong Kong," said Rodney Miles, chairman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association. "I think quite simply it is the design of the product and the branding."

Privately-owned Toppy's is secretive about strategy and won't reveal much about its advertising plan. However, ads placed by Hong Kong-based Thompson Worldwide Partners, are seasonal, timed to break in print and outdoor as new fall/winter and spring/summer clothes arrive.

Store managers within each market are offered a selection of fashion photo shots such as a current Vogue ad featuring a split, multiple image of a woman in career uniform: a well-tailored black suit. New York design shop Baron & Baron directs the creative for Toppy's ads outside the U.S.

To lure customers inside the store even when they're not in a shop-til-you-drop mode, Toppy relies heavily on shopper incentives. These goodies include VIP newsletters, discount vouchers for purchases within set periods or certain volumes, gift certificates and giveaway premiums.

But the formula hasn't always produced results. Earlier this year, Toppy's bailed out of the U.S. market, selling its 26 outlets to Philadelphia-based MothersWork through a licensing agreement. Mr. Fang said Toppy's couldn't compete effectively against so many similar American brands. He also said that the U.S. stores were difficult to manage because unlike densely populated Hong Kong, the market is geographically large.

MothersWork, known for maternity wear, will soon add two new multipurpose clothing brands designed for the U.S. market to the Episode collection. In late September, MothersWork also reopened a Madison Avenue Episode store that closed in April due to financial difficulties. Within a few years, as many as 75 U.S. stores are planned, according to Kitsa Tassian, MothersWork director of marketing.

New ads for the U.S. market will break next spring, under the direction of In the Mix, an advertising and public relations agency in New York.

Typically, Toppy seeks to avoid costly international mistakes by venturing into foreign markets with local partners. For instance, for its European debut in 1990, Toppy teamed up with European-based SR Gent PLE in a retailing joint venture that Toppy bought two years later. Europe is now home to nearly half of Toppy's overseas stores, including counters in Harrods and Selfridges in the U.K. and Galleries Lafayette in France.

Closer to home, Toppy continues to operate 30 successful stores in Asia even though several other well-known retailers have recently given up. Next stop for Toppy's is China, a mega-opportunity where the Asian retailer is testing 13 stores.

Contributing: Rebecca A. Fannin, New York.

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