Fashion 101: How do Designers Get Fabrics?

I’ve been asked this question several times so I thought it was time to write a Fashion 101 about it.

fashion 101, fabrics, designer, fashion design

Burberry's woven raffia and cotton coat.

First of all, designers don’t go to fabric stores to get their fabrics, they buy it from manufacturers, wholesalers, or agents. In fact, fabric is usually the first thing they will work with when designing a new collection, as fabrics are usually chosen before the collection is designed or they’ve even begun research. Like fashion companies, fabric companies will create collections, but they work a season ahead of the designers (as the designers need a season to work with the fabrics to create the clothing.) I think it is interesting that fashion design is actually quite limiting, because designers can only work with fabrics that exist and are available. Very few fashion brands actually create their own fabrics, usually this is only done by large sportswear companies that need specialist fabrics (ex. Nike.) Luxury brands will be able to request special prints, colour combinations, or dyes, but they will rarely get a fabric specifically create and woven for them. Here are the steps involved in getting the fabrics for a fashion collection.

fashion industry, fashion designers, fabrics, fashion 101

J Crew's printed cotton pants.


Step 1: Look at fabric collections.

Major fabric tradeshows usually take place around the same time as the fashion weeks (except they are showing fabrics for the following fashion week.) This means that right smack in the middle of the shows, designers are already doing research for the fabrics for their next collections! The tradeshows feature most of the large fabric suppliers, they each build a stand and designers can visit them and go through the collections, which will be large swatches of fabrics. The designers will choose the fabrics they are interested in, and make a sample order.

Some brands will work with fabric manufacturers every season, so instead of seeing them at a tradeshow (which is a busy, dusty hellhole), their agent or representative will come to their offices. This is the same deal as the tradeshow, they will bring samples of their new collections, and the design team will choose which ones they are interested in. Samples will follow.

fashion industry, fashion designers, fabrics, fashion 101

Lanvin's sequin-printed silk satin top.


Step 2: Narrow the selection.

Designers will receive the samples (sometimes called hangers) and will start to narrow down their selection of fabrics. Say for example, a company needs 15 tailoring fabrics in their collection, they might choose twenty, and do a feasibility test to see which ones work the best. They will order some sample metres of the fabrics (this will be in whatever colour the manufacturer has available) and make up a few garments to test the fabric. The garments will most likely be shapes from a previous season, as they haven’t started to design the new season yet. Let’s say they are looking at a wool tweed, they may choose to make a blazer from last season, to see if they like the drape, feel, and look of this tweed. In doing this, the designers will get a chance to see several of the fabrics in “action.” They will then make a final selection of fabrics for the collection.

fashion industry, fashion designers, fabrics, fashion 101

By Malene Birger's lace trimmed silk chiffon top.

Step 3: Order the collection fabrics.
Once they have decided on the fabrics, they need to place an order for the collection fabrics. The collection is the series of garments that the brand will use on their catwalk, to show to buyers, for display in their selling showrooms, and eventually as press samples. A small brand will make one of each garment, whereas a larger brand could make up to 10 or 20 of each garment (ex. At Sonia Rykiel, we made four collections, and had them all in Paris for the catwalk show and during the sales straight afterwards. Then, we kept one collection in Paris, one collection went to NYC, one collection went to Germany, and one was traveling, so would go to Japan and a few other countries.)

Ordering the collection fabrics is where things begin to get expensive. Let’s say the company decides to use the wool tweed, but they want it in black, grey, and pink, because those are the main colours in their collection. But the fabric manufacturer only offers it in black, navy and red. This means they need to do a special dye lot for only a few meters of fabrics, so the company can make the small number of garments needed for their collection, in black, grey, and pink. Dyeing 20m of fabric is almost the same amount of work as dyeing 200m of fabric, so it costs a LOT more per meter to dye small quantities. We are talking 2-5 times the production price. If that wool tweed was going to cost $10/m, it would cost $20-$50/m for collections. There could be a similar situation if they chose a silk satin, but wanted their own print design on the fabric. It it always more expensive to order smaller quantities of materials.

fashion industry, fashion designers, fabrics, fashion 101

Michael Michael Kors silk blend tweed jacket.

Step 4: Order the production fabrics.
So the company orders the collection fabrics, makes the collection, hosts a fashion show, and then sells the collection to stores. Once they have gotten all their orders in, they need to buy the fabrics for production, these are the clothes that are going to end up in stores. These orders are very big, usually thousands of meters of each fabric. The rolls get sent straight to the manufacturer, who then make the clothing.

And that’s the story of how designers get fabric! By the way, this is the same process people use for zippers, buttons, ribbons, and other trims.

If you have any other questions about how the fashion industry works, send them over using my Ask Alexandra form. All images from Net A Porter.

Read other Fashion 101′s:
Fashion 101: What Does a Stylist Do?
Fashion 101: Where do Fashion Trends Come From?

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  • http://factoryextreme.com/ Grace Kelly

    Awesome !!  All  fabrics collection i really like it .

  • Allie

    Question: How does one get added to these buying list or where should I go?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    You need to research the trade fairs and then apply to be a guest or buyer.

  • Ejoy

    Now which trade fair is the most popular?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Premiere Vision in Paris.

  • Fashion Designer :)

    I heard that a fashion designer does (almost) the same job like the tailor or seamstress( if that`s true ) why than is necessary studying fashion design ( I think that could be better if the fashion designer make designs (in paper) and tailor or seamstress cut and sew them ) .That could be an deserved and achieved job.(I THINK SO ,IT`S ONLY MY OPINION…)

    P.S.: I am sorry for my english :(

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Um, no. The designer designs, whereas the tailor or seamstress makes. The designer must know the basics of “making” but also needs to know
    how to design clothes, which is a skill a tailor or seamstress does not often have. Also, you can be a designer without knowing the making skills (although most of them do.)

  • Nelfy

    how about two brands buy for 1 fabric?

  • Tiara Mou

    Hey. I happen to be a tailoress. And I’ve come bearing important news
    for you: dressmakers and tailors do not just sew garments. That’s what a seamstress does. Most tailors/dressmakers have all the skills a
    designer does (or rather, skills a designer should have). They know how to make original patterns, grade patterns, drape, reinvent, and conceptualize. To succeed you need extraordinary spacial ability, historical fashion knowledge, and technical skill. It takes years of hardwork to become an adept tailor or dressmaker. Many of the great fashion designers identified as tailors/dressmakers first and designers last. That’s because they had integrity in their work and knew design was more than drawing pictures and getting famous.
    A designer should not have, as you say, basic knowlege of clothing construction. They should have extensive knowledge of clothing construction. Any designer worth their salt is basically an advanced tailor/dressmaker. These important distinctions became blurred when Art Schools instead Trade Schools began teaching fashion design and techniques. What has the result been? Massive amounts of extremely poor clothing. People like to blame this phenomena on the fact that we now use seamstresses in China and Bangladesh. But the truth is, all of this mess started right at home. It began with self-described fashion designers who are poorly educated and unduly arrogant. For anyone wanting to succeed in this field my advice is: Integrity in your craft is everything. You are a tailor/dressmaker first, designer second.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I totally disagree, and as someone who has worked as a designer at Sonia Rykiel and Burberry, I think I know what I am talking about when I write about what a designer does. I do agree that a designer should have a strong understanding of pattern making and construction, but to expect a designer to have extensive skills of both of these things, AND to be able to design and understand the whole sales and marketing aspects of the design trade, is asking for the impossible. Back in the day of Dior and Balenciaga, designers were doing two collections a year. Now they do a minimum of six. They need to learn the business side of things, as well as the making side, and to expect a designer to also be a master tailor and a skilled pattern maker is frankly impossible. Tailoring, high quality dressmaking, and patternmaking are all extremely skilled roles and no big company expects one person to do all of these things to a high level. At all of the companies I have worked at, there were separate roles for all of these jobs because they wanted the BEST person for each role. Also, at St. Martins, you don’t actually make your own collections. You learn these skills, but when it comes to final collections, the school hires professionals to make the patterns and sew the garments for you. Why? Because as a designer, you need to be able to communicate your ideas to a team.

    So contrary to your belief, my blog posts DO have substance. I have experience in the luxury world, and I do know what I am talking about. A designer producing collections that include hundreds of garments a year cannot be expected to make them all – instead, the designer needs the skills to understand how the clothing is made, but also needs to have the skills to communicate his/her ideas, build collections, and work with sales, production, and marketing teams. You can’t expect them to be master tailors as well.

  • Di?na Potocka

    Loved this post, thank you! Looking forwards for a trade in London.

  • David Gatdula

    Can you tell me the specific date month where they start buying and designing fabrics? Lets say, for Fall 2014.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    July – October 2013.

  • notbeautifulenough

    I totally agree with you! A designer should have all the knowledge of tailoring and dressmaking FIRST.

    Ummm, Balenciaga???

    Do some research, people…

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Have you worked in fashion? I have, and I’ve seen how the industry works first hand. Of course designers have knowledge of tailoring and dressmaking. BUT, they hire people to do that, because they can’t do everything AND they can’t be the best at everything.

  • Churpina

    Thank youuuu!!!