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