I often get emails from people wishing to start their own companies and asking that I help them find a manufacturer. Believe it or not finding a good manufacturer is probably the second biggest challenge when starting a fashion company, second only to successfully wholesaling your product. I know of many, many production nightmares, and now I am adamant that a good, reliable manufacturer is essential to start a fashion company.
Basically, you can’t really start selling, or even promoting your company without solid manufacturing, unless you plan on making the production runs yourself. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the samples you show to buyers must be close to identical to the ones you will be delivering when they place an order. If you are making delicate bias-cut chiffon dresses, you need to make sure that you can find a factory who will be able to make them as nicely as you can make them in your studio. Secondly, you cannot cost a garment without knowing how much it will cost in production. I have tried to do this before (with another company), it was a disaster. You usually can’t guess how much it will cost in production, and you must have accurate production prices to properly calculate your wholesale or retail prices.
So here are the steps I would suggest you go through, if you are looking to start your own fashion company, and need to find production.
1. Figure out what you are making. Different countries make different items. For example, with footwear, the big manufacturing countries would be China, Italy, Spain, or a few places in South America. You won’t get high quality shoes made in Canada, so don’t expect to produce there. Specialist products (lingerie, footwear, high tech clothing) are usually only produced properly in a handful of places. If you are doing something quite basic, like tailoring or jerseys, then there are more options.
2. Determine your product’s price point. If you are going to be making t-shirts and you want them to sell in stores for $30 (which means you have to sell them to stores for $10-$15), then you’ll have to be looking overseas (most likely to Asia) for production. If you want to make $5,000 suits, then you can pretty much go anywhere that knows how to make suits. But the likelihood is that initially you will struggle to get the price you want, so figure this out and work backwards. Keep in mind that sometimes your margins need to be a bit lower at the beginning because your quantities will be smaller.
3. Think about where you’d like the product made. Chances are, the price will in some way dictate this, but if it is a priority (ex. part of your concept is producing locally), then this could be step 2. For The Sleep Shirt, we wanted the product made in Canada, so I researched factories here, and knew my margins would be low at the beginning, because my quantities are so small. If you are open to options, then research as many as possible. Many people tend to think China=cheap, but with their long lead times and expensive shipping (unless you are doing it by sea) it can sometimes make sense to produce closer to home.
4. Start to research manufacturers. This is tough. So few manufacturers are easy to find online, so few good ones even have proper websites. Here are a few tips:
- Ask around. If you have contacts in the industry, find out who they use.
- Speak to your suppliers (if you have any.) You may have already sourced some fabrics, materials, or services, so ask those contacts if they have any recommendations.
- Online searches. Very difficult, and SO many to sort through, but I’ve found good ones this way.
- Other industry sources: trade magazines, websites, tradeshows, etc… tend to have information on manufacturing. You need to be a detective here, but sometimes it can be worth it.
5. Interview your manufacturer. Once you have a shortlist of potential factories, you need to contact them and find out if they are right for you, and whether they are willing to work for you. Note that you should not approach them with the frame of mind “I am a customer” because manufacturers are difficult to work with and good ones are PRECIOUS. Approach them with the tone of “I am a great company and I would be thrilled if you’d be willing to work with me.” Here are a few questions to ask:
- Are they taking new customers?
- What kind of products do they produce?
- What brands do they work for?
- Where do they manufacture (some companies may be based one place, but manufacture somewhere else.)
- What are average prices (ex. since I am making shirts for The Sleep Shirt, just knowing the price of a classic men’s shirt gives me a good indication of what their price points are like.)
- What services do they provide? Can they do patterns, grading, samples, fabric sourcing, packaging, etc… As a smaller company, it often makes sense to source these things through the manufacturer, as they may have better buying power, and therefore get better prices. (On that note, they will probably add a commission to the materials they source.)
- What are their minimums? This is the minimum amount of product they will produce for you in one order. Don’t just ask number of pieces, ask about whether this is per shape, colour, and size. For example, a company that has a minimum of 500 pieces per order is not much, however a company that does 500 per piece per colour per size is a whole different story, if you are selling 8 different styles of shoes with 4 colour options and 5 sizes in each one (that’s a minimum order of 80,000 pieces, by the way.)
- Do they have terms for companies? What are their credit terms? More on this below.
- Are they scaleable? You may only need 500 pieces at the beginning, but what if you get an order for 10,000? Can this factory fill an order of that size?
- If you are satisfied with most of the answers to the above questions, it is time to trial the manufacturer.
6. Send them drawings. Now that you think you’ve found someone who might work, send them drawings, technical sheets, fabric swatches, research, whatever, and ask them to look it over and tell you whether they think it is something they can make. Remind them of your quantities. You should also give them a rough price point (if you know what is reasonable) and ask them whether it will be possible for them to work at that price point, and if not, what it would be. They should be able to get back to you about this quite quickly, usually a manufacturer knows straight away whether it will be something they can make or not.
7. Check your calendars. If you think this manufacturer will work, then make sure they have the time to help you. Give them a rough estimate of your collection and production schedule. You may not know quantities just yet, but come up with some estimates, and see if they can squeeze you in. You don’t want them to make you a sample collection, only to find out their production is booked solid for four months.
8. Have them make and cost a sample. Once you’ve confirmed the calendar, you can send them a pattern, fabric (unless they are sourcing it), and a sample (if you have one) and they can make you a first prototype. This is a great way for you to check their quality and construction, and this also gives them the opportunity to properly price the item. If there are any changes needed to the sample, get them to produce another one. And make sure your technical sheets are 100% accurate, so there is little room for errors! Mistakes are expensive.
9. Negotiate terms. If the sample is good, and you want to go ahead and work with this factory, you’ll need to negotiate (or at least agree on) prices and terms. Note that you’ll have very little negotiating power at the beginning, which is normal, but make sure that in future you will be able to get the prices and terms you need. At the beginning, if quantities are small, prices are likely to be high, which means margins will be low. But make sure that you get an idea of what prices will be like when orders are bigger. For example, if you want to pay $20 per t-shirt, but they are charging you $30 for an order of 500 pieces, make sure that when you order 2500, or 5000, that the price will be to your liking.
10. Reserve time. If you are satisfied with the agreement and the sample, then reserve time. Make sure they have a rough idea of your quantities and schedule, and that they will have time to produce your collection. Get this in writing!
11. Get your sample collection made. Now you are ready to order your sample collection, which will be the garments you use to show the buyers and eventually, media.
12. Sell your collection. This is the most difficult part of having your own collection! Good luck.
13. Put it into production! Once you have some orders, or if you are selling the product yourself, you are good to go! Place an order, and make sure to regularly follow up with the factory. They often need hand holding, so check in once a week or so, and make sure they are on schedule.
- Never quit searching once you’ve found one great manufacturer. You ALWAYS need backups, and who knows, the first one might go bankrupt or things may not work out, so you will need someone else you can depend on.
- Document all the manufacturers you have contacted, and what the result was. Maybe they make a product that is too cheap for you, but you may want them down the line when you offer a lower-priced option. Or perhaps their minimums are too large, but in theory your quantities will grow and you will always want a manufacturer that can do larger quantities for you.
- Evaluate them as you go. Do they respond to emails? Answer the phone? Are they quick to get back to you? If I get someone who is impossible to contact or who rarely responds to emails, then I get concerned. It is one thing to deal with this when you are researching manufacturers, a whole other when you just got a huge order from Net A Porter and you are frantically trying to reach your factory to find out if they can make it on time. Reliability is key from a manufacturer, and if they are slow responding or late with their first set of samples, you should be listening to the alarm bells.
- It is really important that communication with your factory is easy. Do they speak your language? Are the time zones close enough that you can speak to them during their business hours, without having to be up at 4 in the morning? This is when manufacturing close to home can make sense.
- You can try and get your factory to sign a contract, but note that this is very difficult and complicated. Many won’t, and even if they do, the contract will likely not be worth the paper its printed on. That’s why gut instinct is important in these situations, you want to make sure you trust this person to do the job they say they will. And make sure to keep records of EVERYTHING, so that you can reference it should there be a problem down the line.