Fashion 101: How to Find a Manufacturer

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.

fashion 101, clothing manufacturer, find a clothing factory, fashion

Denim requires specialist manufacturing and machines.

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.

fashion 101, clothing manufacturer, find a clothing factory, fashion

Gucci has a Made in Italy label on all of their bags, although this only means the last few steps are done in Italy. Rumour has it they get the first steps manufactured in China.

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.
fashion 101, clothing manufacturer, find a clothing factory, fashion

Manufacturing in China or the Far East can be inexpensive, but watch out for high duty and shipping prices.

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.

fashion 101, clothing manufacturer, find a clothing factory, fashion

Broderies Lesage in France is one of the most famous embroidery studios. If you can;t afford them, India is the next best place for extremely high quality embroidery.

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.

fashion 101, clothing manufacturer, find a clothing factory, fashion

Finsk get their shoes made in Brasil because they have high quality footwear manufacturing there, and that is the only place the company can source the unique woods they use in their heels.

TIPS:

  • 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.

Image credits: Broderies LesageGucci bagChina factoryFinsk shoes, and Jeans.

This entry was posted in Ask Alexandra, Fashion 101, The Fashion Industry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • jessica

    great blog…. really well done, and totally reflects the reality of the industry. newcomers, you can rely on this info!

  • Jill

    This is an amazing piece of writing, so well-done and thorough. Maybe you should write an e-book on this topic? You clearly have experience and have shared important tips. Excellent post!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathleen.fasanella Kathleen Fasanella

    In my experience, it is relatively easy to find factories if you do it
    like we do. It is difficult, error prone and very expensive if you do it
    any other way. You need a factory? I can get you one in five minutes. I’m a patternmaker. I will not take a customer if I don’t have at least one factory
    lined up for them.

    If you start by looking for a manufacturer, you’ll be wasting a huge amount of time and incur a great deal of frustration. Legally, the person who owns the brand is the manufacturer. Iow, YOU. Factory and manufacturer are not synonyms. This is the first stumbling block.

    A lot of factories these days are aware that newbies use the term “manufacturer” when searching for production sewing. Be very wary of service providers that cater to you by using this term because it can cost you 25% to 75% more. This nuance is even more important domestically. I would not hire a US factory that called themselves a “manufacturer” (I have 30+ years of experience in apparel manufacturing).

    The best way to find a factory is through a pattern maker. Really. Best kept secret. The best factories only do production sewing, they aren’t full service. Traditionally the designer has all the pre-production done (which includes patterns) but not so much these days. Pattern makers are in the best position to know which factories are the best for you and your product type.

    If a pattern maker can’t make a referral, this usually means a few things:

    1. The pattern maker isn’t as experienced as they’ve led you to believe because they don’t have any factories to recommend because they’ve never worked with one more than once or twice. If that.

    2. The pattern maker isn’t any good. The factories they’ve worked with don’t like their patterns.

    3. Pattern makers also won’t make referrals sometimes because the customer is a pain in the butt or hasn’t paid their bills. We need to stay on the good side of our factories. We can’t send them a no or slow pay customer. The factory also sends us customers. We presume the customer is okay because the factory also has to stay on our good side.

    In sum, the best way to get in with a factory is on the recommendation of your pattern maker. In fact, you should ask at the outset, during the interviewing process whether the pattern maker can make a referral when it gets to that stage. Not every pattern maker can do any pattern. It is a red flag if they say they can. Like doctors, we specialize. You wouldn’t see a back surgeon for plastic surgery. If you want women’s suits made, you don’t go to someone who has done mostly children’s knits.

    In my experience, it is relatively easy to find factories if you do it like we do. It is difficult, error prone and very expensive if you do it any other way. You need a factory? I can get you one in five minutes. In fact, I will not take a customer if I don’t have at least one factory for them.

    I don’t recommend you do package sourcing (patterns, fabrics etc) with the factory for many reasons, most of all because your minimums will be so much higher. The second reason is that you’re over a barrel in so many ways. What if you want to change factories? They won’t give you the patterns so you’ll have to start over with somebody else. They also won’t give you sourcing information on the fabrics either so if you’ve taken orders for products based on the samples they made, if you change providers, you will have to start all over with the suppliers of the new factory, new fit of new patterns. It is a lot of hassle and excess costs; there is no way you will meet delivery.

    I would worry less about a factory being able to scale. Most companies won’t want to commit X production to you until the kinks have been worked out of your relationship. If you are a good customer and it is needed, they will refer you to a “competitor” of theirs for larger quantities. We do this ALL. OF. THE. TIME. We need to score points with our “competitors” (we prefer the term “colleague”, there is plenty of work for everyone, contrary to news reports, we are not struggling). We pass them larger orders and they pass us the smaller ones they don’t want to mess with. Since I have the largest site on the web for people starting a clothing line, I get many more requests to have patterns made than I can accept. So, I make referrals to other patternmakers (I don’t charge either party a fee).

    If you do your own sourcing, have GOOD patterns, markers, good communication, and are an educated customer (read a good book!!!!!!) you can get decent pricing on as little as 100 units in the US. For example, a fully lined and faced, fitted sheath dress will cost about $25 per unit with my local guy. That is 100 total spread out over however many sizes and colors. However, if you do package sourcing soup to nuts with a “manufacturer” (a company that targets newbies), your minimums will be closer to 5,000 and it will cost 20% to 60% more.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Some very good points about patterns and manufacturers, if you ask your manufacturer to do a pattern for you, be sure to confirm that you own the patterns and request copies immediately.

    As for using a pattern maker to get a factory, I will agree this is one option, but I have never done this. I have worked with excellent pattern cutters in London and few of them have been able to recommend an excellent factory to do my production. Perhaps this is more common in the US? But certainly not in the UK, and the pattern cutters I know here in Canada haven’t been a wealth of information either.

  • Karen Derbyshire

    Hi, I really like your posts and would really like some advice. I have just created a idea and would like to make some high end 100% chiffon silk scarfs and don’t really know where to begin! I have a limited budget and the designs and would like the quality to be to the Alexander McQueen level. I don’t have a clue on where to begin to find the manufacturers who design and print these designs on the silk or how to source this high quality silk. All I know is that I truly believe that my idea could be the next craze in the accessory world!
    I am just wondering if you can tell me where to begin or know of any trusted manufacturers for this. Ay help would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank you

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg
  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Here are some tips on finding a manufacturer, and a good manufacturer will also be able to help you source the materials needed to make your product.

    http://searchingforstyle.com/2012/10/fashion-101-how-to-find-a-manufacturer/

  • Chandan

    Hey Karen,
    Hope you are well,

    At the outset I would just like to introduce my self I am Chandan here from India, Kindly note we are manufactures of hi-end scarfs and accessories in India and supply to one of the finest brands and Designers in Europe hence if you have any new developments or inquiry it would be my pleasure to work with you, pls send in your details to Identityfashion@gmail.com,

    I look forward to hear from you soon,

    Regards
    Chandan

  • Abdel Fattah

    Dear,

    We are a manufacture company clothing based in Tunisia. We are searching new customers for our company.

    If you are interested, we can provide you.
    For any question, please don’t hesitate to contact us at our own mail:

    abdou.mjar@gmail.com

    Thanks
    Abdel

  • http://www.siobhanandnuala.com Siobhan and Fionnuala

    Thank you for a great article. I own a small garment manufacturing company and we receive lots and lots of enquires from enthusiastic but unprepared emerging designers. Your article is spot on about being clear on the product you want produced, understanding what the process is for producing the product and communicating clearly with your manufacturer. This really is important. I am an Australian based in Bali, Indonesia and we manufacture high quality garments for clients all over the world, occassionally we have the pleasure of meeting these clients when they come to visit the factory but mostly we communicate through, emails and skype. This communication is so important to make sure we interpret designers sketches correctly and ensure that both our and the clients expectations are met.
    Thank you once again for a great step by step article on finding a manufacturer, as you say it is one of the most important things a fashion designer needs to undertake. If want to know more about us and our production process steps go to http://www.siobhanandnuala.com

  • Foz

    Amazing. I’ve been researching this topic for a few yhears now, and everything on this article is what i was looking for. Thank you for taking the time to post this.