How to Select a Clothing Manufacturer
Pairing up with a clothing manufacturer for the first time is a bit like online dating. First you offer up some information about yourself. Here’s an example of an excellent bio:
“Hi, I’m Natalie. I’m a former Olympic volleyball player. I’m creating a line for tall women like myself who get excluded by most athletic wear brands who don’t carry tall sizes. This is my first collection and I have a very limited fashion background. I do have a background in marketing and worked at a large agency for many years. I am planning to leverage many of my athlete friends’ voices to promote my brand, as well as the many media contacts I’ve accumulated over the years. My first collection will consist of 3 styles: tanks, leggings & track jackets. I’d like the tanks to retail at $45-50, the leggings at $92-98, and the track jackets at $119-127; and, based on my research, I’m aiming for manufacturing targets of $14-16, $22-27, and $29-32 respectively. I don’t want to produce more than 300 units per style for my first collection. That’s all I’m comfortable selling in the beginning.”
You may not be there yet, but this is the kind of information that’ll land you a solid first date. We’re talking:
- A general description
- The number of styles you’d like
- Retail price points
- Manufacturing price points
- Target number of units per style
If you don’t have these, take a look at our other blog posts that’ll help you get started – and then come back here:
- For developing a line that addresses market need, read how to start a clothing line that sells
- For coming up with a budget, read 5 steps to an apparel line budget
After you share everything about you, the next step is to make sure they know what your needs are. Sounds exactly like a date, right? Just maybe a bit more straight-forward…
“I’m looking for a manufacturer who has the time to show me the process and is okay with me being new! They won’t just take orders from me but will also give me advice on the best way to achieve price and quality targets, providing their professional opinion at each step. They are transparent with me about their operation and will give me insight into the products we are creating together. They will allow me to keep any patterns, samples, or other IP that I have paid to create. They are great communicators and do what they say they are going to do.”
Next, ask yourself, what do you need in a manufacturing partner?
Just as in the dating world where you’d want a guy who’s attractive, funny, and rich, but usually have to compromise, there are important characteristics to look for in a manufacturer. In the manufacturing world, it’s weighing between speed, price, and quality. While great manufacturers will have all three, it’s usually best to prioritize your needs and rank prospective manufacturers so your final decision will be easier.
Here are your options:
Speed: Made Here, Sold Here – Fast.
Imagine you have a big trade show, fashion event, or meeting with a buyer that is paramount to your brands success. You MUST have samples by then. Speed, then, is your choice. Or consider that you’ve just arrived from a trade show with a stack full of purchase orders (PO). Your buyers require delivery on a certain date. This means you’re under the gun and your delivery requirements must be communicated to your manufacturer upfront. Be clear about whether your manufacturing partner has the capacity and bandwidth to move at the speed you need or if they’re too busy dating other brands and can’t commit.
That said, it is wise, even without hard deadlines, to have a plan for when you’d like to launch your product. From there you can work with your manufacturer to create a timeline for production and development. Because you may not know all the processes involved (i.e. garment dye or stock fabrics?), your lead time will vary based on important decisions you make with your manufacturer. Keep communication open and chose someone who will give you time commitments for every deliverable, i.e. “Patterns will be completed by this Friday 9/15 @ 4pm.”
Quality – The American Craftsman
With thousands of fashion brands starting up each year and the many already established brands you’ll be competing against, we highly recommend that you place quality as a key priority. The best way to show a manufacturer your quality standards is to bring in samples that you absolutely love from other brands. You can show them the sewing work that you love and even which areas you think can be improved. Work with your manufacturer to understand how different sewing constructions impact your price points. Ask them to explain how they will ensure quality and what their quality control (QC) standards are. Their response will tell you a lot about how they will protect your product and you will know if they are a quality match for you.
Price – The Commodity Play
Contrary to what the media will tell you, producing in Los Angeles is still an extremely viable move. Especially for brands that choose to sell direct to consumer, dependence on retailers who squeeze margins should be avoided. To determine your price points it’s best to start with your retail points and work backwards to understand target wholesale and manufacturing price points (See 5 steps to an apparel line budget).
Good manufacturers will ask you about your price points, and great designers will know their price points. Do not be frazzled. They ask this so that they can get you to where you need to be. By working clearly within a budget from the get-go, your manufacturer can make material, fit, and construction decisions that allow you to hit your target price points. Be clear, be honest, and, if you have a price point you need to hit no matter what, a good manufacturer will tell you one of three things. Be prepared:
- “NO. No possible way can you hit that price point – try Bangladesh and make sure you’re producing over 10,000 units.”
- “MAYBE. You could hit this price point but you’ll have to strip some things. Maybe use a less expensive fabric, do only one color screenprint and up your quantity to 500 from 300.”
- “YES. We can make that happen based on the information given.”
One final note on price via the old adage, you get what you pay for. I’ve been practically harassed by production teams demanding prices that can only be attained from overseas countries with very poor working conditions. These same companies complain about poor quality and bad communication while aggressively requiring prices that would put the manufacturer out of business. There is a large underground network of manufacturers exploiting their workers by paying them below minimum wage. If you go this route, you will likely not be able to establish a reputation of quality clothing and it will be much harder for you to build a sustainable, growing brand.
Now that you’ve given some detail about yourself, what you’re searching for, and what you value most in a partner, it’s time to play the field a bit and see what kinds of manufacturers are out there. What is the difference from one to the next, and how can we identify a “player” from someone looking for a long-term relationship?
Know the difference:
This is literally just a sewing house. They do not source materials, make markers or cut fabric. They expect all materials delivered to them to be organized and they will only sew what is cut and ready to go. By working with them you’re committing to managing the other portions of production yourself.
Cut & Sew Manufacturer
This is slightly more extensive in support. These manufacturers do not source any materials and sometimes require that you provide completed markers. If you don’t know what markers are, continue below for a better fit.
Full package is the whole enchilada. These manufacturers are setup to support the entire process from procurement of materials to marking, grading, cutting, sewing, printing, finishing, folding, and packing. They are setup to support organizations that want to streamline their production and don’t have money to pay a full-time production manager running around the city overseeing all productions.
*PLAYERS – A WARNING
A traditional manufacturer, the player, is entirely focused on the end game. This can apply to any of the above, sewing contractors, cut & sew manufacturers, or full-package manufacturers, so be sure to sniff it out as soon as you can and stay away. Traditional manufacturers care only about big quantity orders and expect a purchase order (PO) prematurely – they want to take you home before buying you dinner. This is because they have experience working with larger brands who come to them with already developed products and a PO for substantial units. Here’s a conversation that I have witnessed dozens of times.
You: “Hi there! I have a collection of 6 styles that I’m looking to produce.”
Manufacturer: “Great, send me an order of 500 units and we’ll make you a sample.”
You: “Um, OK, I can’t place an order of 500 because I don’t have a sample yet. Actually, I have no tech pack, patterns, or materials either. If you can help me with these things, I will put in an order.”
Manufacturer: “You place an order and we will help you. No order, no deal.”
This manufacturer clearly specializes in production only and does not have a service that supports new designers. Make sure that if you need a manufacturer that provides guidance, mentorship, and a complete service, you make it clear upfront.
A Match Made in Heaven
After taking these steps, we’re sure that you and your manufacturer will be a match made in heaven. The key is to focus on the needs of your brand while taking into account your goals and your budget. Just like a relationship, you’ll want to end up with somebody honest and transparent who complements your strengths and weaknesses; and, just like in the real world, it’s best to go in with an understanding of what the industry looks like and all of the shady characters that you’ll want to avoid. Luckily, there are lots of great manufacturers out there. Isn’t that what your grandmother always told you?