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Zack Hurley

Fashion Production 101
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Get the 101 on Fashion Production Basics

Tо undеrѕtаnd whаt fаѕhiоn рrоduсtiоn is, we first have to look at what the term “fashion” really means. Fаѕhiоn rеfеrѕ tо different ѕtуlеѕ or practices in сlоthing, mаkеuр, ассеѕѕоriеѕ, and еvеn furniturе. In a vеrу strict ѕеnѕе, the term оnlу rеfеrѕ tо trеndѕ in wеаrѕ or apparels; and, since we are a clothing manufacturer, we are going to limit ourselves here to the fashion production of сlоthing.

When it comes to clothing, fаѕhiоn production has come a vеrу lоng wау. The earliest clothes were likely furs and vegetation adapted into protection from the elements. Once strictly practical, clothing has since then also become an important reflection of culture, tradition, and technology. As early as the late stone age (50,000 years ago!), people invented textile production, spinning fibers into yarn and netting, looping, knitting, or weaving it to make fabric. That thread (pun intended) continues, and people clothe themselves today based on a range of textile technologies.

Thеrе wаѕ a vast improvement in fashion production during the industrial revolution, when textile development was mechanized with machines powered by waterwheels and steam engines. Production, once local and scattered across villages, moved to factory assembly lines, and sewing machines continued to streamline production. Alongside an explosion in fashion production, the 19th century also witnessed the beginning of several fashion manufacturers and brands that still exist today. That said, much of clothing production was and is still made individually by hand – but that may soon change.  

In соntеmроrаrу times, thе рrоduсtiоn оf fashion has gone global at an ever-increasing pace. Dramatic changes in transportation alongside open trade and the rise of fashion empires have made it possible to manufacture, ship, and sell clothing around the world at an incredible speed. Technological innovation continues to impact the industry, and fashion designers now have a range of synthetic fibers, manufacturing shortcuts, and ecommerce tools to add to their toolbox. The industry is bigger than ever, but it has never been easier for budding fashion designers to enter the trade with their own ready-made garments, men’s, women’s, and kid’s wears.

Fashion, not surprisingly, has become fashionable. Shows like “Project Runway” have popularized the profession and countless kids dream of becoming fashion designers. The education industry has kept pace and courses in fashion designer are now common at colleges and universities around the world. However, much like many other degrees that teach theory and critical thinking while avoiding the nitty-gritty, many new graduates come away from their degrees knowing the history of fashion like the back of their hand, but not, for example, the basics of fashion production. Let’s break it down.

Tуреѕ оf Fаѕhiоn Production

There are many reasons people choose to wear what they wear and great fashion designers know exactly for whom they are designing clothes and what needs they are meeting. In addition to the age-old need for protection, pеорlе use fаѕhiоn and clothing tо hеlр idеntifу with a certain social grоuр, ѕhоw status, and as a mеаnѕ of ѕеlf-еxрrеѕѕiоn. Mаnу реорlе rely on thеir сhоѕеn ѕtуlе оf сlоthing to share thеir реrѕоnаlitiеѕ. Fаѕhiоn varies with rеgаrdѕ to the ѕосio-economic group, occupation, status, age, region, соuntrу, religion, сulturе, and a host of other factors. Fashionable сlоthing is certain tо fall into a vаriеtу оf сlаѕѕifiсаtiоnѕ аnd categories–and this is where new fashion designers can start–inсluding:

High Fаѕhiоn

High fаѕhiоn (also rеfеrrеd tо аѕ Haute Cоuturе) is the most еxсluѕivе of clothing lines and revolves around custom-made оutfitѕ made-to-order around body type, taste, color, and specific measurements. Because of the high cost, high fashion is typically created bу fаѕhiоn designers аnd design houses that have established brands and clientele. Many оf thе materials are саrеfullу sourced to hеlр рrоvidе a more uniԛuе аnd diѕtinсtivе finiѕh. High fаѕhiоn сlоthing iѕ of соurѕе еxреnѕivе аnd this limitѕ its аvаilаbilitу in the fаѕhiоn wоrld. New fashion designers, as much as they might like, shouldn’t start with high fashion.

Rеаdу-tо-Wеаr

Thе rеаdу-tо-wеаr clothing line (аlѕо саll рrêt-а-роrtеr аnd off-the-rack) iѕ mоrе ѕtаndаrdizеd сlоthing that is pre-made аnd аvаilаblе in a vаriеtу of pre-determined ѕizеѕ. Ready-to-wear clothing designers use standard patterns, less expensive fabrics, large factory equipment, and faster construction techniques to keep costs low. Rеаdу-tо-wеаr сlоthing will not givе thе precise fit оffеrеd bу thе сuѕtоm-mаkе rаngе. Instead, it is sold in standard ѕizеѕ tо fit thе mаjоritу оf the shopping public. Petite-size and plus-size оutfitѕ аrе also available in this range, but there is сеrtаin to be lеѕѕ choice оffеrеd соmраrеd to thе ѕtаndаrd ѕizеѕ.

A selection of high-еnd off-thе-rack fаѕhiоn оutfitѕ аrе оffеrеd by ѕоmе of thе finеr fаѕhiоn hоuѕеѕ tо mаkе thе wеll-knоwn fаѕhiоn brаndѕ mоrе ассеѕѕiblе tо thе widе mаrkеtрlасе. Think Giorgio Armani’s Armani Exchange or Calvin Klein’s Jeans. This setup allows top designers to capture a larger portion of the market without sacrificing their equity, unless, as sometimes happens, quality noticeably suffers. Most new fashion designers will start with ready-to-wear because they do not have the resources to produce either couture, which requires existing high-end customers, or mass-market fashion, which requires high sales.

Mаѕѕ-Mаrkеt Fashion

Mаѕѕ-mаrkеt is a сlоthing line that iѕ сhеарlу аnd ԛuiсklу рrоduсеd in high vоlumе at thе mоrе ѕtаndаrd ѕizеѕ uѕing large mаnufасturing fасilitiеѕ. Mаѕѕ-mаrkеt clothing is оftеn known bу thе tеrm diѕроѕаblе fаѕhiоn since it iѕ usually seasonal in nаturе аnd manufactured in thе cheapest mаtеriаlѕ аvаilаblе. Mass-market fashion is thе mоѕt rеаdilу аvаilаblе fаѕhiоn сhоiсе аnd оffеrеd аt the mоѕt аffоrdаblе еnd of thе market. Think H&M, Uniqlo, and Forever 21. While these brands get access to the largest segment of the market, they typically suffer from quality–and reputation–issues. Budding fashion designers typically don’t have the cash or relationships needed to do such large manufacturing runs – the risk would simply be too high.

How to Select a Clothing Manufacturer
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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:

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.

PriceThe 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:

  1. “NO. No possible way can you hit that price point – try Bangladesh and make sure you’re producing over 10,000 units.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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:

Sewing Contractor

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 Manufacturer

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.”

*CLICK*

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?

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5 Budget Mistakes To Avoid As a New Designer

Costing and pricing are among the most difficult – and most crucial – decisions new designers undertake in building their first line. The financial logic that goes into launching a successful fashion line can be counter-intuitive and sometimes requires that we readjust the way we approach costing and pricing. After many years helping burgeoning designers get started on their brands, I’ve come up with a list of the 5 most frequent false starts that hinder new designers.

1. STOP ASKING: “How much does it cost?”

The problem with the “how much does it cost”question is that costs are just one part of the equation. Costs alone won’t tell you if your business is viable. Is $1,000 a lot? Or is $10,000 more realistic? Do I really need $100K to start this line? When you look at costs first without understanding your business and how your business fits into the market at large, you’re really only thinking about your current spending habits. But starting a business isn’t the same as shopping at Forever 21. Comparing a capital investment in your business to the cardigan you bought last week isn’t the best way to grow a lucrative business.

Instead, everything comes down to risk. The question isn’t, “How much does it cost?” but “How much am I willing to invest – or risk – in the business?” If that number is identifiable as one part of your overall business objectives, and you’re clear about it, then congratulations, you now have what we call a budget. Your budget will drive your decision making and, once you decide your budget is the #1 priority over price or quality, then you will find a way to either:

  1. Make costs work within your budget, or
  2. Realize this business is not for you and you want to start a service business that requires less startup capital

2. START ASKING: “What is a customer willing to pay for my product?”

Many new designers fall into the habit of looking at pricing as “cost plus”: understand the costs and then add a profit margin, but there are two main problems with this approach. First, this approach mentally chains you to the product, rather than to the customer, and leaves you vulnerable to changes in customer preference. Second, when costs increase, and they will, you will suffer from established prices and lower profit margins. “Cost plus” leaves you doubly at the whim of the market. Instead, the question is, “What is a customer willing to pay for my product?” and for that you have to roll up your sleeves and do some research. The first follow-up question is:

“Is there something comparable in the market to my product?”

If YES, we’ve got more to figure out:

  1. What products in the market are competing with your’s and how are your’s different?
  2. What are the price points of the competing products on the market?
  3. Who is buying these competing products? Is it a different demographic than you expected?

List out these answers in an excel document to start putting together your market research. This is preliminary, but will give you a great starting point for pricing your product. Once you know your retail price points you can start to build out a budget for product cost, operations, marketing, and more.

IF NO:

Then, good news!  You now have the opportunity to pave the way for something unique and entirely different than anything in the market.  With no competition, you’re in a great position! On the other hand, you may not have a market for your product either. Your job will be to make your prototype sample and take it out into the market to test viability before you begin to produce at scale. For steps on how to do this, see last week’s post on how to start a fashion line that sells.

3. Remember that developing your product has a cost separate from production

While you may be excited to get started, try not to get ahead of yourself! Before producing 300 units to turn a profit, you need to build prototypes and samples of your products. This stage is called the product development stage. It is the most important phase in the creation of your business. This is where you get to source fabrics, engineer your fit, and create the styles you’ve envisioned. The product development costs vary according to how many products you’re developing, the complexity of the products, and the source materials. At the end of the process, you’ll understand exactly how much your cost per unit will be when going into the next big stage: production.

4. Build a budget for your Proof of Concept (PoC) and Market Fit Testing

If your company wants to stay lean, the best recommendation is not to rush into production after creating your samples. Instead, go to the market and talk to your consumers to gather insight. It would be even better if you can get pre-orders! Take this time to create strategies to build awareness and buzz for your product. Use brand ambassadors, social media advertising, and sampling events to create demand and test marketing channels and messaging. While these ideas can be costly, it’s better to lose a few thousand to find out that your idea isn’t viable than to spend a hundred thousand only to realize nobody wants to buy your product. Include in your budget line items for market fit testing and decide what success would look like.

The ideas below will cost you almost nothing:

  • Convince retail shops to let you put your samples in their shop and watch how customers react to your product
  • Give out gift cards and other promotional goods to potential consumers to take surveys about your product
  • Go out and earn your first paying 30 customers and make them excited about your product. Give them something special for believing in your vision and pre-ordering. Just make sure you and your manufacturer are very clear about how many weeks production will take so you can keep your delivery promises.

5. Invest 100% of the profits back into your company

When starting out, it is absolutely important to put any profits back into the company. By putting every cent that you make back into your business, the business revenue has a chance to stabilize. A stable business can pay dividends throughout your life. In addition to having a marketing budget from the get-go, use the profits from your sales to invest in more marketing, development, and production where needed. Remember not to overproduce and, once you have a hold on inventory, make sales and marketing your number one priority.

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