Lessons Learned from a Fashion Designer Turned Apparel Manufacturer

You’ll spend countless hours working alongside your manufacturer. But like any relationships, you’ll have your ups and down. I had a disastrous experience with a local manufacturer after deciding to stop the constant commute between New York, where my first factory partner was based, and Philadelphia. Here’s what I learned…

1. Compare apples to apples: If you have unique pleats and folds in your designs, like I did with my Japanese-inspired ones, check to see whether or not the manufacturer has similar types of samples or designs they’ve worked on. I failed to do this and learned the hard way.

2. Always do a reference check: I didn’t get references from other brands my local Factory partner worked with which was a mistake! Ask for references from other brands the factory has worked with, this shows the manufacturer has a reliable track record.

3. Communicate expected quality standards: When I produce muslin samples, prototypes, I always make certain they are good quality so I didn’t anticipate that my manufacturer would use my expensive fabric for the muslin samples and prototypes. The quality was very poor and they used low-quality thread which showed in the poor execution.

This lack of research was costly to my new business!  Not only financially but it consumed an enormous amount of time I didn’t have. Ultimately, I canceled the contract and salvaged what I could on my home machines (not ideal!)

But mistakes are lessons in disguise. I wrote off these errors as a valuable learning. For me, the best option given my situation was to hire seamstresses on a part-time basis and produce in-house. I purchased some industrial machines from a cut and sew factory going out of business to become vertically integrated, producing my samples and small runs in-house.

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Initially, I had no plans to manufacture for other brands. However, witnessing the plight of other emerging designers who had difficult experiences with manufacturers, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help.

Pro-Tip #1: Can you easily visit this Factory on a regular basis?

When you are searching for a factory, try to cast your net within 110-mile radius or at least driving distance so that you can visit a potential factory and easily establish a good working relationship.

I loved my factory in New York as my samples and pieces came out exactly the way I wanted them. I was new to the business at the time and felt most comfortable reviewing the samples in person which meant regular visits to to bring “sew-by” and samples.

Pro-Tip #2: Does Your Factory Have Everything It Needs?

If the factory doesn’t have everything (e.g. thread, fabric, etc.) they need to produce your sample(s), you will get moved to the back of the production line and miss important milestones in your manufacturing timeline.

CHECKLIST: 4 Things to Ask a Potential Factory Partner

  1. Ask to see samples of their work to check for quality.
  2. Ask about which type of machines and equipment they have. If you are visiting the factory for the first time, check out the machine/s the seamstress is working on.
  3. Ask for their turn-around times for specific items. For instance, a simple dress can take 1-5 days from first pattern to sample while a simple jacket may take 7-10 days. Manufacturers are almost always busy!
  4. If you need help with sourcing fabric, ask if they can provide assistance.
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