Turning an idea into a product is as messy and complicated as being in a fight. Many solo fashion designers try to manage this fight like martial arts, working the edges instead of the middle so they have a wall at their back. To increase their skills, they’re encouraged to practice their craft like lone samurais fighting an imaginary opponent. But real life and business don’t offer many true walls at your back or fair fights to be had. In order for most of us to be successful, we generally work in teams to get things done. Finding people you like and trust is a big part of life management. Learning how to work with them is an incredible joy. If you are not currently in a place where you have this, I encourage you to seek it out. You need a team to develop your business. Let’s talk about it.
Why People Make Clothes
First, let’s look at what drives people to get in the fight in the first place: love. It is a fundamental truth that over 95% of all manufacturers are family run. Whether you’re a single seamstress toiling away on your kitchen table to feed your family or a factory owner with 1,000 employees to take care of, your work provides something that others need. Clothing is one of the three fundamental needs of human existence. In most parts of the world outside the tropics, people need clothing as protection to survive. Even if it were socially acceptable, not wearing clothing puts you at risk. Shoes keep feet from being cut by rocks and concrete. Jackets keep us warm so we don’t get sick from the flu. Umbrellas keep us dry when it rains. The real list of profitable apparel items is tied to this truth. The ready-to-wear industry clothes 99% of people on this planet earth.
To Succeed, You Need a Team
Creating what you love and meeting the needs of others can sometimes seem too big to manage. Like a man facing a charging elephant, there is a tendency to try to reduce the apparel trade to something manageable to win the fight on your own terms. This is an impossible dream. And it’s probably the wrong fight in the first place. You don’t see a lot of smart lone hunters facing off in hand-to-hand combat against a raging bull elephant. But we do have a lot of elephants as work animals getting stuff done every day.
There’s an Indian parable about blind men touching an elephant and describing what they “see” as the ultimate truth, when in fact they are only touching a small part of the whole. Similarly, it’s impossible to know everything you need to know about this industry. There are over 10,000 books on specific aspects of the manufacturing trade and more typed every day. You could read for the rest of your life and never finish everything written.
That’s a pretty scary truth. In school, we learned that to pass the test of life we had to learn and know everything PERSONALLY. But it is far healthier for most people to accept they can’t; in fact, knowing everything isn’t the point of life. Teamwork is how people generally get around this fundamental problem of a lack time to learn and do everything. This seems like the theme of half the super hero movies I watch lately.
The Benefits of Partnerships
There’s a lot of joy in working with others.
If you are a designer looking to grow, then you have already admitted to yourself that you’re looking to be part of team. The major thing that brings most designers to the table to talk to manufacturers is delegating production. This frees them up to grow their business by spending more time on branding, marketing, and sales. The major reason manufacturers talk to designers is to delegate their sales funnel. This frees the manufacturer to grow the business by spending more time on operation management, development, and upgrading equipment.
Designers are seen as the front of the house (sales) while production is seen as the back of the house (manufacturing). Designers face towards customers. Production faces towards suppliers. In a healthy partnership, each of you only sees half of the problem and solution. At times you may be tempted to forget this and to use cognitive short-cuts instead of fully engaging your partner. You must describe your marketing and sales needs to your production partner, and you must listen to your production partner talk about their sourcing needs. Your success will be found in a collaboration.
What Happens When Sales and Manufacturing Disconnect
It’s been said that the greatest challenge isn’t a lack of ability but knowledge. Specifically, that people don’t know what they don’t know. This is true for both sides of the table. For example, I’m going to pick on Nike for a second because I like them. Nike makes great shoes, and people love them. However, even though they fit pretty well in the southeast, when I sold shoes people would buy New Balance over Nike all day long–not because of the overall fit but because of the high insole arches. For whatever reason, people with flat feet get bruises on the inside of their arches when they walk. If it happens once, then they won’t buy a pair of Nikes again no matter what the company does. Even though in every other way Nike is a GREAT shoe. And yes, the obvious solution is that the CUSTOMER could just throw away the Nike insoles and buy different ones if they truly wanted Nikes. However, as a practical matter, no one does that because humans are lazy. What they do is buy New Balance, not Nikes.
The easy solution for Nike would be a brilliant ad campaign promoting different insole heights. Maybe have a cool store display where customers could try on different ones and get the right fit free of charge with purchase. (I saw this done by REI with an outdoor sandal brand.) Nike could go after New Balance or Brooks’ market share penetration. Or the reverse is true, if New Balance wanted to take on Nike offer it as “custom” shoe insoles just for you. Anyways, I’m not a shoe manufacturer; I don’t own any stock in Nike or New Balance, so we’ll stop arm chair quarterbacking my shoe addiction and get back to you as a designer looking for production. My point on Nike is simply that most real solutions happen when the designer and manufacturer work together. Another colorway or ad always seems easier, but most of the time it’s an intellectual cop out to meeting your customers’ true needs.
The Role of Apparel Production Shops
The vast majority of work, deals, and money occur in apparel production shops. At each extreme are factories and individual freelancers. Factories produce only 1% of the market and are generally chosen for their automation levels. Often employing over 60 stitchers, they can afford an in-house production engineer/mechanic to automate the workflow process on large jobs. At the other end, individual freelancers make up 0.5% of the market and are generally chosen for skills acquired from 10-20 years of experience. Between these two extremes fall production shops. They produce 98.5% of goods because most clothing requires some skill but not the highest skill level, and some automation but not the fanciest equipment. You may be surprised to learn that the greatest predictor of success is not machinery or skill but speed to market.
When skill and automation are used together, they multiply each other. There are tons of charts on the math breakdown here, and I’ve included two classics for both European and American production engineering for skill vs. wage rates. This is also a topic I really enjoy thinking about from different perspectives. At right you see Selzer’s British skill level chart on how skill increases over time by a factor of 10x between a beginner of less than 18 months’ experience and someone who’s sewn 4-10 years. Contrast this with Frank’s American operations management coursework of the 1940s-1970s where he has a bar chart and says that wages should be dictated by local going rates below. This chart has only five levels for stitchers, maxing out around 20% increased pay over the going rate for the local area for 20% extra production because his section factories chose not to reward high skill level. This self-imposed pay limit gets the heart of why production shops often out-perform large scale factories as some choose to recognize and reward that additional skillset acquired by employees. It’s also why American brands often run into trouble compared to European firms like Zara because they don’t see the full-worker potential ranges.
Time is a big factor in production. British tailors take an average of 50-60 hours to make a bespoke jacket while American suit manufacturers will do an automated version in under 15 minutes. However, there is a sharp difference between how much each has invested in tools. Whereas a tailor got up and running for a few hundred, maybe $1,000-3,000 in equipment, the suit manufacturer probably spent $250,000-750,000 in automated tools to get that low time output. If you ever want to see true magic in our business, watch a skilled technician using really nice equipment. Like Steve Jobs used to say, the output may be 250 times the average worker because both skill and automation count in the game. This is a key fact to remember if you like paying your workers living wages and making a profit.
Most designers make it long-term because of the production shops they partner with and the choice to continue to educate themselves about the possibilities. A production shop is defined as having between 2 and 49 employees in-house, but the most common number is 5-10 employees. They tend to be big enough for teamwork, but not big enough to have a full-time production engineer on staff. There tends to be a quality breakdown for many people around the 15-18 employee mark for various reasons. Production shops often develop from a solo operation built on seamstress experience or from break-offs from larger factories when the operations manager, engineer, or patternmaker strike out on their own. The second type tends to do better long term as they have experience in seeing both sides of the fence. It doesn’t make them better people, just that they’ve walked both paths of skill and automation and are less likely to close their eyes to the opportunities or pitfalls each one offers.
Alright, we’ve discussed why designers partner with production to get to the bargaining table to make deals. Next week we’re going to talk about the money and how to get manufacturers to take a chance on you if you’re just starting out and don’t have super deep pockets.
Wake Tech offers a lean six sigma 1-day course for $395 on their campus which you can take in you live in North Carolina like me and can’t afford the time off.
The undisputed master of industrial manufacturing is W. Edwards Deming. If you ever want to step up your game, then read some of his books. That man is a genius. Of all the plants, factories, and shops I’ve ever worked for or books read, that author made the biggest difference in my understanding of manufacturing. I’d like to thank Charlie at Lit Technologies (now Pacor, Inc.) for introducing me to the writer and the 5S System in Gastonia, NC. If you’re ever interested in really learning the business and how to produce quality product, run a plant, and treat your employees well, go work in his plant for a bit. Charlie managed to grow his company and bottomline 20% a year every year since 1983, which frankly, compared to most other plants I’ve worked in, is pretty mind-blowing. Great man. Really cool plant. Awesome place to work. Beautiful equipment. Good people.
Best of luck on your week, and we’ll see you back next week with the money talk.