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How to Find a Manufacturer

For new labels, picking a production partner can be a long and difficult process. BoF outlines seven tips for finding the right fit.
Industrial embroidery machines. Shutterstock. Manufacturing
Industrial embroidery machines. Shutterstock.

Before launching an apparel brand in 2014, Rami Helali spent more than four months living on cotton farms in Egypt, knocking on doors and introducing himself to potential suppliers.

“It’s always hardest in the beginning — convincing someone of a vision before it’s reality,” said Helali, co-founder and chief executive of the Toronto-based Kotn.

Selecting the right production partner can be a long and demoralising process. Fashion entrepreneurs who come from outside the industry often start their search on Google and spend months researching databases and attending events. And that was before the pandemic, which added communication lapses, factory closures and unpredictable logistics to the equation.

It’s always hardest in the beginning — convincing someone of a vision before it’s reality.

But with patience, attentiveness and sometimes luck, securing a supplier doesn’t have to be difficult. After six months of research and in-the-field meetings, Kotn landed on its initial factory and materials suppliers. Today, the brand works with eight different cut-and-sew facilities and 2,000-some independent cotton farms.

Below, BoF outlines seven tips for covering all the bases when it comes to searching for a factory partner, from resource recommendations in the beginning to setting the terms of the contract right before the finish line.

Exhaust Online Databases

There is no one route to the perfect manufacturer. Some designers find their factory via an extended stay on Egyptian cotton farms. Others, via a Google search.

When New York-based designer Emma Gage set out to create her own label, Melke, at the start of the pandemic, she cast a wide net, including plugging “eco-friendly factories in New York City” into Google. She landed on three promising candidates: one recommended by a sustainable fashion Facebook group she had joined, one she had worked with while at a previous job and a third from Maker’s Row, an online glossary of manufacturers. The Google searches weren’t a total waste: it led her to a supplier for sustainable buttons.

Databases like Maker’s Row are often the first stop for new fashion brands. Xuan and Wang of Advene looked at certified facilities by the Fair Labor Association, affiliates of Fairtrade International, the ethical apparel trade group Amfori and other Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) programmes. Another fair labour certification programme WRAP, coordinated by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, also provides a database of thousands of factories in the sewn-products sector. Kotn’s Helali recommends responsible supply chain organisation Sedex.

More general online databases include Manufacturer.com, Foursource and Panjiva. Access to some databases requires a one-time fee or subscription costs. Maker’s Row, for instance, charges $35 per month for basic access to its glossary.

Networking Is Key

Stem cell biologist Ben Van Handel launched his skincare brand, Heraux, after years of conducting research on arthritis treatment and finding an ingredient that also seemed to mitigate the results of ageing. But as an outsider, getting into the skincare industry required thorough research and outreach, Van Handel said.

“At this point in my life, I had never washed my face before,” Van Handel said. “What we ended up doing was starting to attend events and make connections in the industry so we could start looking for formulators who could help us work with this very unique ingredient.”

You have to meet people. Go to LinkedIn, lunch networking events.

Van Handel and his partner attended Cosmoprof, a giant beauty convention held in Las Vegas, as well as networking events held by Cosmetic Executive Women and dermatology lectures. Eventually, through connection after connection, they found a formulator based in their native Southern California that didn’t require a high minimum order quantity and had experience dealing with novel ingredients.

The founders of No, Thank You, a CBD skincare brand that launched last year, also recommend networking as a primary tool for finding the right supplier.

“It’s following one thread — if you find a packaging person, ask them for manufacturing suggestions,” said co-founder Zain Pirani. “You have to meet people. Go to LinkedIn, lunch networking events … This is how you’ll figure out your rolodex.”

It took No, Thank You the standard six months to land on its current manufacturer, a facility that Pirani’s father works with.

Be Patient

The quest for a manufacturer is rife with rejection. Landing that initial factory is especially tough because most facilities require production minimums beyond the scope of a new company. There may be other components on which the brand and factory don’t agree, such as communication style and quality of products.

“You could fall in love with someone but they can’t deliver on something specific,” said Pirani. “It’s okay to walk away.”

It’s okay to walk away.

Van Handel said he went into the process with criteria including whether a factory seemed eager to work with his brand, its minimum batch size and its past experience working with novel ingredients. If the response wasn’t perfect, then he would politely decline.

Find a Partner, Not a Transaction

There are shortcuts to manufacturing, including buying wholesale via Alibaba, a giant online marketplace with more than 200,000 suppliers and millions of cheap ready-to-order products without a label. But the most convenient option isn’t always the best one.

“If the mentality is, let’s just get these pieces out of here and then I’m done, then you as a brand don’t have an incentive to make sure the factory is anything but minimally proficient and the factory has no incentive to ... do anything other than the bare bones [necessity] in the relationship,” said Avedis Seferian, chief executive and president of the fair labour certification programme WRAP.

Instead, brands should go into the selection process seeking a long-term partnership, where there is complete transparency across the supply chain and constant communication. This type of engaged relationship will improve the overall quality of production and ensure smooth operations.

When a factory is invested in a brand’s growth and vice versa, both parties benefit. Kotn, for instance, ensured it has immediate access to every segment of its supply chain, down to its thousands of individual cotton farmers. The brand conducts facility visits on a weekly basis. It also invests in the factories’ growth, such as by hosting training sessions on sewing special details, even if the factory works with other brands, according to Helali.

This mutually supportive relationship especially paid off during the pandemic, he said, when lockdowns and labour shortages introduced all kinds of uncertainties in the manufacturing process. In early 2020, Helali was able to get every single supplier on the phone within a day and told them to pause production.

When a factory is invested in a brand’s growth and vice versa, both parties benefit.

“Within 24 hours, there was no excess fabric, no overages until we could regroup,” Helali said.

When crisis hits, a partner will go out of the way to cover your back, Seferian said, such as allowing a brand to store already-made products in the facility and postponing billing until demand recovers.

But it goes both ways. In a partnership, the brand too must be flexible and understanding of the factory’s obstacles. And it should never cancel an order that’s already been made.

“You burn bridges when someone is mistreated,” Helali said.

Some brands even ask their factories to be equity investors in their businesses, ensuring that the partnership is fully mutual. No, Thank You, for instance, asked the head of its formulation company, after months of working seamlessly together, to be the brand’s in-house chief product officer too.

Vet Carefully

Every brand BoF spoke with said it’s critical to visit any potential manufacturer in person. When handbag brand Advene could not travel outside of the US to visit manufacturers at the height of lockdowns last year, founders Zi Xuan and Yijia Wang conducted multiple detailed video calls and tours with prospective partners.

“You have to make sure whatever is [promised] actually matches the conditions in the factories,” said Xuan. The duo founded the brand in 2019, and officially launched a year later. In their initial search for production partners before the pandemic began, they visited dozens of factories and landed on their first supplier after four months.

You have to make sure whatever is [promised] actually matches the conditions in the factories.

Even if a factory is certified by ethical labour organisations or carries the stamp of approval from fashion sustainability groups, founders must try to verify these conditions in person, according to Wang.

When it comes time to iron out the business arrangement, founders must break down all the numbers and ask granular questions, according to Seferian. For example, a quoted rate might only apply to large orders, and a brand looking to produce a small initial run might find themselves stuck with higher costs.

“If it looks too good to be true, double check,” Seferian said. “Make sure that the price is for production in this facility and not a subcontracted factory.”

Brands should also be diligent in spelling out specific dates and deadlines in their purchase orders, with an arrangement that spells out who’s responsible for what when something goes wrong or a delivery isn’t made, said No, Thank You co-founder Graham Smith.

If it looks too good to be true, double check.

“All these guardrails become important as your business grows and you have to become more professional,” he said.

Have a Contingency Plan

The pandemic has made it clear that businesses must be agile and creative.

Melke founder Gage partners with peer designers for large minimum fabric orders from materials suppliers. No, Thank You has learned since launching last year that certain resources sell out from time to time, such as the matte green double-sided paper it uses for packaging all of its products. As a result, Smith and Pirani now buy the imported paper in bulk.

As the pandemic continues, material shortages will continue to affect fashion businesses. Purchasing supplies for multiple collections at a time is one solution.

After signing on a first production partner, brands should think about a second option in case of emergencies. Factories in Vietnam were forced into lockdown earlier this summer, for instance, which halted production in some facilities.

“If you’re tied to a single factory, and it happens to be where Covid strikes, you’d be completely out of luck,” said Seferian. “Make sure you have redundancies built-in fail safes.” Oftentimes, this looks like a pricier, domestic facility.

Finding that second or third partner is often easier. After working with an initial factory on their first batch of products, Advene’s Xuan and Wang happened to read a Wall Street Journal article about pandemic production delays that quoted an Italian leather goods maker. The duo reached out and quickly came to an agreement with the supplier.

Make sure you have redundancies built-in fail safes.

Now, as Wang and Xuan search for another facility in China, it’s the manufacturers who are reaching out to them — not the other way around.

“As people see what we’re about in articles and through social media, they’d reach out to us on LinkedIn,” Xuan said.

Building Resilience and Value in Fashion's Supply Chain.

Related Articles:

How Fashion Can Tackle Its Supply Chain Crisis

How to Avoid the Next Supply Chain Shock

Risk, Resilience and Rebalancing in the Apparel Supply Chain




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