I want you to start thinking about the supply chain for your fashion brand — while the marketing, audience building and business planning elements of creating your brand are important (and fun), your supply chain is what needs to come together to create your physical product. I recommend prioritizing your fabric search right now — no matter where you are in the process. And I’m going to help you do that in today’s episode.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
In today’s episode, I want you to start thinking about the supply chain for your fashion brand — while the marketing, audience building and business planning elements of creating your brand are important (and fun), your supply chain is what needs to come together to create your physical product.
In other words, your supply chain refers to all of the physical components that go into making your product (fabric, notions – things like buttons and trims, interfacing, etc. – and then, of course, there’s the manufacturing side of the supply chain, which we won’t get into today but is obviously an important component as well.)
To start us off, can you guess which part of building a fashion brand takes the longest? The answer is Fabric sourcing. In some cases, finding the perfect fabric can take six to 12 months. Here’s why: Not only are there tens of thousands of different fabrics on the market but in some cases, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. All of the stars need to align on the quality of the fabric, the fiber, the weight, the price, the functionality, the drape and more… This is why I recommend fabric sourcing as one of the very first things you do. It’s why fabric sourcing is the first module of Factory45 and the very first thing we focus on. And it’s why I recommend prioritizing your fabric search right now — no matter where you are in the process. And I’m going to help you do that in today’s episode.
I’m going to walk you through the steps of effectively reaching out to fabric suppliers – and help you learn more about the sustainable fabrics available to you. This is such an important topic for any fashion brand, because here’s the truth: It’s not a fabric supplier’s job to educate you. You are responsible for writing an email, getting on the phone or going into a meeting armed with the knowledge that will help them help you. And it starts with avoiding these four big mistakes:
Mistake #1 is Writing a long inquiry email
I can’t tell you how many people make the mistake of writing a multi-paragraph email that is so long-winded your own mother wouldn’t even read it. A fabric inquiry is not the time to go into an explanation of your company mission or your core values or your plan to single-handedly change the fashion industry. The supplier doesn’t care about that stuff! What does the supplier care about? Sales. What does he or she need to make a sale from you? A very specific one-sentence description of the exact fabric you’re looking for. What should that sentence include? The fiber, the fabrication, the weight and the color. The end. (And Yes, of course, you can include a “hello” and “thank you.”)
Mistake #2 is Immediately asking a sales rep for MOQ’s and pricing
MOQ stands for “minimum order quantity.” In other words, the amount of one type of fabric that you’re expected to order to meet the supplier’s requirements. Of course you need to know if the MOQ is attainable for you (2,000 yards would be a bit ambitious when you’re first starting out…) And of course you need to know how much a yard of fabric costs so you can factor it into your Cost of Goods Sold. But don’t ask right off the bat. When it comes to sourcing fabric, a significant part of the process is getting swatches in the door so you can feel them, put them in the wash, and compare them to one another. The sales rep wants you to see the value and quality in the fabric just as a car dealer would want you to test drive the car before talking about price. Let the rep offer the information or wait to ask until you have received the swatches in the mail. There’s nothing worse than appearing overly price-conscious and frugal when you’re already looking for low minimums as a startup brand.
Mistake #3 is Not building a relationship with the sales rep
You can’t even imagine the awesome things a supplier or sales rep will do for you if you take the time to build a relationship. Most days a sales rep is dealing with huge amounts of pressure and already tackling a pretty high-maintenance day. If you respect their time by knowing exactly what you’re looking for, and you make it easy for them to help you then you’ll see a return. Building a relationship can happen gradually over the course of a few emails here, a few phone calls there, but if you’re explicit about what you need you never know when a sales rep will call you up out of the blue and say, “We’ve got 300 yards of excess that just came in and we’ll sell it to you at a discount.”
And Mistake #4 is Not being persistent
Fabric sourcing is not for the faint of heart — especially when you’re looking for sustainable, eco-friendly fabrics which is what I focus on. A mainstream supplier will try to talk you out of sourcing organic cotton or wonder why you’re trying to source Tencel when rayon is so much cheaper. Stay true to your values and the reasons you have for wanting to create a sustainably-sourced garment. Don’t try to convince them of all the reasons why sustainability is important for the future of fashion. Keep looking, keep persisting and don’t give up until you get what you’re looking for. It may not happen immediately, but at some point, you’re going to find it.
So, those are the things not to do but it still begs the question, how do you start reaching out to suppliers to start sourcing fabric?
The first step is to RESEARCH SUPPLIERS
Before you can get fabric in your hands, you need to research and contact fabric suppliers who may have what you’re looking for. The easiest way to do this is to go to a showroom or a trade show where you can see a bunch of different fabrics at one time, but that’s not as easy if you don’t live in a fashion hub like New York or LA.
It is still entirely possible to source fabric through email or phone and the majority of suppliers are now accustomed to working with designers remotely from all over the world. So how do you find them? Well, there’s always Google. If you search the specific fabric you’re looking for it can do the trick.
More specifically, though, there are fabric sourcing platforms available now that can help. There’s SwatchOn, Digifair, Common Objective. In Factory45, my business school for sustainable fashion brands, I give all of my entrepreneurs access to a database of over a hundred suppliers that sell eco-friendly fabrics with low minimums. So joining Factory45 or a program like Factory45 where personal referrals are an option is something you can check out, too. I’ll link to the program in the episode description.
The second step is to ASK FOR SWATCHES
Once you’ve created a list of fabric suppliers to reach out to, you’ll want to draft an inquiry email asking for swatches. What’s a swatch? It’s a small cut of fabric that the supplier mails to you so you can see what the fabric looks like in your hand, test it in the wash and see how it reacts to wear and tear. (I’ll talk about that more in a minute.) You don’t have to return the swatch to the supplier so you’re also able to compare the fabric to other swatches you’re considering for your product. Here’s the most important thing about asking for swatches — you have to be specific.
Your initial email inquiry will ideally ask for the fiber, the weight and the color of the fabric you’re looking for. You really get a gold star if you link the color to a pantone reference. And while you’ll probably be looking for a bunch of different fabric options, my recommendation is to always start by asking for a bulleted list of 3-5 different fabrics so you aren’t overwhelming the supplier in your very first email. Wait for a response back and then you can follow up with more requests.
Step 3 is TESTING, PRICING & MOQS
Okay, so there are a few things here that I lumped into one step because it’s all about gathering more information about the fabric. First, you’ll want to test the swatch. Put it in the wash, put it in the dryer and measure it beforehand so you know if it shrinks or curls or warps in shape. You’ll also want to notice other characteristic changes – like does it pill? Does the color fade? Does it wrinkle easily?
If all goes well with the fabric testing and you decide that this is the fabric you want to use, then you’ll want to follow up with the supplier to get pricing and MOQs. Pricing is the cost of the fabric per yard or meter and the MOQ is the minimum order quantity. You need to know how much of that fabric the supplier requires you to purchase as an order minimum.
If you find out that the cost of the fabric fits the budget of your Cost of Goods Sold and the retail pricepoint of your product AND if the MOQ is an amount that’s attainable for you, then you can move onto the next step.
STEP 4 is to ORDER SAMPLE YARDAGE
Get back in touch with the supplier (remember you’re building a relationship with them and that’s very important!), tell them you’re ready to move forward with the fabric and that you’d like to purchase sample yardage. Sample yardage is typically sold in yards of 10 and it should be enough to create a few samples and patterns of your product during product development.
And the final step, STEP 5 is to PLACE AN ORDER
Once product development is complete, you’ve finalized your perfect prototype and you’re ready to start production, you can place a full order of your fabric. The amount of this fabric order should meet the supplier’s MOQ and be based on the number of units you’re ordering for your first production run.
As I mentioned previously, sourcing conventional fabric is a lot easier than sourcing sustainable fabrics — it’s like buying conventional fruit instead of organic fruit, except a little obscure. The thing about sustainable fabrics is that unless it’s vintage or discarded fabric that isn’t being created in new form, every new fabric has an impact — there’s no such thing as perfectly sustainable. So with that caveat said, I’m going to take you through a few different fabrics that are considered more sustainable than conventional cotton, polyester and other conventionally-made synthetic fabrics.
- A very fast-growing renewable resource from wood pulp (usually eucalyptus trees) that doesn’t require replanting, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.
- The fabric processing involves dissolving wood pulp with a non-toxic solvent. Once the process is completed, the solution is evaporated thereby removing the water, and the remainder is reused in the next cycle.
- Considered a “closed-loop” processing method, which is ideal.
- Said to be the most durable of all natural fibers.
- Renewable resource, so doesn’t require much water to grow, doesn’t require pesticides/insecticides.
- Highly absorbent, lightweight, and yet three times stronger than cotton.
- There’s very little waste in the production of hemp fabric.
- Natural, lightweight, durable, highly absorbent.
- Made from long flax fibers — stronger than cotton.
- If it’s not blended with a synthetic fiber, then it’s biodegradable (same goes for hemp and for the next fiber which is the one we most commonly hear about…)
- Pesticides/insecticides aren’t used in the harvesting process.
- Although there are less chemicals used in the process, “certified-organic” doesn’t necessarily mean the cotton is 100% chemical-free. The cotton can be labeled organic but still go through a chemical treatment in the post-processing.
This is of course, isn’t a full rundown of sustainable fabrics but it hopefully gets your wheels turning when it comes to some of the options out there and which parts of the sustainability story matter most to you. You can find the comprehensive list in Episode 06 of the podcast, which I’ll link to below in the description.
Before we end the episode, I have one last thing for you as you begin reaching out to fabric suppliers to source your fabric. Make sure to check out our Fabric Sourcing Kit, which I’ll link to in the description – it features email templates that you can copy and paste to effectively reach out to suppliers, as well as a list of my top 10 fabric suppliers that sell sustainable fabrics and low minimums. People have told me that they weren’t getting any responses from suppliers until they started using this kit, so it’s definitely something you’ll want to have in your back pocket as you begin your fabric sourcing journey.
Good luck and thanks for listening to this podcast episode of Start Your Sustainable Fashion Brand!