Finding a manufacturing partner is so important to your success as a business owner and as a reputable brand in this industry. If you can’t find a clothing manufacturer to sew your garments in the correct way, then you’ll lack the ability to sell and scale. I always tell my students to look at your clothing manufacturer as your partner — in fact, instead of calling them your manufacturer I recommend referring to them as your production partner. Because it’s this mutually beneficial partnership that can make or break the brand you’re creating.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
What I’m going to share with you today is so, so important to your success as a business owner and as a reputable brand in this industry. Because if you can’t find a clothing manufacturer to sew your garments in the correct way, then you’ll lack the ability to sell and scale. I always tell my students to look at your clothing manufacturer as your partner — in fact, instead of calling them your manufacturer I recommend referring to them as your production partner. Because it’s this mutually beneficial partnership that can make or break the brand you’re creating.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. I want to start here: there are two industries that I’ve worked in in my life that are very different yet incredibly similar in one way.
They are two industries in which that common saying, “the customer is always right” does not apply. You’ve heard that phrase before, right? In hospitality, retail, customer service, working in basically any customer-facing industry, you often have to swallow your pride and even when it isn’t necessarily the case, you have to act as if the customer is in the right.
The first industry where this doesn’t apply is bartending. For the first seven years of building my various businesses, I bartended on the side to pay the bills. I would work all day long on growing my business and then at 7pm I would go into the bar and start pouring drinks until 2am. And I can tell you, there is no world where a man having taken five shots of bourbon by 1am is in “the right.” That was one job where you actually could argue with the customer when he’s pleading for one more drink at 2am. Oh, the stories I have…
The other industry that’s more relevant to most of us right now, is the clothing manufacturing industry. When it comes to new designers and startup brands navigating this world as a newbie or from the outside, we are typically at the mercy of the factory manager. If you’ve already run into this, it can feel like a lot of times that you’re trying to convince them to work with you — even though you’re the one wanting to give them business and your money.
I say this from a place of knowing what that feels like. I have been in your shoes — when I entered this industry over a decade ago, I didn’t have any sort of fashion or manufacturing background — I was a journalism major in college. And I spent the better part of a year trying to convince factory after factory to take my project on. I didn’t know how to walk the walk or talk the talk and it was so obvious. Thankfully, I didn’t give up, and along the way I learned exactly what I needed to say and what the factory needed to hear to make me an ideal client and for them to give me the time of day.
Now being on the other side of the industry, not as a designer anymore but in the fashion education space, I’ve had the benefit of being in close communication with many of the clothing manufacturers here in the U.S. and this is what they tell me:
“We don’t like working with startups.”
They also tell me that, “It’s obvious when you refer one of your students to us because they’re so much better prepared than the typical designers who come to us.”
Now, I’m not telling you this for bragging rights or to discourage you, I’m telling you this so that you keep listening, you take notes and you prepare yourself to absorb the knowledge I’m about to share. This is an opportunity for you, too, to set yourself above the rest when you next reach out to a clothing manufacturer to work with them.
Okay, so I want to start with a common email inquiry that a clothing manufacturer gets — this is actually word for word an email that a factory manager sent me that they received as a cold email. Because this type of inquiry is so common (maybe you’ve even written something like this!), I thought it would be helpful to break it down and go over some common phrases to avoid using – here’s what the email said:
“Hello – I have a patent for an innovative new apparel product. I’m looking for a production partner to work with – do you do apparel? Are you willing to sign an NDA? What next steps do I need to take?”
Okay, innovative new apparel product, do you do apparel, will you sign an NDA… if you didn’t hear anything wrong with that email, then I definitely want you to keep listening because I’m going to break this down and look at a few problematic spots:
The first is using the word “PATENT”: If you are trying to patent an apparel product, in 99% of cases you are wasting your money. The only person who will tell you otherwise is a lawyer (for obvious reasons). There are so few apparel products in the world that are unique enough to legally protect. Even then, someone else could come in, rip off the design, change one button or one pocket placement and your product is unlikely to be protected by the patent.
I know a patent application may feel like you’re “legitimizing” your company, but trust me, you’re wasting valuable time and money that could be spent on finding out if your customers even want (and are willing to pay for) your product in the first place. Patents are not cheap so I tell you this out of love and wanting to protect you from going down this road.
The second problematic spot in the email is using the phrase “INNOVATIVE NEW APPAREL PRODUCT”: This might sound fancy and intriguing, but it actually says nothing to a clothing manufacturer. There is no sew shop, factory, manufacturer or supplier that is going to take you seriously (or even know how to respond to you) if you don’t give a clear description of the product you’re trying to make. Ideally, you’ll be able to tell them the type of garment, the type of fabric you’re using, how many units you’re looking to produce and what your timeline is.
The third issue is the request to “SIGN AN NDA”: Despite what you may think, or may have learned in other industries, asking a manufacturer to sign an NDA is not common practice and is actually a red flag to the factory. If your product is good enough to be ripped off or stolen, it won’t be your production partner who does it. Many of the manufacturers you’ll be reaching out to have been in this industry for decades. If they were in the business of ripping off designers, then they wouldn’t have lasted this long. I don’t know any factory who would sign an NDA, unless under very specific extenuating circumstances (like you’re Beyonce and you haven’t told the media you’re starting a new fashion brand yet).
And the last and probably worst part of this email is: “WHAT STEPS DO I NEED TO TAKE”: This has to be the biggest pet peeve of all. And it’s probably the most common question asked. So I’m just going to go ahead and put out a PSA for every manufacturer out there: It is not your production partner’s job to educate you. If you don’t know what the next steps are, then you need to go back to the drawing board, do some research, read some blogs, books, hire someone to help you, whatever you need to do so you know what the next step is.
Okay, so those are some common mistakes to avoid — 1.) you don’t need a patent, 2.) give a detailed description of the product you’re creating (don’t be vague), 3.) don’t ask the manufacturer to sign an NDA – especially not in your first email to them and 4.) don’t ask what steps you need to take — it’s not the factory’s job to educate you.
Alright, so let’s shift gears a bit so you’re not only avoiding these mistakes but you’re saying and doing all the right things so that every clothing manufacturer wants to work with you.
If you’re reaching out to a production partner that does not do product development from scratch — this is an important distinction — in other words, they only do full-scale production not pattern and samplemaking, then here’s what you’ll need to have ready to work with them. In most cases, I don’t even recommend reaching out to a factory until you have these things because it will be the first question they ask and you want to be able to say you already have them. So here’s what you need (again, this is if the factory does not do product development):
- A pattern (either paper or digital but both are preferred)
- A sample (this is a final prototype that you’ve worked with a samplemaker to create)
- A spec sheet (you don’t need a full tech pack)
People are often surprised to hear that you need these things – the assumption is that the first pattern and sample is what the factory does. But again, until they include product development as part of their service (which not all do) then they’re going to expect you to come in with an existing pattern and sample that they’ll be able to use to do a time study. The time study is how they quote you on pricing for the cost per unit.
If a production partner agrees to take your project on, then you’ll also need:
- Fabric (don’t wait to source it, but wait to purchase it)
- Capital – Production will not start until you have all of those items and can pay 50% upfront.
Okay, so to review, if you reach out to a production partner and tell them you have your sample, pattern and spec sheet ready to go then you’re automatically going to set yourself apart from 95% of startup fashion brands. You will actually put the factory in a position where they can respond to you with steps to move forward.
Those are the three tangible things you need but there are a few intangible things you can bring to the table to set yourself apart from 99% of other designers and those intangible things are:
- Consistent and clear communication
- Knowledge of the industry
You may think these things are a given, but you wouldn’t believe how many people send emails without checking spelling and grammar, rereading what they wrote and making sure their questions and comments are clear and succinct.
Professionalism requires you to show up to Zoom meetings with your factory on time, to respond to their emails with 2-3 business days, pay your bills on time, and in return, you should expect the same from them.
And then when it comes to knowledge of the industry, that requires self education. Again, whether that’s making a commitment to attending these live shows every week, reading books, blogs, listening to podcasts, joining a course, committing to a program like Factory45 — you aren’t expected to know as much as your factory, but you are expected to ask educated questions and be able to keep up with the conversation when it comes to your product and brand. Remember, no one is ever going to care about your company as you do. And the more invested you are in the outcome, the more invested your manufacturing team will be.
So I’m going to wrap this up with an example email that is the opposite of what I shared in the beginning and is actually an example of something you should write: Okay, here it is:
Hello [factory manager’s name – you always want to try to find a specific name if you can, even if it’s an info email address or contact form], You were referred by [say how you found about about them] as a cut and sew facility that I’m interested in working with.
I’ve designed a line of three linen dresses that use a similar block but vary in their hem lengths, sleeves and necklines. I have paper and digital patterns, as well as samples and spec sheets for each dress.
Are you taking on new clients to your production calendar and if so, would it be possible to schedule a time study as a next step?
Thank you in advance for your time,
That email is three short paragraphs long, adds a personal connection through the referral mention, clearly states what you’re wanting to create, lets them know that you already have what they’ll need to get started and asks an educated question to end the email and move the conversation forward.
Do you see how different this email is from the bad example I shared at the beginning? Hopefully it’s obvious but if you have any questions now is a great time to post them as a comment below and I’ll go through after the live and answer them in the comments.
Again, if you take this advice to heart and use these suggestions then I promise you, you’re going to have such a different experience in this industry without learning the hard way. That’s my hope for you.
As always, I’ll leave you with a free resource to continue taking action on what you’ve learned today. I have a Manufacturing Kit that I put together that tells you the exact steps, in order, that’s required in the manufacturing process of an apparel product or sewn good. There is a link in the description below but if you’ve ever wondered what the full A-Z steps of clothing manufacturing are, what questions to ask before signing a contract, how to hire a pattern/samplemaker and templates to keep by your side for all future conversations with production partners, then you’ll want to grab this Kit. You’ll know what’s expected, what’s coming and what you need to prepare for.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got today — thank you for listening, for showing up and for continuing to educate yourself. This is exactly what the industry needs. More next week!