the ultimate guide to finding a factory for independent fashion brands

‘I’m a small business and want to find a manufacturer for my products’

Sound familiar?


This is the topic I know everyone asks about so I’ve gathered some FAQ’s from my clients & written a comprehensive guide to finding clothing manufacturers for small businesses!

I’ll be answering questions such as:

  • How do I find a manufacturer?

  • Where can I find a factory for my clothing business?

  • Which factories work with small brands?

sourcing a manufacturer

The first thing I’m going to say is - there’s no quick fix (sorry!)

However, there are places to look that don’t involve hours of scrolling on google! (yay!)

Usually when someone is looking for a clothing manufacturer or factory, it is because they have initially started making the product themselves & they get to a position in their business when they need to start out sourcing.

Before you get started, here are some things to think about:

  • What do you want to make with the factory?

  • What fabrics will each garment be made from?

  • Do you have a technical drawing of each item?

  • How many units are you willing to place of each piece?

  • How much are you prepared to pay?

  • Do you want to produce in the UK or abroad?

  • When do you want to launch?


So I’m going to start with the best way to start making contact with factories which is…


1 . Trade Shows

I know it can be a bit scary handing over something that is your ‘baby’ to someone you don’t know so I always recommend my clients to go to the trade shows! I also know it’s not ideal if you’re not near London or you’ve just missed one because they are only every few months.

However meeting someone face to face really is so valuable! Ideally you only want to do this process once so try and get it right first time & build a long lasting relationship with your suppliers.

It’s all very well going on google to look for someone but it is so overwhelming and you don’t get a gauge of their personality or whether they will take you seriously.

What to take with you:

  • Your design / technical spec pack - it will be the first thing they ask you!

  • Business card - some people find them outdated but if you want them to keep in touch, I think it’s still a great way to build connections with people in the industry

  • Pen & notebook - make notes as you go around so you don’t forget who was who. I like to make quite personal or visual comments next to each business card such as ‘friendly man with red tie based in Istanbul’ because it helps jog my memory once I get home. If you just have a pocket full of business cards at the end of the day, it is very difficult to remember who’s who!

HOW TO FIND A CLOTHING FACTORY

Have a really clear focus for the day with regards to who can move your business forwards (maybe do some research before the event & make a list of people you’d like to meet?) otherwise it can feel a bit daunting and overwhelming.

How can you structure the day to make sure you get the most from it?

Fashion SVP

The trade show I recommend to find a factory abroad is Fashion SVP

They have manufacturers from around the world and they build a mini showroom in booths so you can go round and meet the factory owners & discuss your product with them to see if you’re a suitable match!

The factory owners are usually very proud to show off what they have produced so it is polite to ask permission before taking photos of their garments (they will automatically assume you’re going to use those photos to show a competitor!)

Make It British

Make It British is a similar event but on a smaller scale because all the manufacturers are in the UK - bonus!

There are a number of reasons why it is beneficial to have your products made in the UK:

  1. Supporting the UK manufacturing industry

  2. Big selling point to the customer as they see a lot of value in that process

  3. You can monitor the production & therefore control the quality

  4. You’re able to meet the factory owner face to face on a regular basis

  5. Supplier relationships are therefore stronger

  6. No language barriers

  7. No time difference

  8. Lower carbon footprint as you’ve removed the overseas shipping costs

  9. Short lead times

  10. It’s not as expensive as you might think


It is held once a year in The Old Truman Brewery in east London. I went this year with Catherine Erdly of Future Retail UK & it was brilliant to build some contacts & discover what’s available in the UK.

FASHION MANUFACTURING & SOURCING EVENT

Gauge a reaction of whether you like them / trust them & ask a few questions like :

  • Who else do you work with?

    I like asking this question as it gives you a good gauge of whether you’re in the right place or not. For example, if the factory says they work for ASDA, you automatically know that it is a big set up with high quantity production runs. If the factory says they work with independent, up & coming brands then you know that the production runs will be a lot smaller & you’re in the right place! (This question also gives you a good gauge on what their quality will be like!)

  • What do you specialise in making?

    Factories usually separate themselves based on what fabrics they work with. If you’re making a collection that has jersey, knitwear and wovens then all 3 of those garments will need to be made in separate factories due to the machinery needed to produce them.

  • What are your MOQ’s?

    MOQ means minimum order quantity & that is the minimum number of units that the factory is prepared to make for you. Some factories will have minimums starting at 3,000 units which is why it can be difficult to find someone to help when you’re just starting out! However there are factories who specialise in smaller runs and they can start from as a little as 20 units. Try not to open with that question as it can look a little bit desperate; equally don’t leave it too late in the conversation as you don’t want to waste time!

  • What is your average production lead time?

    This is the length of time it takes to make the product but it’s a good idea to ask from what point that lead time starts & ends!

    For example does it start :

    *from the day of ordering the fabric

    *from the day of placing the order?

    *from the day of fabric arriving in house at the factory itself?

    Hopefully you can start to see how easily confusion can arise!


    You will also need to know whether that lead time includes freight?

    If the factory quotes 8 weeks FOB (see jargon buster here!) then they are saying it will be 8 weeks NOT including the freight time

    If the factory quotes 8 weeks LANDED then the 8 weeks is inclusive of freight time to get it to the UK


    Have your launch date in mind and work backwards from there to see when you would need to book the order in to maintain that date. I’d also recommend having a buffer in your lead time to allow for any issues which may arise!

    For example, if the manufacturer says he can deliver on 1st May, it would be a good idea to tell your customers that the launch date is 14th May. This will allow for any mishaps that happen along the way & also time to check the stock once it arrives to make sure it matches back to your pre-production sample.

  • Do you have a sampling facility?

    Usually there are 2 types of factories to choose from

    *CMT factory (cut, make, trim)

    *FPP factory (full package production)

    -CMT is usually workable for designers who have a line of products & have been making them by hand on a smaller scale. They have the pattern ready, material ordered & an idea of the stitching process but are looking to now produce larger quantities. These factories will only manufacture your product so they will cut the fabric, sew the panels together and attach the trims such as swing tags, buttons, labels etc.

    -FPP is inevitably more expensive, but can be a more supportive service for a designer with little or no garment-making or pattern-cutting skills. These manufacturers understand that clients may not be educated in the manufacturing industry so are willing to assist in every aspect of production from design right through to packing.

  • Do you charge for sampling?

    Some factories charge for sampling because some brands will use their sample facility for a pre-production sample only & then move the production overseas or somewhere cheaper (which can be pretty annoying for them!) If you place an order with the same factory who sampled for you then you should be able to ask for the sampling cost to be deducted from the production cost. You want to find out upfront if there will be any ‘hidden’ costs!

  • How long do samples take?

    When you’re asking for a sample to be made, give the factory a deadline to stick to. You could even give them a reason as to why you need the sample for that date like a photo shoot for example! It doesn’t really matter but giving deadlines just stops the whole process from dragging on longer than it needs to. It also shows the factory that you are serious about moving forwards.

  • Do you have an in house garment technologist / How do you monitor quality?

    This is really important as things can inevitably go wrong during the manufacturing process! Your job is to therefore find out what this factory does to keep the quality in check. A garment technologist will work in the pattern room & measure the samples to ensure they fit nicely on the body. A quality controller comes in later on in the production process and keeps an eye on what’s being made to ensure it all matches back to the approved pre-production sample.

  • What are the terms if I’m not satisfied with the final product? (I would probably ask this on a second meeting rather than the first)

    Unfortunately, this is a reality which some of my clients have faced & it is much more difficult to work retrospectively. I always encourage you to be upfront with your suppliers and understand what your rights are. Be as clear as possible when placing the order to make sure you and the factory are on the same page about what is to be produced at the end of the process. If you can get some terms in place before you place the order then you can cover yourself right from the beginning.

2 . Fabric Fairs / Fabric Mills

This may seem unusual to go to a fabric fair to look for manufacturers but I hope you can start to see that this process is all about making contacts! If you’re making a product, you’ll need to go & buy fabric for your production so why not ask the fabric mills while you’re there which factories they are sending their fabric to?

Fabric agents have usually been in the business a long time so make sure you connect with them & ask for factory recommendations.


3 . Online Directories

If you really can’t get to one of these trade shows then I’d recommend going to some online directories & working through the same process.

If you’re looking to make in the UK then head to either of these sites:

  • Make It British

    This is obviously the same company who run the event I mentioned above & you can also advertise your own brand here if it is made in the UK! They also have a Facebook group which I’m in; it is a really great way to start building connections with other people in the industry (especially if you’re looking for recommendations)

  • Make It Here

    This is another online directory you can browse and research into finding a manufacturer locally

FASHION BRAND STARTUP ADVICE

If you’re looking to manufacture abroad then head over to:

These are much bigger platforms so it may take longer to run through them but try & filter them as much as possible to find someone who specialises in what you’re after. Take a look at their website and gather as much info as possible about the company (also double check their credentials on LinkedIn)

Make a shortlist of 3-5 factories who you’d like to approach and then send an intro email about your brand and why you want to work with them. Hopefully they will speak English so you can ask to speak with them on the phone or over Skype. If you can’t meet them in person then Skype is the next best thing to start building a relationship and gauge whether you like the company enough to start placing orders with them.


4 . Recommendations

The fashion industry is very secretive & I’ve found people are often reluctant to share where they bought their products from or what manufacturers they use. Unless your product is competing directly with someone else, I can’t see why someone wouldn’t share that information (especially if you’re bringing more business to the factory, I’m sure they would be happy for the extra clients & they might even reward you with better cost prices in return for the new business!)

FASHION BUSINESS CONSULTANT

Ask in facebook groups that are made up of designers & other brands & start heading out to networking events! It is always a good idea to ask for factories who they would recommend but also factories who they wouldn’t recommend working with & learn from other people’s mistakes!

There are groups on Linked In that you could join who are soley focussed on fashion. The advice I would give if you’re looking for a recommendation is to BE SPECIFIC! I’ve seen posts before that say ‘does anyone know a good factory’ but this is too broad. You want to say something like ‘can anyone recommend a jersey factory in Turkey’ Also put a post on your LinkedIn profile to say you’re on the hunt for a specific kind of factory and someone may even contact you!


5. Manufacturing Agents

Here I’ve listed out the pros and cons of having a manufacturing agent; think of them as the middle man between you & the factory!

Pros

  • They will have a number of factories at their fingertips ready to get your production started

  • The factories they are working with tend to be reliable factories as it is the agent’s name at risk

  • Generally, I would say the factories are tried and tested

  • Easy communication because the agent will speak your language & the local language for wherever the factory is based

  • Sometimes they will manage the production for you too!


Cons

  • As always, the middle man costs more money

  • It is likely that they have preferred factories to work with  (for example, it may be someone in their family who owns a factory)

  • You aren’t guaranteed the best price from a cross section of different factories

  • Costing breakdown not always visible between the agent and the factory so you don’t get a ‘true’ cost price

Take a look at these sites for more detail:


www.sourcemygarment.com

www.producingdesign.com


6 . Factory Visits

Factories tend to be based in ‘garment / fashion districts’ so just by going to visit 1 factory, I guarantee that you will see more along the way.

I went to a trims shop recently and there was a lingerie factory in the same building with a phone number on the door. Fashion is quite an old fashioned industry whereby people still work a lot on the phone & in person so take advantage of that!

FASHION INDUSTRY CONSULTANT


Keep your eyes peeled on factory visits and (again!) ask for recommendations! I really can’t stress enough how important it is to just start talking to people! If I’ve learnt anything about working in fashion then it’s that old cliché - it’s who you know, not what you know! The fashion industry is a surprisingly small world so make as many contacts as possible to build your network & the best way to do that is to start putting meetings in the diary!

Someone once said to me ‘meetings make money’ !


Just remember that this is probably the longest and most difficult part of building a fashion brand so be patient and persevere! :)

If you have any other tips which are useful, please let contact me and I’ll add them to the blog to help other brands succeed!

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fashionElizabeth Stiles