What does it cost to prototype a bag or clothing line?

soia_kyo Note: the site was upgraded yesterday. If you have a Word Press site, you should upgrade immediately. Many apologies if you had navigation problems. Do let me know if you find any (more) glitches.

Now on to the topic at hand, this is a question I get all the time. I’ll bet many of you hear it too. Here’s two examples:

I have a friend who wants to prototype a handbag and she’s not sure how much to pay someone to do so. Any tips?

How much money does it take to create a small line (10 items) of children’s garments? Have a couple pointers?

Considering that these questions are usually sent to me via twitter, how can I give an answer in 140 characters or less? Considering the medium, my first thought is to respond by asking how much does a house cost. Are we talking a hovel or a mansion? What’s it made of? In what area of the country or even neighborhood, do you want the house to be? Will you buy new or build to suit? Since there’s so many differences between home and product building, we should limit the discussion to materials and service costs. As we go along, I’ll provide and explain an estimate for the jacket at right so you don’t think I’m holding out on you.

Materials cost:
I don’t know the proportion of materials cost to total price that go into a home but I’d guess maybe 35% to 50% depending on amenities and whether land (which can also vary wildly) is included. By comparison, the materials cost of building a prototype sewn product will be very low, maybe 10% of the total. This is not to say materials cost is unimportant because it matters a great deal once you start making a quantity of them in production. As a rule of thumb, your total materials cost (for production units) should not exceed 30% of your wholesale price. Figure one third materials, one third sewing and another third to cover overhead and profit. Or these days, with marketing being the end all, maybe that should be revised into quarters with marketing being a fourth.

Services cost:
In home building, you have a whole gamut of needed services, the two primary ones are building plans and construction labor. With sewn products, this could be the pattern and sewing. With homes, you can buy a template plan and hope a contractor can take it as is. Likely they can’t so you’ll have to pay an architect or engineer an hourly rate to customize it for you. With sewn products, I know a lot of people try to lower costs by using a home pattern but it’s usually a painfully expensive way to learn (sooner or later) that it doesn’t work. Usually you can’t get a good contractor to take it, only less experienced neighborhood sewing shops who will charge quite a bit more (30-50%) to do the same work. The summary is, you’re going to pay one way or another. The only question is when and how much will it cost you over what it should have. Do it the least expensive way you can but test, test and test some more.

I don’t know what architects make but professional pattern makers charge between $30 and $75 an hour. There’s a broad range of experience too and you never know who really knows their stuff. Some are really good talkers, but are pretty scary in my opinion. It’s best to get a referral from a contractor, another pattern maker or a designer if they’ll give you one (the forum is a great option too). Anyone you hire should be able to give you a break down of costs and services with options of opting out of things you don’t need. Speaking of and again, at the risk of being accused of venting my spleen, do not have your patterns graded until you have orders. If someone includes the cost of grading as a service they recommend you have done before you have any orders, don’t hire them.

Here’s a recent example of an estimate I gave to someone who inquired about having this design from Soia & Kyo made (pictured at top right). By the way, I declined to do the work because I don’t do knock offs. I provided an estimate anyway because I suspected the person was hoping to pay a lower than retail price ($273, msrp $390) and I wanted to illustrate that custom, even with my lower than average prices, is never less expensive than retail.

  • 8 hours of pattern work @ $50 an hour = $400
  • 3 hours of cutting @ $25 an hour = $75
  • 3 hours sewing @ $25 an hour = $75
  • 1 hour finishing @ $25 an hour =$25
  • Total labor = $575 minimum

However, an estimated cost of up to $1,000 for this design would not be out of line depending on who you hired, how good they were and market conditions. By market conditions I may as well mention handbags specifically. Handbags are still hot (at least with aspiring entrepreneurs) and there aren’t many handbag pattern and prototype makers so with all the competition in the market for their services, they don’t need to discount. On the other hand, a prototype may even be “free”. Some offshore producers will roll the development costs into your production order -which is why they stipulate minimums. I don’t think this is but rarely a good idea unless you have pre-sold the item and have enough orders to make the minimums. But nobody listens to me.

In the olden days (ten years ago), pattern makers used to charge a set fee for garment patterns, one price for a dress, another for slacks etc but very few do it this way anymore because service providers are increasingly required to consult with clients who don’t have a lot of experience in the industry. In fact, it’s become so difficult to quantify the amount of time a client may need that some are charging deposits in advance and refunding the balance. We’re also providing a broader range of services than before, everything from sketching and sourcing to tech packs. All of this contributes to increasing ambiguity about giving prototyping estimates. Speaking of, I wrote an entry on one stop shops (package vs cmt sourcing) before that you may find useful. In most circumstances, I think full package sourcing is to be avoided unless you have the money to pay for hand holding. I guess it makes for an easier entry, money does that but I do fret and worry that entrepreneurs will leap frog over having to learn production to their later detriment.

So if you’ve read this far and care to elaborate, what are the costs you’ve paid for prototyping? It would be helpful for context to also mention the range of services for which you contracted. Thanks!

Related: (read the comments of both!)
How much can you make the first year?
How much can you spend the first year?

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