5 Questions all designers must answer

By way of introduction to the five questions every designer must answer, is a guy I’ll call Brandon (he has the book but I don’t think he’s read it). He’d been emailing me back and forth too many times (7) with one or two sentence emails, very terse and brief with respect to having some suit and perhaps some outerwear patterns made. I mean too many with respect to efficiency; nothing was being accomplished. I suggested several times (4) that he call me so we could discuss it expeditiously, it takes too long to type everything out, but he waffled. Finally he emailed asking when he could call me in the evening or on the weekend. That’s when I bailed, too much work, so I didn’t respond and wrote him off, not expecting to hear from him again.

About a week later, he called me during the day and right off the bat (no pleasantries or anything), wanted to know where I “draw the line”. I thought that was kind of strange and I wasn’t sure I understood. He wanted to know if there was anything I wouldn’t do. I paused. There’s lots and lots of things I won’t do so I asked him to be more specific. He said for the umpteenth time that he wanted suit and maybe outerwear patterns made -which didn’t answer my question. He refused to be more specific so, I tried to put him at ease and interview him a little by asking him the questions that any and every single pattern maker, sewing contractor, supplier or sales rep on the planet will ask him. Specifically, I asked who he expected to buy his products, anticipated price points and the sort of doors he was targeting. This is where it gets good. He said he wasn’t comfortable sharing any of the details of his business plan with me. Puzzled, I said I didn’t need his business plan, just an idea of his target market but he reiterated he wasn’t going to share the details and paused. I couldn’t believe my ears so I asked again and again he repeated it. So, I said, “okay, bye”, and hung up. I wasn’t miffed or annoyed, I was grateful I didn’t waste a thirty minute convo before getting to his bottom line. I think he paused expecting me to acquiesce or scramble for the job. That’s what it felt like.

People, do not, I repeat, do not ever call anyone, ever, if you can’t answer these five questions –without requiring a non-disclosure agreement:

  1. A brief description of your product.
  2. Your customer profile
  3. Your anticipated price points
  4. The types of stores you would like to sell to
  5. Who you aspire to hang with.

Now, I’m sure I could have turned the situation around with Brandon by explaining what I’m going to explain to you below -about why those questions matter- but why invest? If he couldn’t be forthcoming about easy things, I could only expect he’d selectively omit crucial information later on. With sketchy information, I doubt he’d end up with what he’d anticipated and one way or another, I’d end up being blamed. He had the wrong attitude; I must reiterate that this is not a buyer’s market; the consumer idea that businesses will chase you down for your money has no place here. You’re not a big profitable brand. Only retail chases the customer, industry won’t. It’s not that we don’t want your money but nobody wants a power play, it will doom you on a first approach. If you try to wield an upper hand when you don’t even know enough to know you don’t have the advantage -suppliers decide if you’re a potential customer, not you- they can only expect more gamesmanship in the future when your actions can really gum up the works for everyone.

So Brandon, this is why just 3 of the required 5 questions I asked mattered. And let’s make it simple, just one tiny detail, say- the buttons on the sleeves of your suit. I think the button finish on the sleeves of your suit coats is sufficiently narrow. Specifically, your price points, stores and target market will have the final say on how this is done so I have to cut the pattern accordingly. Believe me, these finishes are not interchangeable or changed on the fly sewing it up a little differently.

Button sleeve finish by price points:

  • Low: Three buttons are sewn along the lower sleeve on the top sleeve side, aligned to the seam. There is no attempt at a vent, faux or otherwise.
  • Mid: The buttons are sewn on top of a faux sleeve vent at the edge of the sleeve. Top sleeve side overlaps (and faced); lining is sewn to sleeve hem rather than the vent itself (that’s why it’s a faux vent).
  • High: The vent is an actual working vent, top side is faced, inside corner is mitered, lined to finish and the buttons are sewn to the underside (the undersleeve side) of the sleeve vent. To get the buttons topside, you have to have actual working button holes.. Not that many would ever roll their sleeves up but working button holes on a suit sleeve vent is very prestigious and those customers expect it.

The specifications of the sleeve button finish is just one detail that varies on a sport coat or suit and selecting the correct one depends on price points, consumer profile and retail outlet. There’s a whole laundry list of increasingly complex features on suits that a maker must know in advance. Can you imagine having to explain fabrications, guts and construction? It’d take forever!

The issue is, if you don’t know your product category well nor the assigned quality levels and features applicable to each to the extent that you don’t know why a reputable professional would ask these questions, what else don’t you know? If a pattern maker didn’t ask you these questions about your market or price points, I wouldn’t recommend that you hire them. Now, it is very common that someone wouldn’t know everything which is why you have to answer questions so we can explain the expectations of that market but nobody is going to beg you for information. My begging days are long over. The last time I groveled was to a designer too paranoid to tell me the size of her buttons so I could draft the button stand to the appropriate width. It’s an aggravating waste of time and money. In summary, we’re not spying on you, we’re not judging you. We need to know what level of quality features and attributes to add to your product because few of our clients know all those things at the outset. It’s not a crime to not know the details of these attributes and nobody will think you are stupid either. This is one of those things that is part and parcel of our jobs; we’ll educate you as long as we have enough information to do it. Look, we’re just trying to do our jobs. Nobody is spying on you or judging you.

With respect to retail, things can get worse. Let’s say someone like Brandon wanted to sell to Penney’s. With their workmanship standards, one’s reticence will really be tested because one must tell Penney’s who makes their stuff. Penney’s visits their vendors to measure and inspect the patterns and work in progress on site. If anything, one is better off to hire a pattern maker and contractor who have worked on Penney’s products before (ideally, Penney’s certified). If one’s idea is so obvious that the plan would be completely exposed by answering those five questions, there’s no there, there. Either that or it’s too simplistic to be realistic. Either way, one would have to start over. And by the way, I know Penney’s doesn’t impress many consumers. In the trade tho, any store will buy your products if you’re Penney’s certified. Plenty of people sell to higher level department stores who can’t get into Penney’s.

With respect to the other details of suit making, there’s a lot of ground to cover. If you’re interested, here’s a start:
A comprehensive tailoring FAQ, listing the features, details and standards of men’s suits.
How professionals assess the quality of a suit.
Materials Used In Mens And Womens Suit Making
The Making Of A Bespoke Jacket
Tailoring craft terms and definitions
Assessing A Garment’s Fit And Structure

There’s much more of course but the above would take the most diligent a week to wade through. Yet another reason to hire a specialist -so you don’t have to. Tell anyone who asks, the answers to your five questions so they can present the range of options appropriate for your product type.

5 Questions every designer must answer revisited.

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  1. Corky says:

    Hi, Alan from Corky here.

    I enjoyed your book and find your blog very insightful. I’ve been in this business for 15 years and it’s not till about year 3 when you wake up and realize its all about niches, fresh looks, fit, fit, fit, delivery, delivery and delivery.

    I was so paranoid that I had our first sample maker and pattern maker sign a NDA, and I laugh about it now. So I feel Brandon’s pain, but man this lady is right, she could give two hoots about your biz plan. She only wants to help you with the “fit, fit, fit, delivery, delivery and delivery” part and she wants to make sure she’s going to get paid.

    On a separate note, I think you should revisit the part of your book where you recommend 100% domestic cut & sew. There are just too many macro trends to ignore the option of sourcing offshore. 1) The internet, email, free translation software and cheap airfares make offshore sourcing much easier. 2) The rise of the national minimum wage to $7.25/hour is putting domestic contractors out of business at a rapid rate. 3) The end of the MFA and textile quotas has decimated the domestic supplier base for fabric, notions and basic supplies.

    I think start-ups need to stay local, but there should be a plan in place to get to a blend of offshore and domestic production. At my last sales rep meeting I asked this question. Of your top five lines, how many produce exclusively in the USA? The answer: none. That’s 7 reps x 5 lines = up to 35 manufacturers. Then I asked each rep to think back 5 years and the answer changed from none to all. I call that a trend. Kind Regards, Alan

  2. Tammy says:

    Kathleen, I’ve been reading your blog for maybe 2 years already~ and it still surprises me that even a post like this is necessary… but it is! and I think you have a few others that are along the same lines… I mean, its pretty obvious that Brandon doesn’t have enough experience/knowledge yet to move forward.

  3. “The rise of the national minimum wage to $7.25/hour is putting domestic contractors out of business at a rapid rate.”

    I think that’s exactly the raison d’être of this blog and Kathleen’s book. To promote lean manufacturing so that DEs can grow their businesses at home.

    The only thing I see wrong with a minimum wage of $7.25 is that it’s too low. Earlier posts and comments about factory work and piecework referred to operators making an average on the order of $25 an hour.

    Because so much sewn product production is being done in China, new DEs probably have access to lots of information on how to go about this. What they may know less about is how to grow a skilled labour pool in their own back yards.

  4. Kate says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. I’m doing a degree in bespoke tailoring so we do everything the old-fashioned, Savile Row way, but your FAQ has given me the first useful information I’ve had as to whether or not there is a point to the hand-basted canvas process… I will not feel so bad about using fusible interfacing in my own garments in future.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Corky wrote:
    “The rise of the national minimum wage to $7.25/hour is putting domestic contractors out of business at a rapid rate.”

    Then Alison wrote:
    I think that’s exactly the raison d’être of this blog and Kathleen’s book. To promote lean manufacturing so that DEs can grow their businesses at home.

    Two things. I think Corky had some valid criticisms. If one is going to get into commodities, they don’t have much choice. The thing is, I don’t think that DEs have much of a future in commodities; they’re successful in niche product lines. Still, recent trends Corky mentions have caused me to rethink my central focus. Therefore, I will be solidifying my message to Manufacturing 101, regardless of where it gets done. Necessarily, I still believe one learns best at the outset close to home (where ever home is). Once one has the ropes down, they can move on as their heart desires.

    One caveat, Corky’s claim that “The rise of the national minimum wage to $7.25/hour is putting domestic contractors out of business at a rapid rate.” is not true. US domestic contracting is swinging back the other way. If anything, there’s a dramatic shortage of domestic contractors, too many left when the bottom fell out and we need them again. If there are any contractors going out of business, it’s because they make commodities or they’re not plugged in. Very few of today’s manufacturers are using sources who can’t be found on the web. That’s just the reality.

    Alison said:
    The only thing I see wrong with a minimum wage of $7.25 is that it’s too low. Earlier posts and comments about factory work and piecework referred to operators making an average on the order of $25 an hour.

    I agree that 7.25 is low but maybe not too low in very depressed areas or depending on the job. From what informal polling I’ve done, I don’t find many (any?) DEs paying less than $10 an hour. I don’t know that operators are making $25 an hour…maybe something was lost in translation or I goofed on the math or something. I know that in El Paso, as recently as 1995, operators were making $9.73 to $11. something an hour on piecework.

  6. Brian Kroon says:

    Spot on!

    Its refreshing to see these experiences/viewpoints in print. As a contractor I run into “Brandons” about once a month and learned long ago to toss them out for all the reasons outlined in the article.

    I am so impressed with your writings that I require my clients to read your postings!

    Keep up the good work.

    Kind Regards
    Brian Kroon

  7. Corky says:

    Hi Alan from Corky again,

    I really like the interaction on this blog! Feedback comes fast and is direct.

    First, I don’t make commodities please see my website http://www.corkyandcompany.com, I consider my wife and I DEs and we ran a cut & sew shop with 50 employees for 8 years. Our average cut ticket size is 750 units, some are 3,000 units and others are 200 units.

    I incorrectly correlated the demise of the domestic contractor base to the rise in the national minimum wage and there are probably many other reasons for this occurrance. But the simple fact remains that there are far fewer domestic contractors today than there were two years ago.

    I made calls today to wish my cut & sew vendors a merry Christmas and to see who had capacity to handle some duplicate samples. I talked to four contractors, one is closing and relocting to be a plant manager for a domestic contractor who exclusively does work for the military, another is not taking on any more apparell work and is focusing on medical products, another has decided to focus on doing repairs on imported garments and the forth asked me if I would by his business for a buck. I basically called in favors to get my dups made at 3x production pricing.

    I’m pretty plugged in and I don’t see the domestic contactor surviving unless they are an entity of a manufacturer. I have about 1500 duplicates to do so if your anywhere north of the mason dixon line and east of the Missisippi drop me a line and we’ll talk.

    Thanks everyone for the lively discussion. This is a great blog, I’m glad I subscribed to the feed!

  8. Victoria says:

    To Alan from Corky – WOW! 1500 duplicates…Why not use your overseas contractors? Since you feel they do the best job for you and their cost of production is so low, I’d think they’d throw in the production of the samples, just to keep your ongoing business.

    There are more than several really great contractors in the midwest…Google. Their prices will be higher to be sure, not just because of minimum wage. You are not offering continued, long term business. You are offering a 1 time run with a lot of up front work.

    This probably sounds a little ranty. If it should be moved to another thread…


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