Advice to sewing contractors pt.3

This entry being third in the series (part one, part two), it has a distinctly different flavor. Again, I think it would be beneficial to read it even if you’re not a contractor etc. Without further ado, a sewing contractor friend of mine -let’s call him Al- writes:

Sometimes I wonder what should I do in the near future. I have a nucleus of 3 good pattern makers, real seamstress (not just machine operators) in my family plus a better than average setup of sewing machines. Should I produce a line? Should I or shouldn’t I? What would you do if you were me?

Two quick thoughts come to mind. First is that this contractor -in spite of having enviable resources- is facing a lot of the same hurdles that DEs do. Second, that because of these hurdles, you have less to fear from a contractor stealing your ideas than you imagine. Follow me:

In the book I explain that the whole shooting match is broken into three phases namely design, sales and production. Of these, Al only has the last part (production) in the bag. He has a few advantages in design in that he has the capacity to make patterns and produce samples but the first part is missing. In the sales segment, he’s completely bereft.I  know you think anybody in this industry is magically connected to all the other segments in this business but sales is the weak link -particularly for production people because we’re talking about two entirely different personality profiles. Simplistically stated, sales and production are like oil and water -immiscible.

So let’s review. Since design is more than coming up with a concept, here is a crude breakdown of what must happen in design as it affects our friend Al the sewing contractor -this description of the design phase is page 32 from my book. I’ll draw a line through the things Al doesn’t have to worry about (much).

1. Concept Development
Who, Why, What, When & How (who is your customer and what do they want?)
Decide your market entry (sounds crazy but it works)

2. Style Development
Determine final production goal
Order sample fabrics (before making sketches)
Order twice as many fabric samples than you need
Test sample fabrics
Develop sketches based on tested sample fabrics
Develop twice as many designs than final production goal
Fill out sketch sheets
Assign style numbers

3. Style Meeting: Test your concept (feedback)
Weed the designs based on concept and estimated costs
Decide which styles will be made into patterns
Discuss sizing standards to fit target customer

4. Product Development:
Make first patterns
Make prototypes
Fit prototypes
Figure basic costing

5. Finalize product line for market:
Hire a sales rep
Weed the prototype line
Prepare for market launch

Al’s big holes are related to what kind of product to make, who to make it for, how to fit that customer, find the fabrics that customer likes and expects, getting feedback and weeding the concepts and of course, anything related to selling it which is the whole second phase and not listed here.

As a production person, I’m telling you that we’re flying blind (in some ways we’re “too rich” which amounts to design paralysis.) The last thing Al is facing is being exposed to risk in ways he/we are not accustomed to being. To be sure we have risks of our own, but whether someone buys the lot? Not usually; we are paid for our output even if consumers don’t buy it.  And sure, Al could do it like I advise all of you, to develop prototypes and drum up interest but how is he going to do that while running a factory? I’m not saying he couldn’t do it but he’ll have to pick up a lot of skills, develop relationships with people he has no way of meeting and then flog it -that takes more skills. And that of course is in addition to coming up with design ideas that will resonate with whatever market he has carved out.

I’ll tell you how Al has things figured out -which is diametrically opposed to how designers usually do it; this may help solidify your thinking (and reassure you). First he wants to know what market he should target. He’s not thinking of this lovely design in his head and then wondering how he can make it and then sell it. Once he can make a decision as to what market, he wants to know what he should make for them. You know, dresses, blouses, pants, whatever and what the market usually pays for stuff like this based on the kind of work he does and the fabric sources he thinks he can find (preferably easily) that dovetail with those price points.

[As an aside, this is why you don’t have to worry about a contractor stealing your ideas. First they have no idea if they’re worth anything and they wouldn’t know how to talk to right people to get it sold. They don’t have relationships with fabric suppliers (mostly) or stores anymore than any start up does. An idea all its own is close to worthless.]

All in all, it boils down to a crisis of confidence. Whether you’ve ever realized it or not, that is what designers largely provide -a degree of certainty even if it’s only within themselves, a compulsion that the vision for their line has legs and are willing to go out there and find the customers who want it. Us, we just follow along behind them and do what they say (within limits of course) but we don’t determine the course much less know when a course correction is needed. That is uncertainty and risk we are mostly not familiar with.

But back to Al’s question, what would I do? Well, Al and I aren’t the same person but if I had the liberty to do exactly what I wanted, I’d make blouses. Oh I can design, I just tell you I can’t so you don’t think I’m second guessing you or passing judgement on your ideas (which I don’t by the way). What I can’t do (easily) is sell it which I know is not so different from many of you. I’d pretty much do this (pt.2).

So if I were Al, I’d hire a freelance designer with as much experience as I could afford -preferably at least 20 years of industry experience. Someone who isn’t known to consumers but is well respected, well liked, has a solid reputation and great relationships with buyers for delivering saleable goods that turn quickly. Alternatively, Al could hire someone who is ambitious, someone driven to push the line through (if only as a testament to themselves) and work hard to pick up the skills they lack and of course, put in the hours to get the line sold. I’ve never been a particularly ambitious person so I would be difficult to motivate. In production, you’re used to things getting dropped so you learn to not become too attached to any pet design ideas. A designer must have some of that -although they must also learn to temper it with reality.

As for which market to target, I’m torn. I have a preference for women aged 40-60 because I think there is a lot of potential there. I’d hit the bridge or better contemporary segment as far as price points go. A professional designer could do all of this. It’s all research and relationships.

Advice to sewing contractors pt.1
Advice to sewing contractors pt.2

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  1. dosfashionistas says:

    Unless Al has a deep conviction that he has a product in mind that people will want, I think he should stick to what he is doing and do production for other companies. His abilities in that area are really really needed. And he can make more with less risk. It goes back to what you have preached before, Kathleen; play to your core capabilities. Do what you do best.

    Al, designing is a headache, merchandising is half crossing your fingers and praying, and salesmen are an entire different species. In fact, without a good sales man on your team (not outside sales, inside your organization) I would not even attempt it. I have always heard that a company needs a good outside man and a good inside man….and they will always rub each other the wrong way.

  2. Rocio says:

    -“So if I were Al, I’d hire a freelance designer with as much experience as I could afford -preferably at least 20 years of industry experience”-

    I think experience is important, however…. it’s equally important that whoever you hire is capable of making the most out of a budget that in many cases is only a fraction of what they’re used to working with for their corporate accounts

    I’ve come across a lot of industry “veterans” who (after being laid off from their corporate management jobs) have 20+ years of experience but are also used to having a team execute every step…
    Basically they are there to ADVICE not DO and in many cases (out of pride or a reluctance to embrace change) they haven’t even bothered to update their skill set (CAD skills and Technology in general)

  3. H. says:

    I nominate this series, and this last post especially, for the *Most Valuable Free Article Anywhere On The Internet* award!!!

    (yes, anywhere, because these same patterns of business and human behavior also apply to practically every other industry)

    You have totally nailed it here! Also, the comments have nailed it, too! Brilliant!

    I am tremendously grateful for your work Kathleen,

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