How to go broke slowly

Maybe you recognize the title of this post from a chapter in the book but here’s another version of the story. Tracy Holzman (a pattern maker) called me last week about some problems a client of hers was having. I asked her to write some of it up so I could expand upon it because it’s a problem many people can have if they start their enterprises poorly.

I was very happy to get a chance to work with a client I’d had when I was still in school. The client, a leather goods manufacturer, wanted me to make a “simple skirt” after their in house pattern maker (actually their sample maker) failed to produce the result they were looking for. It turns out the style was a copy of a “name” designer -in a knit- and they wanted a leather pattern. Worse, the skirt was pegged -which he wanted short, not long- with these crazy dart manipulations and not one but four zippers, of three different lengths and types. This skirt was hard for me. For one thing, the fabrics had very different properties. Going from Spandex to leather is an iffy thing at best.

The biggest problem though was that the client does not have a standard sizing chart in place or any pattern blocks. I asked Kathleen what it would take to get a good size chart made for him. Of course this is kind of a weird question for Kathleen, because she of all people knows it’s not the sizing it’s the fit that matters. Kathleen does not recommend a static set of measurements for sizing because it depends on the styling, silhouette and the type of garment.

I told Tracy that ideally, she would need to reverse engineer the sizing profile of the client’s ideal customer by data mining sales and returns figures. If you have styles that by all rights should be selling better than they are -they’re using the same fabrications, similar price points etc as other styles but you have inordinate returns on those, this advice may help you too (also see pt.1 and pt.2 of the entries on sizing espionage). The problem with Tracy’s survey is that as a freelancer, it’s unlikely they’d provide that information. Also, this is an ambitious project, far beyond the scope of what they hired her to do. She may not get that job even though it needs doing but this is something you can work on if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Barring actual sales numbers for given styles with a breakdown by size, along with returns for those same items, I said she could get anecdotal evidence by interviewing whoever she could, namely the designer and sales people with the goal of analyzing which were the best sellers (less the rate of return) to discern a fitting profile of their core customer. There’s sufficient data to draw from because the company has been around at least fifteen years and they produce the sort of goods that draws repeat customers. With the numbers, she’d sort the styles according to what’s selling and do a rough analysis of which bodies (silhouettes) are performing. Once these are determined, she’d (ideally) check the patterns for shared characteristics and consistencies. Assuming these patterns were well made, they could then become the derivative point (blocks) for all future style development. Also from the styles, a sizing chart could be made. Currently, every style the company offers varies widely. For example, no size 10 matches measures for any other size 10.

Tracy agreed that this could really move sales to the next level but that such a project was not in the customer’s current mindset. She thought the owner would get a lot of benefit from reading my book (she lent it) but I told her good luck with that. It’s companies (and individuals!) around the ten to fifteen year mark who can be the most difficult to work with because they want to continue to do what they’re already doing since it worked before, only harder. Nobody likes change. In the beginning, you pass on a lot of details but before you know it, sloppy practices become institutionalized into SOP.

Tracy continues:

I got myself together and applied myself to the pattern making at hand. The skirt pattern revealed its outlines and a reasonable facsimile took form. Reasonable, considering I had to guesstimate the size, and make this new pattern about 10 inches shorter and figure out how to draft those (insert Italian swear words) darts. I was amazed at 12:00 when I was able to call in and say I was bringing the sample for a fitting. They have a fit model on staff, though I dare say the real average customer is not 5’11 and a size 4. The muslin sample was on the big side, which is ok for me, on a first pattern.

The client however, was not that pleased when he saw it. I spent so much time figuring out the darts, the shape of the skirt was not quite right. This shaping was very important to him, the difficulty of eliminating a side seam, making up a garment in a totally different size, not so much. I was able to see the results of my first pattern and sample same day which was nice. I will have at least one more round of changes, hopefully not two.

The client asked to borrow the book and also said “let’s just work on these 3 things we have in front of us, and maybe in spring we can do a big project.” Little does he know that drafting those three patterns with no measurement goals, and no basic blocks, is not the easiest way to work. Fixing screwed up patterns is also sometimes harder then starting over.

She updated me saying she’s on her third fitting and sewing up a muslin in vinyl. As a leather pattern maker, I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t supply her with pig skin; it’s very inexpensive and is much more indicative of allocation and consequently, costs. Pig is the “muslin” of choice for leather goods. It’s so amazing that a company could still be in business after fifteen years of endemic deficits in their practices. It took fifteen years, but the company is finally at its make or break stage. I wonder if they know that. If they don’t change now, they won’t be around another fifteen. How do you tell someone they’re on their death bed?

When I advised her, I didn’t know they had a fit model -however inappropriate. In such case, I would have recommended she start out fitting to the fit model -however inappropriate- and allow the client to modify the style (if he saw fit to do so) based on the sizing differences between the fit model and their as yet, undefined core customer. The reason I say that -however inappropriate- is because she would have ended up with a good “successful” result (in the client’s eye) and so, the latter would have been more susceptible to suggestions for needed improvement. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing Tracy (I’m not) but many times, it’s simple psychology. You have to do what the client wants successfully before they can be persuaded to do what you think they should be doing. In their way of thinking, you haven’t rendered the result (they think) they want so they won’t want to move any further forward on anything else for which they have no demonstrables either. Or, you could just do what I do and abdicate.

There’s tons of people who think they want to do something but they don’t know they really don’t want what they want and it gets hard explaining it to them so I just let it go. I admire anyone with the patience to do it. A professional sample maker said on the forum the other day (emphasis is hers):

The factor thats the most cost and time consuming in my business is honestly the lack of experience and knowledge of my DE clients. A huge factor that strangely I dont think I have seen mentioned here on this forum: Lack of understanding of fabrics and how they behave. The designers I work for choose the wrong fabric for the designs they have drawn about 80% of time. This ultimately ends up costing them a fortune in sample and pattern making cost (and having said that I want to add that this happens even if my rates are well under average but my work well above average).

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  1. Todd Hudson says:

    Choosing the wrong fabrics for the style seems to be the #1 fault of students as well as newbie DEs. It’s a good reason to force students to do assignments in real fabrics rather than muslin. Otherwise, they’ll never learn how to cut, sew, nor design.

  2. Diane says:

    “Choosing the wrong fabrics for the style seems to be the #1 fault of students as well as newbie DEs.”

    The lowly home sewer has already learned these lessons by trial and error. It’s all too possible that the original design was rendered in knit because it just didn’t work in a woven and most likely will be lost in(leather)translation.

  3. Marie-Christine says:

    Oh, matching design to fabric is a horror – if you follow the recommendations slavishly you feel like you’re doing perfectly conventional work (and often are), and if you don’t chances are you’re… doing knit skirts in leather :-). I think this is by far the hardest part of anything sewing related. And very little but experience (read: lots of unwearable crap) gets it through your head. If DEs can’t do this, no wonder RTW sucks so badly!!

  4. Tracy says:

    4th times the charm! The skirt pattern is sewing up much better. I am amazed what a difference the material the sample was sewn in made. I never saw that effect in such a definite way before. From the comments here, I am getting a strong feeling that sample fabric is more important then I thought.
    I bought 100% cotton Duck fabric (10 pound weight) at Dharma Traders in San Rafael Ca. It turned out to be the perfect leather substitute.
    I have a question for all you pattern makers.

    This skirt has a lot of seams, darts zippers etc.
    Can I get away with drafting a less complicated lining?

    Everyone else who worked this pattern
    seems to think that the lining must exactly mimic the leather. I think it is hard enough to sew that the cost might even double to sew a similar lining.

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