I often talk to Kathleen about my woes of being a DE and starting off small. One of the biggest problems I have is sourcing fabric at small minimums, meaning 100 yards or less per fabric. Many of you know the drill; most of the companies that sell in small quantities are so popular that their fabric is everywhere. It becomes nearly impossible to design a unique collection based on these fabrics because you see them everywhere you turn– including fabric stores. If you want good fabric -not seen everywhere- the minimums seem to be 200-500 yards and up.
I once took an apparel manufacturing class from a consultant and asked her what she thought was the number one problem small designers make. Guess what she said? She said it was getting in over their heads with fabric quantities and sitting on too much fabric. At first I thought that couldn’t be but as I got into manufacturing, I began to see why and how so many companies get caught up with too much fabric. In my case, as a manufacturer who retails my own products, my quantities will always be smaller than DEs who sell to retailers. It seems that anytime I find a company that offers reasonable minimums, the fabric is of a lower quality than would be fitting for what I am manufacturing, or everybody has it. Now that alone isn’t reason enough for a post like this, after all, who wants to hear me whine about my problems with sourcing fabric?
The ironic thing about this is that whenever I can speak to companies about fabric sourcing, they tell me that most American fabric manufacturers or converters are in financial trouble and are losing most of their business to imports from China or other Asian countries and I can see why. For example, once I was looking for hand loomed or machine knit loungewear. As you know, this is a dying industry here in the US. To track down knitters, I had to take a circuitous route; first I tracked down the machinery used to do this type of garment knitting (often called full fashioned knitwear if you want to know). Then I located one sales office for one of the largest machine manufacturers and had an interesting conversation. The salesman proceeded to tell me how they have lost so much business to China that they are re-marketing their machinery to other industries or they face going out of business here in the US (their other sales offices in other countries are doing fine). Then, he told me that many of the knitters were also going out of business and that very few of those left would take on a small customer.
He was right. One company he referred me to told me flat out, that he would not even consider an order under 2,000 pieces. And I called Kathleen to complain about it because, quite honestly, companies with those kinds of needs don’t exactly fall out of the sky and unless they are forced to a very short time-line, they will source from China or any other country for a fraction of what they would pay here. So why does this company have such high minimums when the very customers who can meet those minimums won’t even source their needs with this supplier? Time and time again -just like all of you- I keep coming up against this problem.
I find the key problem is:
American manufacturers are losing business because companies are sourcing overseas, yet they won’t lower their minimums to service companies that must source and produce domestically.
Kathleen has often said that as much as these companies complain about losing business, she doesn’t feel sorry for them because they won’t deal with small companies. Many will say they can’t, but it seems that if you’re facing going out of business, you don’t have the luxury if sitting around and talking about what you will and won’t do -you just find a way to make it work!
Companies could find a way to service small businesses profitably if they took a look at how they operate. There’s no way you can convince me that it can’t be done, because it can. Other US-based companies are figuring it out. European companies are figuring it out. Asian companies are figuring it out. By the way, I know of one US company that offers sourcing in Asia and I can get hand loomed knitwear with a 72 piece minimum. Sure it’ll cost me more but I can get that to work within my means.
Many other industries have adapted to service smaller clients, whether it means accumulating orders for a “gang run” (where you produce multiple orders at one time), adapting new technology, finding leaner ways to operate, or combining forces with other companies which allows you to produce smaller orders. Smart DEs know what they are up against and more than anything, they are looking for companies to work with them. And returning to my first point, it seems counterproductive that DEs have to “get in over their heads” with fabric just to produce a product line.