Mistakes designers make pt.87

Here’s a guest entry from DK who’s spent 18 years in the industry. She didn’t mention anonymity so I’m erring on the side of caution while I wait for her response. Her entry details her recent and only experience working for a DE. And no sillies, there aren’t any parts preceding this one. Not named such anyway. You know my series numbering scheme is odd-ball. So what’s new?

I had an experience over the last couple months that your readers may find instructional. My account is a bit long but there was just so much that I experienced that was worth sharing. Probably closer to a list of what not to do more than anything but sometimes real world examples illustrate a point in a new way.

To give you some background, I’m in the planning stages of launching my own line. My background is an 18 year career in Technical Design where I ran departments for a number of major retailers. Although I’ve spent more hours than I can count compiling spec packs, evaluating fit, and touring Asian factories, I felt that there was an element missing in my background. I had never worked in a tiny company with local production. Since this is what I’ll be doing, I sought out a freelance position that would allow me to see the inside scoop on day-to-day operations when there’s no sourcing department or costing group to rely upon.

I took a freelance position with a designer of high end women’s wear. “Ladies Who Lunch” wear that retails for thousands of dollars and is sold in one major retailer and through store trunk shows. My tasks were to include light pattern making and production management. I think my employer made every mistake in the book and it was an unbelievable learning experience, though painful and frustrating.


  • Line way too big. 40+ “looks”. Determined by what makes a good show, not profitability.
  • Fabric rarely used more than once or twice.
  • Groups only themes were color.
  • Like a lot of creative people, design was the only important stage to him. Production was something to be avoided or left to others. This is a 2-3 person home based company working with his 2nd contractor in as many seasons yet getting press and into major retailers.

Product Development

  • Designer didn’t consistently document inputs or construction details of first sample.
  • Costing haphazard at best due to above. Driven entirely by expensive imported piece goods.
  • Costing was four lines of numbers on a piece of paper. Contractor was shown two samples, not sure what conversation occurred on quantity, a price was given for those two items. Never had any additional samples priced by this factory. Not sure where labor cost came from to arrive at a WSP (wholesale price) for the line. By the time designer revisited the possibility of working with this factory after initial costing, a great deal of time had passed and he had no choice but to pray this facility would take his work because he was out of time. And he had no idea what he was going to be charged.
  • There was only one sample made. It served as photo sample, sales sample, sample for the factory and a press sample. Sample size was a 2.
  • Sample was never fit on a live person. The only time he saw his product on human beings was on his trunk show models.
  • I was brought in after the line had been developed. Samples were at the showroom. Orders had been taken and now he decided that patterns needed to be made from the “muslins” for production. His concept of pattern making involved simply transferring the drape to pattern paper. I was to do this without technical sketches, samples, or the ability to test my patterns. (I know your stomach is clenching at this, Kathleen. Mine did.) I won’t go into the repeated conversations over this one but the risks seemed beyond his comprehension. I should probably have ended my employment then but I hadn’t gotten everything I needed yet so decided to try to help him through the mess. Maybe I could teach him something. Silly me.


  • Tracking of orders was individual purchase orders loose in files and a hand written list of styles by fabric that had been used to order piece goods. And by individual, I mean orders literally by person as the bulk of the business was from trunk shows. These trunk show orders were frequently custom pieces ie. make Mrs. Smith’s skirt 3” bigger in the hips, cut jacket x in a different fabric. Which means pattern work, special handling in production, systems for figuring out how to handle this, cost, etc. It was nearly impossible to roll up the numbers of orders for individual styles, various delivery dates, custom pieces, etc to figure out how many units to cut. Everything was a custom order.
  • Spreadsheets were a foreign concept. I put the orders by style into Excel on my personal computer so that I could track process and timing. He never looked at the printouts I gave him.
  • Although the designer had ordered piece goods, no inputs were ordered and he had no interest in figuring out what he had done. As documentation was sketchy at best and samples not available, you can imagine the difficulty I had in pulling together lists of what needed to be ordered.
  • Once I determined what inputs were needed, he delayed ordering or would only order a few pieces. Ignored the economies that can be achieved in consolidating buttons, zippers, etc, preferring to shop retail (you can do that in NYC) because in his mind, it took less time and thought.
  • Production was late for the second season. Stores were pressing for earlier deliveries but this still didn’t motivate him to purchase inputs, neither did my nagging. Production fabric sat in the studio for weeks because he couldn’t be bothered to deliver it to the factory. Working on spring was “going backwards” to what was in his mind, last season, because he was so engrossed in the design of the next season*.
  • Failing to supply inputs on a timely basis incurred an untold financial hit as the contractor had a table charge for small orders.
  • He ignored all regulations for labeling of garments beyond his logo label due to expense of printing so many different content labels.
  • And lastly, it should be mentioned that this is the first season with a very high quality factory. A week before stores were wanting delivery, buttons hadn’t been purchased, linings hadn’t been purchased, yet this designer expected this contractor to push aside all of the other work from paying clients who were probably easier to work with.

I’m sure your regulars can figure out how this story is going to end. He’ll be closed in six months tops. A friend of mine suggested I loan him your book. My reply was, “This isn’t the kind of guy who would care to learn what you have to teach.” To me, much of what I saw is typical of designers who love the creative process but don’t respect production. Even something as simple as documenting the size of your buttons and color of your linings can have a major impact on your ability to produce. Small designers think it’s okay to keep this stuff in their heads and I guess it is, up until the point where other people are involved. Far too often, small designers don’t try to anticipate what others involved with their lines will need and don’t pay attention when told.

Thanks Kathleen. Love the blog. Love the book. Love the forum. Highly grateful for your incredible support of this segment of the fashion business.

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  1. A Designer says:

    There is more than one person like this out there…

    You say “He”, but I know a “she” who sounds the same (from Manhattan). People like this are going to do what they are going to do, even if they hire you to help them or ask you for friendly advice. Steer clear.

  2. Dana says:

    I’m “DK”. No need for anonymity Kathleen, just caught me traveling. Although I’m stunned but not stunned at the same time, by designers who feel they can rewrite the industry’s conventions, to me the bigger shock was getting away with it when working with major retailers. Most of these guys have 10 pound manuals for the rest of their vendors yet they let someone ship them product without care or content labels? And no chargebacks for it? The rest of what I described is just naivity and arrogance by the designer. What’s the retailers excuse?

  3. Christian says:

    This is the typical example of somebody that thinks the business side of fashion is only to design. Designers who don’t see this industry and their designs as products are destined to fail. This industry is very glamorous and can change your life overnight, but at the end of the day, you sell a product or line like in other industries, and conveys a planning, pricing and production process.

    Unfortunately, this kind of people could damage the perception, openness and willingness from specialty boutiques and majors to work with new designers. If you are not ready to respond to the demand, is better not to accept the orders.

    Not taking order will not affect your relationship with your customer but delivering a faulty product will not only damaged the relationship with your customer but will translate in no more orders from that customer.

    With the majors if you do not deliver they will never place an order with you again.

  4. sahara says:

    It’s the look dahling, the look. It’s amazing what retailers, especially high end retailers, will deal with. Arrogant DE’s have told me that the retailer taught them (about care labels and such). I’ve asked retail associates why (“you have time for this?”). I get––”X has SO MUCH potential; besides, the customer doesn’t really care!” Doesn’t care? At several thousand dollars? What does this say about the customer? That a button is more important than a care label? Don’t get me started.

    As for the designer? Production to some is a bad word, as in “I may make more than one suit, but production, is for the masses––read poor people. But the designer, to me, is too poor to do what he’s doing. High end is, as high end does.

    Yes, there are certain things you shouldn’t consolidate; you’re selling to a smaller audience who do notice similar effects on each other. This is the advantage of shopping the Garment District in NYC (which is rapidly shrinking; it’ll be interesting how DE’s handle this, and still maintain the individuality needed in a $3800 suit).

    Production and costing for retailing is one thing, custom orders another––but we live in a confusing climate. High end stores want the illusion of bespoke exclusivity (hence the trunk show order), and high net worth individuals (not the truly wealthy) go those stores, not bespoke dressmakers. The press doesn’t write about DE’s who SEW out of their homes; retailers give validity (“he’s at so and so”); it’s scandalous.

    What’s worse, although it may be justice for him to go out of business, I’ve seen fools actually obtain backers and assistance, due to the press and adulation they receive. There’s a famous one I won’t name, but from talking to the techs who work for him, I’m amazed anything gets made at all. Others only hire kids with factory connections.

    I’m glad you learned a valuable lesson! You’ll do very well, and don’t take the 10 pound vendor book you’ll receive as a slight; it’s probably that you’re not arrogant enough.;-)

  5. Alexzandra says:

    Wow, that was even confusing to read. How was he able to make show room samples without patterns, or run trunk shows with size 2 samples? I’m amazed that the line made it into stores at all. DK, you must have been irreplaceable.

  6. Very interesting. I hope you got some of what you were looking for in the experience. Everyone who comes in and out of our life makes an impact. Maybe someday your Designer will understand that you were there to make a change for his continued success. Good article.

  7. alice says:

    Wow! I’ve never had it that bad! That does sound quite horrible. I couldn’t even bear to finish the whole post. I’ve had some – what I thought were – bad experiences, but I guess that’s still yet to come. I had a similar boss like that as well but he wasn’t the designer and it was a small company where he still had to defer to other people, so it was never to that extent. Whew!

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