top of page

Hindsight is 20/20: What I Learned While Touring Lingerie + Swimwear Factories in Sri Lanka

Earlier this year, I spent 5 incredibly memorable weeks traveling through Sri Lanka with my co-founder at iteration, Bridget Mollner. I've been working with Bridget for two years, and we've been reinventing the underwire via 3d printing + customer co-creation. Join our Facebook group to help us co-create here.

We headed to Sri Lanka in late February to make progress on our samples with a factory we had been sampling with for about 6 months then. We were on a mission to understand the factory operations, how they treat their workers, their processes, and how to best work with them in a collaborative environment.

Months before setting out for the journey, I urged and pleaded with Bridget to take the trip. We needed it, and I knew it would give us incredible insight; still, it would take a while before we finally felt ready to take the plunge.

Nevertheless, visiting a factory and working in person felt essential to bridge the gap in our knowledge and understand the areas where we could improve the integration of our innovation and see our factory firsthand. Most importantly, our trip would help us make better progress–and quicker!

SO…finally, early this year–Jan 30th, to be exact (thanks, journal) we decided to make the journey to fly over to wrap up the base size of our 3D-printed bra frame in person.

Being away from home for 5 weeks with your business partner as your primary companion is no joke. I'm grateful we ended up better for it on the other side, but let's be honest—it could've gone sideways quickly! Thankfully Bridget & I make a fantastic team, so when things went sideways, we pivoted.

"When the facts change, I change my mind" - Attributed to Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes.

While over in Lanka land, meeting with as many fabric, trim, and manufacturers as possible felt like a bright idea. So we arranged several meetings and had the chance to learn how they operate.

During our stay on the island known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, we were delightfully surprised by the warmth and generosity of the local people. So many strangers in this foreign land welcomed us with open arms and treated us like family. We were privileged to enjoy home-cooked meals, tours of local hot spots, beautiful gifts, and incredible memories that I will treasure forever.

Overall, our journey to Sri Lanka was an eye-opening experience, and it's one I'll never forget. So, grab your favorite cup of Ceylon tea, sit back, and dive into the lessons I learned about working with a lingerie factory during this incredible adventure! 🌴

Two women smiling for a selfie. They are both wearing backpacks and there's a stone path behind them.
Kristen and her co-founder, Bridget, in Sri Lanka.

1. DIRECTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SPEED > Pick your path before you punch the gas pedal.

If you're building a new business, it's critical to ask yourself repeatedly: are we moving this in the right direction?

My brand iteration doesn't stop with asking myself; I ask my co-founder, our team, and the iteration co-creator community. Building in public means sometimes putting out what we know is subpar work to help us make huge strides toward improving–public opinion front and center.

Going down this journey of co-created customer-driven products, we want to ensure we're considering our users' feedback while maintaining the right direction for the overall product and the brand itself. That said, considering all those feedback points means we constantly need to adjust our strategies when we find new information or opportunities. It can be disappointing to find you've headed down the wrong path for some time, but a willingness to change your mind when the evidence points towards a new direction is an essential ability for a founder to master.

A woman sewing on an industrial sewing machine while another woman stands next to her smiling. They are inside a sample room of a garment factory.
Kristen working alongside a sample maker in Sri Lanka.

2. YOU MIGHT HAVE TO SHIFT GEARS…SEVERAL TIMES. > No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Even for the most well-prepared, you can count on one thing: nothing will go exactly as planned. This wasn't any different for us. Despite having planned for many possibilities, the unexpected will always come up, and you've got to be ready for action no matter which route you go. In addition, different variables will change the path, and you can't be sure what you'll get once you get where you're going. So while having a game plan is incredibly helpful, flexibility is essential in business. For us, the variables that affected the outcomes the most were:

  1. Miscommunicated goals + expectations from the onset

  2. Slower than ideal sampling turnaround time

  3. No dedicated sample maker or pattern maker to work with daily

  4. Customs strike in Sri Lanka delayed an important package

  5. Poor material planning on our part

A woman in the back seat of a tuk tuk. She has all of her travel luggage with her.
Kristen traveling in the back of a tuk tuk.

3. GOOD THINGS TAKE TIME > It will take longer than you first guess.

Traveling to another country, especially an under-developed third-world nation, you can expect just about *everything* will take much longer than you estimate.

From hailing a taxi, trekking through traffic jams, or ordering delivery lunch–don't hold your breath for quick or easy. Most likely, it will be neither. Even if you're ready to jump in, other barriers might keep you from getting ahead. To better understand why timing can be an issue — it’s vital to know many people's hands touch a garment before it ever reaches a sewing machine station. All those passageways can become bottlenecked or blocked during the sampling process, which means a slowdown in progress. Once a garment is cut and prepped for sewing, the machines could break down, sewers get stuck, and sometimes other business needs take priority. Don't lose your marbles when things get stuck. It happens.

A woman in a pink shirt and glasses trying to remove a king coconut from it's branch.
Kristen trying to remove a king coconut from the branch.

4. IT WILL BE HARDER THAN IT LOOKS > Everything is easier said than done.

Long before I arrived on the island, I envisioned how our trip would unfold. I had pictured it being a super successful endeavor, teaching us how to move forward while forcing us to iterate and adjust quicker. Boots on the ground.

However, the reality was that everything turned out to be much more challenging than I expected. From cracking open king coconuts to navigating the language barriers and adapting to local work culture to understanding the intricacies of garment production, every step of the journey was a lesson in patience, resilience, and adaptability.

I cried so many times during this trip. The most notable was on a night when we had just moved to a new Airbnb that had broken wifi. We had spent our first night without internet, but we were told by our (truly) wonderful hosts that it was fixed early on 2nd day of staying there. When we got home around 9 pm, we were supposed to have a quick call with our engineer in Brooklyn, but the wifi still wasn’t working. Our hosts came over and were at the Airbnb for 2 and a half hours trying to fix it, finishing up around 11:30 pm, successfully fixing the internet. Still, around 9:45 that evening, I cried, frustrated by the wifi situation, hunger, and ongoing factory woes. Then I enjoyed a small but mighty panic attack lasting only 5 or 10 minutes. It wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

A sewing sample room with the view of a sunny and luscious field out the window.
The gorgeous view from the windows of the sample room..

5. DON'T BE FOOLED BY A MONET FACTORY > Looks good from a distance, but messy close-up.

Traveling to factories will show sides of your vendors that you will never see if you don't visit in person. It’s easy to be a good manufacturer from afar, but a mess up close-aka your factory could be a “total Monet’–proudly stolen ala “Cher” in Clueless.

That said, an in-person visit is the best way to see how organized and efficient your potential factory partner is in reality during the day-to-day. So ask to tour the factory floor for the best understanding of their operations and the flow of their product-making process.

Pay attention to how the sample makers must follow the garment; are they changing floors? Walking through the factory lines? Some factories have all the critical sample operations within one area, while others spread across wider areas, with workers traveling up and down flights to continue the sample momentum. Once you've walked through a few factories, it’s more apparent that the best factories are laid out efficiently and how much that matters.

An elephant walking down the side of the road in Sri Lanka.
An elephant we passed on the road in Sri Lanka.

6. STAY CURIOUS TO STAY ON TRACK > Questions can keep things moving, use them when you can.

You must be your own advocate and continually push to get samples done on time and help the factory stay on track, especially if you are there with a purposeful end goal in mind.

The more questions we asked, the more we learned, and learning was meaningful on every level. Whether it was about the manufacturing process, worker compensation, or the factory’s environmental practices, being inquisitive helped me gain a more in-depth understanding of what this factory had to offer. Asking questions is also a great way to solve problems and create opportunities for improvement, so remember to be curious with a growth mindset.

A tea pot and two cups on a tray with a pool in the background.
Sipping tea by the pool during one of our Airbnb stays.

7. SLEEP TIGHT > First-night syndrome makes finding long-term sleeping accommodations worthwhile.

To stay flexible, we only booked short stays of 4 or 5 days max. We knew we might want to head out for a long weekend in one of the country's beautiful places. It was also partially because we didn’t want to get stuck somewhere that was less than ideal for too long. Like when we ended up in a charming apartment, but the main air conditioner was broken, and the entire apartment stunk of mothballs so profoundly that my suitcase is still airing out 3 months later!

Hopping around from place to place led to many restless nights and poor sleep for me and my co-founder. Even when I did sleep, I never woke feeling very rested.

With our habit of moving every few days, we created a never-ending chain of 'first-night syndrome,’ where you sleep on edge because you're in an unfamiliar setting. Your body is trying to stay alert to new smells or noises to protect you. I had difficulty relaxing and adapting to the new space and feeling exhausted most of the time. I didn’t fully understand why until I heard this term a few weeks after we returned.

A woman standing in front of a grey roll of fabric giving two thumbs up.
Kristen helping to inspect our sample fabric for any flaws.

8. CRUSHING IT WITH CONFIDENCE > I learned more about myself and my experience than I could ever explain here in a quick post.

Maybe my last lesson was the most important.

At some point around our 3rd or 4th week in Sri Lanka, I had a moment where I realized I actually knew what I was talking about. I hadn’t been faking it; my 13+ years of learning and growing in the industry prepared me for this.

So often, imposter syndrome creeps in and makes me doubt myself despite conquering so many hurdles. Fashion is no easy industry to break into, and focusing your attention and career on one area for so long is part of what makes you an expert. While there’s always room to learn more, I realized I generally DO know WTF I’m talking about. I shouldn’t doubt myself the way I do; I need to listen to my intuition better and follow through with my gut feelings.

Ultimately, the challenges I faced in Sri Lanka taught me valuable life lessons I will carry with me forever and consider as my business faces future challenges. I will no longer be fooled by Monet factories, and I’ll try my best to book a long-term stay so I’m entirely functional.

So, dear readers, when embarking on your own fashion adventures, remember to expect the unexpected and embrace the challenges that come your way. After all, through these experiences, we grow, learn, and become the best version of ourselves.

Curious to know more? Join our newsletter to continue the conversation and hear more about my experiences visiting factories, the product development process, and starting a fashion brand.


bottom of page