If you're interested in making your own product and/or clothing line, one of your earliest tasks you'll have will be to find the right factory to produce your goods.
At first, this will feel overwhelming, exhausting and panic-inducing. It should be. The wrong choice can put you in a bad situation. It could force you to use too many resources and spend too much money all while spiraling you deep into the sunk cost fallacy. Worst of all, it can stunt your future growth.
You'll need to do some due diligence to make sure the factory that you sample with can also produce your final goods with the same level of quality and on time.
It comes down to several different aspects outlined in the blog below. Follow it to start with success and use it as a regular reference to test and check new vendors.
You additionally might also have extra credentials that you'd like to see in a factory, like being GOTS, OEKO-Tex or Fair Trade certified. Once you decide what matters most, ask for certifications and check them for legitimacy against records and resources available to you. GOTs has an online public database you can check here. Fair Trade International has a great tool for checking on your factory choices as well. OEKO-Tex allows you to check the label on their online tool to check if a certificate is valid. The internet is awesome, right?
One of the first questions you'll need to ask yourself: Is this manufacturer and team trained experienced enough in your area to make your garment or product?
To figure this out, I like to ask a manufacturer what types of products they are most capable of making. I ask them for photos of products that they've recently produced on their production lines. Another way to understand what they're most successful at producing would be to ask them for a percentage breakdown of the types of garments they sell and produce annually.
To map it out visually, if you're trying to make top hats (because . . . why not?) and the factory produces the products to match the pie chart here, then you might be barking up the wrong tree!
However . . . if you're looking to make swimwear, this would be a great percentage breakdown for a potential manufacturer. Most of their time is spent working on swimwear or swimwear's close cousin, intimate apparel. Activewear is also a close cousin to swimwear and intimate apparel, so if you see that as a high percentage of their product, you should also consider them!
2. Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ):
This is the smallest number of units you can order for a single style and/or color. Minimum Color Qualities (MCQ) are related and can sometimes be the same as the MOQ. For instance, some factories might have an MOQ of 1,000 units but they can be split between 2 colors because their MCQ is only 500 units. Another factory might just have an MCQ of 500 and that is also their minimum order. It all depends, so ask!
Minimums are not always described the same way, sometimes they are based on the fabric weight, yardage, or pieces. Almost all factories are willing to negotiate either a surcharge or a higher rate per item if you're unable to meet their minimums. When you're asking what their MOQs are, ask them how flexible they are with them to see if they're willing to work with you. Most factories are interested in working with direct to consumer brands these days as it's an ever-expanding market, so certainly pitch yourself as the brand to be partnered with!
3. Lead time:
To understand how quickly a manufacturer can meet your timing needs, you need to understand lead time. Lead time is the amount of time it takes to produce the garment after placing a purchase order, also known as a PO. Usually, it is given in days or weeks and the further from your home country that you go, the longer your lead time generally speaking.
So what is a good lead time? For some categories, a good lead time is 30 days, while for others 90 days is as quick as possible, speedy, even!
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer as it depends on what you're making. Simpler products with 1 or 2 components will usually have shorter lead times. Some factories house an array of basic raw materials for the exact purpose of turning goods out quickly. If you're making bras, though, a lot of materials are made to specs. A typical underwire bra has upwards of 15+ components, many of which need to be ordered and produced to match your finished colors and dimensions. You also should consider the time it takes to transport from the trim supplier to your manufacturer. Most often these businesses are local to your factory, but not always and travel time matters.
Generally speaking, a lead time of 90 days is pretty average for bras, underwear, and swimwear made with an overseas manufacturer. For this time-frame to work, it would mean that the garment design and fit were already finalized and confirmed at the time the PO was placed. Not all factories require the garment to be fit approved when placing a PO + starting the clock on delivery, but many do.
The reason most factories want a fit approved garment at the time the PO is placed is that an approved sample is like a bible for manufacturers. It tells them everything about what they need to order: how much fabric they need, trim quality, and hardware to order. Until a garment is fit approved, anything is subject to change without notice, so factories are trying to order more strategically by waiting for an approved fit.
Ask them for a typical timing + action (T+A) calendar. Ask if they need a fit approval at the time of PO to ensure delivery that matches their estimated lead time. It's crazy but they'll just tell you these things if you ask. So be sure to ask!
If your manufacturer does need garments to be fit approved before they can put you on a structured lead time calendar, then you'll want to consider all the development that goes on before the PO is placed to understand how quickly you can launch. Swimwear + bras can take anywhere from 3-12 months to develop depending where you start. Starting from a purchased sample can cut your time down drastically, but make sure you're modifying it enough + bringing your own unique value. No one likes a copycat!
4. Production Capacity:
An important part of understanding your partners' ability t grow with you is knowing their production capacity. It's less complex than it sounds, I promise! Production capacity is how many total units they can make and ship in a certain amount of time, usually a month. Local studios in the US often have much lower production capacity than their overseas partners. Somewhere around 800 to 1,500 per month is not unrealistic for a small US factory, whereas some mega-factories in Asia are capable of producing over a million units a month! Talk about crazy!
When you're starting, you won't want to go to a mega-factory, though, as your orders will probably be too small (think: itty bitty) for them. They will have large surcharges for taking the small orders, you won't be a priority customer, and sampling will likely be on the slower side of things. Working with bigger factories is something you should consider as you contemplate your growth trajectory and potential. If your brand ends up being a rocket ship, you're going to need to consider this sooner rather than later.
To understand production capacity as it relates to growth, you'll have to have at the very least a strategic guess of where you plan to see your sales 1 year out from launch and every year after for 5 years to start. You might want to come up with several paths: an optimistic/stretch outlook, a realistic/attainable outlook, and a conservative, slothy outlook. I love sloths, but you don't want a slothy business.
With a few different outlooks mapped, you can better understand how quickly you might need to shift if things take off.
Consider this: you start your production with a factory that has a monthly production capacity of 800 units. Your first order might be for 300 units across 6 styles so there isn't a whole lot of room to grow if your brand and products take off quickly. What if you were featured on a big influencers account and sold out within a few days of launching? Momentum is everything in building a successful product line, especially early on. Running out of inventory within a few days and not being able to restock quickly would be detrimental for your business. But . . . your factory has a lead time of 60 days from PO and a monthly production capacity of only 800 units, so you're stuck. It'll halt your business before you've even waded into the shallow waters.
Sure, it would be awesome to sell out quickly, but when your supply can't meet the demand, those customers will look elsewhere or forget about you while you're waiting on that factory to finish in two months. If you plan to produce something quickly to get a minimum viable product (MVP), starting with a low capacity factory is just fine, but if you believe there is a high chance of your product selling out quickly, you should dual-path your product at a manufacturer that could meet demand if and when it becomes necessary.
5. Ethical Working Conditions:
Improving the working conditions of those in the fashion industry is a major problem that many are working to correct, but we still have a long road ahead. More companies need to make caring for and improving the working conditions a top priority. If you're just starting your brand, consider creating a code of ethics and then commit and hold yourself to it.
If you're in the process of vetting a factory and you want to know more about the workers and how they're treated, the best way is to ask about the conditions. Some factories will even share photos of their living quarters --in many Asian factories, the workers live on campus, not at home with families! You can also use this time to ask about their wages as well. Visiting a factory is one of the most substantial ways to understand their working conditions, though that might not be an option when you're first starting out.
In addition to all the feedback you can get from a factory manager, you can also look for a few different certifications that help mandate the fair treatment of factory workers. Ask if they're accredited by WRAP or Fair Trade. These organizations are usually prominently displayed on the factory's website as it's quite an accomplishment! There are other organizations that help improve the conditions for factory wor