BeTangible is a leather goods and sample-making manufacturer, based in Ubrique, Spain, co-founded by ex-colleagues Pepe Montiel and Manuel Millan. They met during their careers at a larger fashion manufacturer, and both had grown tired of certain practices. Pepe and Manuel saw that there was a different way of working in fashion production; a more personable way, built on transparency and good communication with clients.
Co-founder Pepe took time out of his busy schedule to speak to us about how his previous work has helped to build the successful fashion business, and what he wishes people knew about the lives of factory owners.
Tell us more about why you and Manuel decided to start your leather goods manufacture(er) business
I had worked for some of the bigger factories in Spain, and was responsible for the international trade and customer service. It was through my role at fashion manufacturers that I fell in love with leather and the fashion industry, and with the act of making things from scratch.
I met my business partner, Manuel, when we worked at the same factory. He is a technology guy, he is into pattern making, and cutting machines – quite the opposite of me. I started speaking to him and from our previous experiences, we found that there was a gap in communication between designers, brands and the manufacturers.
We wondered why, because it seemed clear to us that they needed each other. So, we thought about what we could do, and we quit and started BeTangible.
You focus a lot on customer relations. Why is that so important to you?
We like customers to be updated on what’s happening in the factory with their product and with their leather, not just with their money. We try to encourage designers, manufacturers and brands to be as close as possible.
There was a gap in keeping customers updated on what’s going on – that’s why we photograph the whole production process and make short videos.
How are the roles defined by you and Manuel?
I am not a leather worker; I know how a wallet is made, how a bag is made, and the skills behind making them. But my hands don’t have the skills to make them. It is our opinion that specialisation in a 21st-century business is very important; if the same person does a lot of things, they don’t do anything well. So, we prefer to specialise in different areas.
When there’s a technical question, Manuel that deals with that, and he does the pattern making and the technical part. If there’s feedback to communicate – or anything else – that’s me. I keep track of how everything is going and speak with the customers.
When a designer contacts us, I’m the first point of contact. I find out their needs, and let them know what I need from them, such as specification sheets. I also deal with the expectations – and I think that is a keyword: expectations. This means what they want and what we also expect. The more transparent we both are, the better for the project.
Tell us about your team.
The team working in the factory workshop are in charge. We call them the masters, as they are leading the workshop. They are in charge of the tangible part of the whole business.
We have Jesus, the leader of the workshop and our longest serving member of staff. There are four more team members: a machinist, and three more leather workers. There’s music playing all the time, and that’s something you will not see in the rest of the factories around, especially the big ones. It’s not flamenco or party music – it cannot be – it’s jazz, R&B and relaxed music. We have a happy work environment.
What can a designer expect from you after the initial stage?
After the initial stage, I get the spec sheet, handmade drawings, measurements and details, and then Manuel comes in. He starts constructing, making and developing the patterns necessary to make the product.
There’s also a constant conversation with the master sample maker leading the workshop, they tell us what they think will and will not work. Once the patterns are made there is another meeting with the customer, where we might suggest a change for cost-saving purposes, or for a nicer finishing for example. Of course, we don’t want to change the designer’s mind.
Then, a first prototype mock-up is made of felt material for two purposes. Firstly for us to see if what we have developed is according to the customer’s needs, and secondly, to minimise the use of expensive materials like leather. When the mock-up is approved, we send it to the customer – or the customer can come to the factory.
Why did you choose to specialise in sampling?
It’s something that nobody wants to make, it is as simple as that. It’s okay for big fashion brands, as factories will make samples for them. But people don’t like making samples on a one-off basis, so if you’re a small designer who’s not sure about things yet, it will be hard for you. It is important to give small fashion designers an opportunity.
Our approach to the business is that we want to grow as the designer grows. Our expectation is not that they only use us to develop the samples, and then when they are more reputable and well known, they go to another factory. We want them to remember us when they grow and are producing larger quantities.
Making samples is not big business – I know that – but if you combine production and sampling, it is worth it.
Was it difficult to set up your own factory?
Beginnings are always tough – for example, you have to continually put money into the business. That’s where we were a couple of years ago, and it’s no different from any other entrepreneurial business. We started in a small office and were subcontracting manufacturing as well. Then we settled into our current space and had customers visit us and develop collections with us, and we started growing and growing.
What did your friends and family think?
I’m married with two daughters aged six and three years old and it’s very hard, starting at 7am and coming home at 8pm or 9pm. Especially in June, July, October and November when it’s super busy. But I’m supported by them, and the support of your family is very important.
Is it challenging to not be a fashion designer or leatherworker, as a fashion business co-owner?
When people said in the beginning: “But you don’t have experience of making leather goods.”
I said, “You don’t need to be able to make leather goods in order to have a business.”
I can provide my experience and my perspective to the business, and it is clear that that is lacking in the fashion industry, especially when you deal with entrepreneurs, start-up companies and emerging talent. They have creative minds but they struggle to be realistic with their expectations.
We have to make clients understand what is possible and provide them with an explanation, and create a trustworthy atmosphere. That’s absolutely important.
How do you help clients to educate themselves about the process?
Few people understand leather; it is our responsibility to explain to customers what they are buying. They prefer to be led by brand. So, it is our responsibility to communicate the story behind leather products, because big brands don’t do it. They show someone cutting leather slowly, but that’s all for marketing. It’s not the reality. But in our videos, that’s a real factory at work. We show clients the exact processes.
Are there any plans to add to the team, and perhaps get another ‘you’?
Sure, we already have a new space in the building we are based in because the studio workshop is now too small. So we‘re growing faster than we expected.
I need another me, of course, but you always expect whoever you hire to do it the same way you do – not because you do it very well, but because it’s your way and seems to work.
What qualities would the person that joins the team in a customer service role at BeTangible, need to have?
A person who really enjoys making people’s dreams come true, it’s as easy as that. Of course, this is business, money is important and must be considered – otherwise, we’d just shut down. The person in that role should sort out the money side of things and then not speak about it again, they should speak about the project: the bags, the wallets, and so forth.
In my previous experience working for bigger factories, money was the key thing, and it was never sorted out or clarified at the initial stage. It was postponed until the production stage, or when the collection or sampling was semi-finished. With us, the sooner we clarify everything, the better.
What do you wish everyone knew about being a factory owner?
There are a few things that I wish people knew, such as:
1. In leather goods making, and in the fashion industry in general – I think – everybody acts in a very selfish way. They don’t realise that we are a part of the same process. People will say, “I want this, don’t give me any excuses, this is what I want.” That’s not fair, not for the designer, the brand or for us.
2. There are no set hours to make production and sampling on time. It doesn’t matter how many hours we spend developing something. If something comes out wrong, we repeat it and it doesn’t matter how much time it takes, and that’s not calculated in the estimated costs to the customer, and it’s not charged by the hour – or that would cost a fortune, and the customer wouldn’t want that.
3. Every handmade process needs a lot of soul, and I frequently dream about how to solve problems. If a gusset didn’t work, you dream about a solution.
4. We really do believe in transparency, so I always tell customers to come and visit and see what we do. We are proud of what we do, we just want people to know how much we care.
5. We want to feel like we are part of the project.
6. If there’s something wrong with a product, or something doesn’t work the way it should, we feel bad.
Where are most of your customers based?
We have three customers based in Spain, the rest are based around the world: Europe, America, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Japan.
How do they hear about you?
At the beginning, it was through Google, but over the last couple of years it has been through recommendations, and that makes me so happy. If someone recommends you it means that they are happy with your work. At trade shows, people talk about us, and our customers recommend us when people ask about their products.
What is your competitive advantage?
If you’re a leather goods manufacturer, you must make good quality products. So we are good at what we do.
We try to reply to emails almost instantly, and I am available 24 hours a day where possible. We keep updating our customers and we are very transparent about everything we make, and about our suppliers – customers can come with us to visit our leather suppliers. I think transparency adds a lot of value.
What’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on so far?
We made a bag for a super wealthy person in Bahrain. It required embossing, leather lining and printing, and it took two months. It was a crazy project and we just made one. It was exciting just to see his face, and for him to say, “Thank you very much, this is what I wanted.”
If you could change something about the way the industry works, what would that be?
The selfish behaviour without a doubt. The more importance you place on your counterparts, the better for the business.
Manufacturers must also put importance on trying to understand the customer because when you do, the products are better, business is better, and the relationship lasts longer.
What advice would you give to a designer to make sure that they understand the process a little better?
1. They should check that their projects are in the right hands. It is risky to put your ideas and dreams into the wrong hands. So they should check that they’re dealing with the proper people.
2. With regards to quality, there are good and bad manufacturers, so designers should check that they ask the manufacturer about expectations. Good questions to ask are:
- What do you need from me?
- Here are some spec sheets, are they enough?
Because, a bag is a bag – it’s just a container of things – but details make it the product that the designer sets out to achieve. So all details need to be explained.
3. If the designer is working on a collection, it’s good to communicate the story of the collection to your manufacturer, so that you both share that vision. At the very early stages, I ask designers what their whole ‘story’ is about because we must be 100% sure that we have understood what they want to create. There are a million different bags and wallets out there, but not YOUR wallet. As a manufacturer, I want to know why yours is different – so tell me.
Images credit: BeTangible