Tom James – the London based founder of Parasel – a bespoke hardware development and sourcing company speaks to Fashion Insider & Co and lifts the lid on a fashion industry segment not much is known or spoken about.
Hardware accessories! We all love them and they often contribute significantly to our buying decisions. But no one really speaks about their provenance. They often are the unsung heroes in the products we covet and buy.
And yet – hardware development is a whole huge industry in itself, where competition for quality and price is as cutthroat as with manufacturing and raw material sourcing.
Tell us how you got into the fashion industry?
I studied for a BA in Fashion Design at Ravensbourne College and spent the first 5 years as a designer for a high street supplier, mainly ladies RTW. A colleague then left to work as a head hunter and placed me at Burberry in the accessories division, when it was just beginning to morph into the beast it is now.
What led you to become a manufacturer and set up on your own?
After nearly a decade at Burberry, I needed a change and had been offered a role working for a variety of brands under the Tommy Hilfiger and Pepe Jeans umbrella.
I set up a company sourcing, designing and manufacturing accessories (leather goods, gloves, silks, scarves, belts, jewellery etc) to brands like Karl Lagerfeld, Hackett, Twenty8twelve, Aston Martin Racing and the Andy Warhol Foundation.
When the financial crisis hit, business slumped fast for the whole industry, so I partnered with an American company who made metal components like cufflinks, jewellery and charms. They had been one of my suppliers at Burberry. I worked as an agent for them and took the Europe business from about $500k to over $6m in 3 years.
What does it take to set up on your own?
Contacts and perseverance. Agencies as a business model are changing as technology is allowing more people to work directly with factories, however, being able to email someone directly in China doesn’t mean you will get what you want or make it a success.
Brands and customers want more than a salesman today, they want to experience, guidance, options, technical and design support and above all, honesty.
What does your company specialise in?
We specialise in hardware and trims for the leather goods industry. We also make trims for the beauty and beverage world, for example, metal or plastic badges and caps/closures to go on bottles of perfume, or whisky. We recently did a global rollout for Guinness beer pumps.
Where are the factories you work with situated in?
Mostly China as it remains the hub of global capability, but we have a few partners in SE Asia for specialist products.
How do you ensure the quality of the products made and delivered to your clients?
The quality process starts well before any production can begin. Audits and factory visits are first. Well before we start manufacturing at a new plant, we visit, inspect, look at the product, open our own tools and do small runs to see how the teams perform.
We look at their raw material sources and their suppliers. If all of these are functioning well, we start limited production to test them. All products are developed over a period of months with the clients to meet their design specifications and also their requirements such as fit and function, in the background, we are performing technical reviews and tests to make sure that the parts will do what we need.
For example, we recently changed a retaining screw from brass to steel, which the customer knew nothing about and never will, but if it had remained brass, it would have failed on the bag.
What is the biggest misconception people have about hardware?
It’s about ‘off the shelf’ hardware or existing styles. There seems to be an assumption that there are bins of hardware somewhere in China you can just select from and still get the quality, colour, compliance and exactly the right design you want and that the same style will be there next time you want it.
The only way to guarantee quality and consistency is to invest in your own tools and own your product.
Customs also think you can just etch logos onto existing hardware.
The etching process alone can cost more than the original piece of hardware, so it’s best to put the logo into the tool (mould) and then the cost remains the same, you just pay for the tool adjustment.
Why hardware MOQs are so high?
Minimum order quantity or MOQ vary depending on the process. A lost-wax cast brass part made in the UK may only have a MOQ of 50 units, but the unit cost will be very high.
If you want to keep costs down, die-casting in Zamac is a good route, but this comes with a higher loss rate during manufacture, so the MOQ‘s are higher.
Usually, MOQ is around 1000, which is the point at which the manufacturing of the part is becoming economically viable for the factory.
Is there a smart way to work with these MOQs and make them work for smaller brands?
Yes, try and reconcile and reduce your hardware styles, so the same parts are used on multiple pieces. Mulberry is a very good example of a brand who run a low volume of SKU and buy their hardware in depth. You don’t really need 10 different zip pullers, 2-3 are usually enough!
What sets luxury brands hardware apart from lower-priced brands? Is all hardware the same?
No, the design, the engineering, the finishing, the plating, the materials, all play their part in the final cost. A flash plate of galvanic plating looks great, but it will wear.
If you want a permanent finish, you need to use other methods such as PVD. Often, luxury brands and inexpensive brands will share the same factory, but different processes are used.
What is the one thing you wish new clients contacting you knew about in advance?
You should start the hardware development first, if you have already designed your bag and are now trying to find hardware, it’s the wrong way round.
The design of the hardware and trims should be defined at the start of the process and ideally launched before you start making the first bag samples.
What is the most important quality manufacturers should have and designers should look out for?
Integrity. Work with someone you trust. This cuts both ways, the suppliers need to trust the clients, as much as the client trusts the supplier.
What are the advantages and benefits of designers and brands working with manufacturers like yourself?
We won’t stifle your creative processes, but we will try to steer you away from dead ends and wasting your time and money. We won’t ever refuse a project, but we will walk through it with you and help you see the benefit in adopting a different approach.
What is the biggest change you have seen the industry undergo, since you started working, that’s had the biggest impact on how designer brands operate today?
Technology. We work so much faster and smarter than we used to. CAD and project management tools are an amazing asset for any business. There are those who still do sketches with a pencil and piece of paper, that is fine, but it’s undefined, it is slow and it is open to so much interpretation.
What changes would you like to happen in the industry?
I would like to see more respect and indeed recognition given to the incredibly hard work the factories and supply chain does.
The PR and marketing brands push out doesn’t inform the customer about the product. The brands force all suppliers to sign NDA agreements as if manufacturing is a dirty secret they don’t want to talk about.
Embrace your manufacturers, make them part of your story.
What advice would you give to designers developing ideas that include hardware?
Make sure the ideas are viable (manufacturable) and you have the business to support the ideas.
True or false: there is real gold in gold plated hardware?
True! There is a very thin layer, measured in microns. Usually between 0.002 and 0.3 microns. You cannot legally call this gold plate, however, as it is too thin.
True or false: hardware made in China is cheaper (in quality and price) than hardware made in Europe
On a direct like-for-like basis, hardware from China is cheaper than hardware made in Europe. Global metal prices are the same everywhere, the machines used in manufacturing are the same. The chemicals used in plating are the same.
The reductions in cost are due to overheads and lower margin expectations. It is false, however, to claim the quality in China is worse than Europe. A poor factory in Europe will make a poor product. An excellent partner in China is an asset to your business.
Enquire about working with Parasel by contacting the team directly here.