Victor Rosenberg: the Best Kept Secret of Fashion Manufacturing

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Meeting Victor Rosenberg, the fashion manufacturing expert some months ago was like a breath of fresh air. Always smiling and calm, honest, approachable, wise and knowledgeable on all things “fashion manufacture” related, is who I often think of in moments of work despair.

So much so, that it will only be fair to share some of the conversations that we recently had over lunch.

With industry experience spanning four decades and a knack for storytelling, meeting with him is always enjoyable and inspiring. But perhaps above all, it is also productive as there is no problem that is too big or too small for Victor. There is always a solution and chances are he has solved that same problem before you and here’s how he did it… Just the right positive vibe we need in times of fashion manufacturing crisis.

So, let’s start with your background and how you got into the industry.

Both my great grandfather and my dad were in the clothing industry and had a factory. I spent a lot of time there as a child. I helped in my spare time and during the school holidays, but despite all that, my dad didn’t really want me to end up working in the factory. After I graduated from school, I joined a small family-run clothing company. However, I was young and full of energy and soon realised that I was never going to progress there. So after a short while, I moved on to a large company called Alexon as an office administrator. I enjoyed working and learning but fast forward a few years…my dad needed me and so I went back into our factory and took over. I was mainly doing all the work planning and the business side of running a factory. But as with any small family business, I had to be a jack-of-all-trades. I spent many nights learning how to cut fabric – layers upon layers of fabric. And I also taught myself, the basics of pattern cutting, because you always had to check each company’s patterns…

That was before computers when everything was manual.

Yes, we made the markers manually. I started understanding patterns by checking them initially, and then learnt how to adjust/correct patterns, and also grading, as occasionally we were supplied with orders and pattern sizes that did not correspond. I had to know all the processes in the factory in order to be able to run it efficiently. Every production garment we worked on we would look over the pattern and sample, discuss it with the sample machinist; things like what’s the best way for it to go through the manufacturing process because time is money.

I was in the factory for 10 years, until we closed down.

What happened?

VR: For many years we worked for two main clients and a couple of smaller ones. One of our bigger clients had a fire in their office and warehouse, and as a result, had to relocate. So, after many years of getting regular work and knowing exactly what orders we would get and be able to schedule our work accordingly, the supply chain started getting very unreliable. At the same time, the other main client opened two factories in Hong Kong. Because of our long-standing relationship, they referred to us as their best tailors and often brought their retailers to see orders being made in our factory they allowed us the “privilege” of putting right all the production that was incorrectly made by their own new factories in Hong Kong. So from regular production orders all of a sudden we were in charge of correcting every docket that came in wrong from the Far East for them. We couldn’t really make money just with alterations, and after 6 months of losing money, we decided to close the factory.

It must have been a very difficult time for you!

It was a big shock. I had by that time a wife and 2 daughters. But I was determined to find something else, and turn the negative into a positive!. Back then, individuals didn’t own PC’s, just typewriters, so I went to the British library, looked up all the London clothing firms, photocopied my CV, and hand wrote letters to about 200 companies. It took me ages. I also kept phoning up MDs saying this is my experience, can you fit me in? And then, finally, I got a reply from this large company that offered me a job. They made mother-of-the-bride dresses and I became a merchandising manager, working very closely with the MD. It was a lovely company to work for, and since I’d been running my own business prior to that, I got promoted quite rapidly and became the general manager. I looked after all the day-to-day side of the business as well as the production. With my experience in doing costings, I was quickly able to find savings in production.

For example, one time when I was doing the costings, I realised that something was not right, that the fabric consumptions were too high. At the time the company had their own Far East factory. I asked the factory manager to send me a couple of patterns, which I cut out at the weekend, laid on the kitchen floor and realised the fabric consumption quoted was 20% over. 10% is acceptable to allow for grading, but 20% was too much –  there was something wrong!…Sure enough they were overcharging us.

It is so important to keep an eye on all costs.

Always. But I also believe in giving people chances. When I was MD of an outerwear company I was introduced to a Chinese supplier, and we got some samples made in the first season, and they just weren’t right. The costing was off the mark. We then sampled the second season and the same thing happened, but they asked us to give them another chance. So, we designed a new waterproof garment and it really took off. During that time prices started to become an issue, and to cut a very long story short, over a period of years, we moved our production from CMT in the UK and then Hungary to be fully factored out of China.

So from those days to now, how did you become a consultant?

I have done all sorts of work over the years – from overseeing large-scale production to running companies, but after the last company I was managing was sold, I found it difficult to find the right job for me. I was constantly told that someone with my experience would be snapped up, but I wasn’t getting suitable job offers.

Why do you think that was?

Several factors, one of which was age-related.  In many ways, age can work against you, particularly in the fashion industry, but when it comes to consulting it is a definite plus! Over the years we pick up invaluable skills and experience, that can be passed on to our younger colleagues.

I was actually told that going for an interview as an employee with a head full of grey hair is not a good look. When a friend heard of this, she told me that the opposite was also true – that a head full of grey hair helps when you are a consultant. And so I started to work with a couple of clients that needed my knowledge and experience and now I consult full-time and love it. For example, one of my clients is a new luxury start-up, that is using hair from the Alaskan musk ox, which is softer than cashmere and warmer than wool.

What is interesting is that you not only consult for brands now but also work with factories. We don’t often hear of people who manage to work on both sides of the supply chain.

Yes, because of my past experience of both running a factory and managing brands I am fully conversant with the problems and challenges on both sides and this places me in the perfect position to restructure manufacturing, streamline production, improve supplier communication and relationships, find out areas where potentially there is waste – be it of materials or time.

What are the current problems fashion manufacturers face?

I think one of the bigger problems for factories especially in the UK is a lack of competent workers, especially at the luxury end of the clothing industry. When I was young, in some factories, mothers would bring their daughters in and teach them sewing. They would actually sit their daughters next to them and teach them how to sew because it was a skill, a profession, a way of earning money. But it’s manual labour and people don’t like doing it now. They don’t see the lovely things they’re creating or appreciate that they are using their hands. So, I think getting skilled workers is a huge problem today and that is why there are so few good factories out there.

How has the fashion manufacturing industry changed over the years – apart from everything getting computerised?

Well, it’s going to sound harsh but what I’ve seen a lot of lately is an increasing lack of professionalism in the industry. I’ve seen stupidity, I’ve seen waste, I’ve seen ego. Companies that are over-manned, companies that are terribly wasteful.

Why do you think that is? Are you saying that people in the past were a lot more careful than now?

Yes, in the past people were, shall we say, more skilled and perhaps better trained. Therefore they were more hands-on. Nowadays, more often than not people come up with a design, send it to a factory, be it in Europe or the Far East, the factory makes it; then it comes back… normally that process works okay but it is very detached. I certainly feel that the people coming through now are less knowledgeable, certainly with regards to CMT than the designers of the past, who had really good constructions skills, understanding of patterns and so on.

These days we all feel like anything is possible and so many people are coming into the fashion industry want to realise a dream of having a fashion label, creating a product…What are the challenges for them?

VR: Knowing how to find the right manufacturer for them, how to approach and work with factories, and every other aspect of manufacturing. They need a lot of hand-holding. Understanding how manufacturing works make you a better designer ultimately and teach you when to stop making a change, although it is usually these last minute changes that create the “ winners “ sometimes.

Agreed, some designers just don’t know when to stop designing. But also, from my own experience: once you have sampled something according to your design when you do the costing – sometimes it just doesn’t work out commercially. So to reduce the final cost, one has to sacrifice some features. And, by the time it goes into production, the design has changed and compromised.

That’s right, but as a factory you have to have sympathy with the designer, and what they are trying to achieve, be it a sample or production. As a factory, you have to communicate with them if you know of better way to make the garment, or if there is a problem, and advise them, especially if you know that they lack that knowledge.

I am still surprised by how many companies design a collection, sample the collection – but don’t price it, and manufacture salesman samples – anything from 6 to 20 of the style – without having full knowledge of the end cost and if it is commercial or not. Their costing only starts when all samples are delivered to them. In the past, we’d never have gone into production (even salesman’s samples) until we knew absolutely everything, that is having a correct prototype, and having costed the style and agreed pricing.

Related reading: Where should I make my First Proto Sample?

When I was MD of an outerwear company e we would present the new collection to our sales force starting with a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the line, styles colours sizes and delivery plans; what is the general economic feeling, what is the feedback from our customers etc. Everything is so fast now, so many collections per season get developed and launched that only a few companies manage to work far in advance to be able to analyse and react.

For instance, right now, customers are being very careful with what they buy, so ask your buyers: what are the chances of completely selling through what they buy? If they don’t sell what they buy, quite frankly you’re not getting an order from them again because they’ll be carrying extra stock. So, my advice to designers would be to ask questions and be prepared before you walk through the door to meet buyers.

Would you say implementing all these systems is what makes brands successful?

Yes, constantly improving things through trial and error is very important.

Experience is a wonderful thing. As a young brand, when things go wrong, you don’t normally know how to put them right. But if you sit down every single time there is a problem, and discuss it, and decide what to do differently next time, how to best prevent the problem happening again, how to change your systems, then it’s much easier to avoid the mistake reoccurring in the future.

Do you think that designers in the past were technically better prepared, while there is too much focus on creativity now?

I don’t know what exactly colleges teach their students, but I can only comment on the behaviour factories often face from college leavers. There is so much ego already and such lack of respect. I don’t think that there is too much focus on creativity, after all, that is the most important industry “driver.” However, students should also be advised how to relate to the industry professionals they will come into contact with.

Of course, there always have been big egos in fashion, but those top designers – they’ve earned it. Let me give you an example: I was representing a London factory at one of the exhibitions last year, and someone who is still at college asked us about our prices. On hearing them he said: “Oh god, I can get that made a LOT cheaper by one of the machinists in my college.” And I thought “Yes, possibly, but factories make production quality garments, pay the bills, the labour costs etc. Additionally, factories have to make a profit, like all businesses. Will your college machinist be able to produce and deliver on time?” I mean, you don’t go up to someone at an exhibition knowing that they are a factory and speak to them in that manner…

What would you advise young designers who are just starting out in the industry?

I would advise them to be responsible for themselves, to keep seeking people that they can learn from, people who are more knowledgeable in the industry and to be more respectful when approaching factories. Form a relationship with your factory, let them know what is going on with your business, tell them what is coming. Don’t disappear for a year and then all of a sudden re-appear when you have a problem, asking for production help asap. If you say something is really urgent and you’ve got to have it quickly, factories would hire extra staff, if needed, they will pay extra money for overtime, so keep that in mind and appreciate the effort they have put into help you and pay them on time.

We often speak about how designers can improve, but what about factories? There are issues on that side too.

For sure. If I had a magic wand I would make factories more customer friendly and let them understand that they have to market their skills…

Many clients I speak to say often choose to work with factories where the person on the other end of the telephone line or face-to-face would speak to them politely and reasonably answer their questions.

Which most factories don’t have time for…

Yes, but there’s a reason for this behaviour too. Some clients would phone up and say they need samples made by the end of the week, or send you a picture of a garment that a 4-year-old could have drawn, and you think “Well, I’m not going any further with this.” Often factories have clients that are not best organised and that send many emails per day on top of phone calls…etc. This all takes time to deal with and cannot be ignored as it relates to an actual work going through the factory. So when new potential clients call in, and are not clear on what they want, with no clear drawings and instructions, there is no time to spend with them teaching them and getting it right. I have heard of factories just disconnecting the call, which I don’t agree with!

But I do think factories could take a little bit more time to teach clients how to approach them. Good factories have to market themselves well, they need to have an informative website outlining what they do and don’t do, how to get in touch with them and that would help in the longer-term.

But don’t you feel that the same can be said for the opposite: when bad factories invest in shiny websites that attract people to only let them down?

Bad factories let customers down all the time. Good factories let customers down. It happens.

But I think bad factories do want to hide, they don’t want to invest in health and safety, they don’t want to invest in good machinery, good light, ventilation, marketing, those sort of things. They’re quite happy working with designers who are just looking for the lowest price and nothing else. Because, to make a factory good, one needs to invest a lot of money into it, and that will be reflected in the price.

A common problem I often hear designers complain about is factories not delivering on time. How can this be improved?

Yes, sadly many factories over-commit and then under deliver. Often it is because they know that if they over-commit and can’t deliver on time they will rarely lose a client for late delivery if their production is fantastic. Whereas, if they don’t have enough work, they will lose money daily.

Also in manufacturing, it is not unusual for raw materials to arrive late. If you have one client’s raw materials running late and then the next guy in line also has his fabric delivered late and so on, which is not unusual, then the factory has a problem. Thus, factories tend to over-commit to try and keep the factory floor running continuously.

Currently, there’s this big push for making fashion in Britain. What are the pros and cons of manufacturing in the UK and abroad?

First of all, I think designers should remember that no matter where they choose to manufacture, there will always be problems for them to face and resolve. Finding a good factory that suits your exact needs should be a priority. Because, whether it’s Europe or Asia, there are both good and bad manufacturers. But if you are not experienced, it’s easier to manage a factory in the UK.

Price is not such a big decider now. If you manufacture abroad for cost purposes, you would need to include travel in your production expenses, as well as transportation and sometimes import duty. ,  These factors can occasionally reduce the advantage of going abroad for cheaper manufacturing. When I made in China, I had to be in China a lot of the time, checking the quality of production, discussing new samples and bulk production programs, and generally maintaining our relationship. I think I mentioned it before, but the factory has got to be treated as part of the team and seen as an integral part of your business. That requires face to face time.

Final question: what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt over the years and can share with us about fashion manufacturing?

I think the most basic but also the most important thing is treating people respectfully. The other big lesson that I learnt early on is that you shouldn’t let people confuse kindness with weakness. There is a difference.

Both sides should strive to build long-lasting fair relationships, communicate regularly, and treat each other as part of the same team.

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