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How to Work with Fashion Manufacturing Companies as a Startup

There are a couple of times in the annual calendar that ignite “fashion passion” like no other.

Usually, this is in January – the start of the year when many “life-changing” plans are made and “start my own business” resolutions penned.

Then there is September! With the holidays over and having taken time to reflect and rest, many inspired by the fashion weeks that kick off all over the world hit the keyboards in an attempt to turn the idea they have been nurturing, into a product to sell. A product or business that they hope will be life-changing.

But somewhere along the way, an integral step of the process of working with fashion manufacturing companies gets skipped by most.

Particularly the new to the industry entrepreneurs.

Many may have had a few years or more working experience in another industry. This valid and useful experience, however, adds a false sense of knowledge and confidence when navigating the much different fashion industry landscape.

The challenges that fashion start-ups and entrepreneurs face as a result when they attempt to work with fashion manufacturing companies, the frustrations, disappointments and even anger many faces, is often self-created.

I spoke to Tom Lovelace, creative director of Hawthorn, a clothing manufacturer based in London, about it. He has an experience of working with start-ups and fashion entrepreneurs and knows the problems firsthand. To help us understand the problem, he helped us compile a list of Do’s and Don’ts that will hopefully help introduce better working etiquette.

The Do’s

Do have an idea of what you want before you make contact

With the abundance of information that a simple Google search can bring up, there is no excuse not to know how important researching your idea is.

To begin with, defining a vague idea into a more fleshed out product design and potentially even business plan is what is necessary.

The process will bring much clarity and perhaps even lead to iterations of the design multiple times.

Researching into the potential target market and understanding who would be your perfect customer profile will show you if your idea “has legs” if it is viable and worth pursuing.

There are many, many cases of people who had great (to them) ideas and having done no primary research spent many hours and money into developing a product the market didn’t need (yet or at all!). Or simply, wasted time and money on working with the wrong people until they had no more energy, time and money to pursue the idea with the right manufacturers.

Do understand what the manufacturer specialises in

If time is money and money is not abundant, imagine how much of both can be saved by doing simply in advance research into a factory, before you contact them to know what they specialise in.

Speciality in terms of product category, as well as a market segment, is what you need to look for. Almost all factories these days have websites or are listed at directories, so there’s no excuse not to check in advance of calling. Really!

Do read the manufacturers website thoroughly

Most manufacturers have websites these days. Some are better than others naturally. But taking the time to read what is written before contacting someone is a good practice. Many of the basics questions will be answered there, allowing you to then create a good first impression when you call and be able to really ask what you need to know rather than waste time by gathering basic information.

Most factory owners don’t have big teams and are often the ones to answer phone calls or emails. Because of the many “waste of time” type of inquiries they get, making a good first impression will really create a lot of goodwill long term. And believe me when I say that building a fashion brand is a marathon, rather than a race. You need to accumulate goodwill to last the distance.

The reason many factories avoid working with startups is precisely because they feel kept in the dark and ultimately taken advantage of.

Do be upfront with your budget

One of the mistakes many startups do is not having a budget of any meaningful size (if they have one at all).

We are not talking millions, but a realistic sum that will allow a designer to develop the idea and see it through the sampling process and hopefully through production. To compensate for this and not be stopped in their tracks, they often exaggerate or miscommunicate what they have, hoping that somehow once they make a final sample, a miracle will happen and all will be OK.

Most pray for a miracle where the factory owner will show empathy with the designer’s predicament, a blind faith in what they are doing and offer a generous discount to see them through.


Back to reality!

Really – whoever recounts such stories is either one in a million or is not telling the full story. Because, at the end of the day, fashion manufacturing is a business like any other with salaries to pay and families to feed.

The reason many factories avoid working with startups is precise because they feel kept in the dark and ultimately taken advantage of.

Be honest and ask for their advice on how to get what you want. Perhaps they will have a great idea or give you a reality check.

Either of these two responses will be of benefit for the next step you’ll need to take.

Do have all the information before you commission a manufacturer

Ideally, before you contact fashion manufacturing companies you would have prototyped your idea with a pattern cutter. You would have the patterns made and dimensions and sizes worked out. Also, you would have discussed your idea with your pattern cutter or sample machinist and tested some finishing ideas. Lastly, you would be clear on how you want your product made and finished off.

But, if for some reason you are not able to work this out with a professional in advance of contacting a factory, then here’s an idea how to help be more prepared for that first conversation:

  • Buy existing products that are close to the size or fit for what you have in mind and measure them.
  • Sketch yourself or hire a graphic or fashion freelance designer to draw up a basic sketch of your idea.
  • Plot the measurements onto the drawing.
  • Take photos of the kind of details and finishing touches you like and import the images onto your computer and create a sheet in word doc of your drawings and various images of reference points you would like a manufacturer to see.

Do have realistic pricing estimates

Most people starting up have no idea how to work out what the cost product will cost them to make.

Granted – it is not so easy to figure out.

Equally, it is also not so hard to figure out that you won’t be able to make a small production run, in the UK or Europe (or anywhere for that matter) have good quality and nice materials, really low price and retail that product at a low cost, make profit and compete with large retail brands.

Even if you know nothing about how to price products, you would know that in Europe there is a minimum wage requirement that workers get paid, that in Asia you may get products made cheaper but the volume required is BIG (upwards of over 500 units per style). Lastly, common sense will tell you that as a startup you rarely can compete with large brands on like for like basis.

Or use this online calculator and work out backward from what you want your product to sell for, what it may cost you to make. Take this price then and see if you can make it work with your choice of materials and add on’s like trims, admin costs, and packaging.

Remember, the more you buy and manufacture as units, the lower the price will be and vice versa.

The Dont’s

Do NOT appear like a tyre kicker

A common characteristic of fashion entrepreneurs, especially those who are recent graduates is that they often call factories and make arrangements to go and visit only never to show up or turn up unapologetically late.

Not only does it create a bad first impression but it also immediately communicates to the factory owner that you are unprofessional. Keeping to timelines is not important and working with you would be risky at best.

As in any business and industry, acting professional at all times is the bare minimum anyone should be. Do as you say and say what you mean. In the long run, you will be better for it and will be respected.

Do NOT take your time but rush the manufacturer

A common trait among startups who have not yet created a structure for their business and not launched is that they tend to mull over decisions. They take their time asking everyone for opinions, unsure of what they want.

But once they do and communicate it to the fashion manufacturing companies they work with,  they rush them to a tight deadline to make up for the lost time.

Not only does this lead to bad results but it also means a factory owner cannot run his factory properly.

Factories operate efficiently by having a production schedule organized weeks in advance. For your sampling or production to be made fast, you need to have booked production space in advance or for someone else to be dropped and your work fitted in.

Related Reading: What is a Critical path and Why Your Business Needs One

Do NOT change the design halfway through production

Following on from the above point, often as part of the review time designers take to evaluate their design and sample, they make changes.

Sometimes they are big, sometimes small.

Regardless of the size, what many underestimate is the changes and work this triggers in manufacturing.

Patterns will need to be changed and new samples made. In many cases also the price quoted will be affected. Changes also lead to delays. Not to mention the extra cost incurred by both parties.

So as mentioned at the start of the article, take your time and work out your design idea in full before contacting a manufacturer. If you are new to the process, sampling in advance and working out your ideas with a pattern maker and sample machinist is best until you really have the final, final version of your idea.

Do NOT pit fashion manufacturing companies against each other

Sounds obvious but so many entrepreneurs, especially those with previous working experience in another industry, think it is part of the game to create a competitive environment.

They expect a few manufacturers to compete against each other for the potential work they have.

Let’s be honest – while in the past you maybe have been in a job, where you have had a brand name behind you, with long-standing reputation and suppliers may have vied for the privilege to work with your company. As a startup, you are not in the same position.

As a startup, all you have is an idea, a need for one or few samples and potentially at best, a small production run with no secure plan for future production orders and proven growth track record.

This is not a situation worth competing for and putting fashion manufacturing companies in this situation is insulting to them.

Do NOT pretend you have a better deal elsewhere

Another trick some try to employ to get a better price from the fashion manufacturing companies is to quote or pretend to have had a more favorable quote from another factory. No doubt this practice references the many retail competitor-matching initiatives. However, what often most miss to acknowledge is that the retailers in question only match to their competitors on like for like basis.

So, if you genuinely had a better offer from another competitor manufacturer of similar size, locality and for the same work – then you have two choices.

You can either choose to take it or mention it and perhaps enquire with the first factory you were talking to as to how factory X can make it at a better price.

You cannot quote to a UK manufacturer what someone in China is quoting you or another factory who has said that for a slightly bigger order they will lower the price.

Like any professional, fashion manufacturing companies know what different types of work cost to make and the margins the industry operates at.

Trying to trick them will rarely bring you good results. And from personal experience, I can tell you that I have checked and can confirm that the grass is not greener on the other side.


The fact you are still reading this is great news. You have either been struggling to work with fashion manufacturing companies or are determined to learn what to do to succeed. Regardless of your status quo, working in fashion can be easy if you approach it professionally and treat the people on whom your future brand success depends with respect.

Being a novice is great. Your enthusiasm will carry you through when the going gets tough. And while ignorance can be bliss, acting ignorantly is not acceptable and will not serve you in the long run.

Research and prepare as much as you can in advance and don’t try to outsmart the professionals. Follow the advice above and without a doubt, you will earn the respect of the fashion manufacturing companies you approach and they will repay you with goodwill and genuine care for your long-term future success.