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5 tips on how to work with a manufacturing supplier

Patrick Morrison, the founder of Furious Goose, shares his experiences after encountering a production issue with his manufacturing supplier.

Morrison established Furious Goose in 2014. His brand designs and produces luxury fashion accessories and fabric prints for interiors. The silk scarves, pocket squares and cushions are all printed and hand-finished in the UK.

As a recently launched luxury accessories brand, we’ve found that our greatest challenge is finding, choosing and managing our suppliers. We are aiming for the top-end of the market, so quality and attention to detail are just as important as our designs, and our suppliers are extremely important to us.

Early on in our product development, we approved a proof where the reverse of a scarf was about 85 per cent ink density when compared to the front. This is reasonable for a digital print onto heavy satin. We said: “Go go go!” and waited with bated breath for our first batch of scarves to arrive.

On opening the box we instantly noticed that the reverse was about five per cent less intense than the proof. Needless to say, it was disappointing and a nasty surprise for us.

Here’s what we learned from our experience:

1. Visit your manufacturing supplier in person

Uploading your artwork to an online service and receiving perfection one week later via special delivery seems too good to be true. Unfortunately, that’s because it probably is.

While it is possible to get ‘okay’ results, more often than not they’re a bit disappointing, especially if you are looking for shop-ready, high-end products. These ‘automatic’ companies do have quality control, but it’s impossible for them to really understand what you want your product to look or feel like. You might get a reasonable sample, but a commercially viable, luxury item? Maybe not.

It is much, MUCH better to ask your manufacturing supplier if you can go for a site visit before sending your designs to them for production. Sitting down with your supplier and actually talking to them is well worth the effort, and will be beneficial in many ways:

  • You can show them your samples, sketches and designs, and really express what is important for you: like if that orange needs to be the same tone as the blue, or if there should be a very crisp edge between colours, or if the front of the product should look exactly the same as the reverse.
  • The supplier will be able to show you their best work and you can point to examples that are closest to what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Any concerns about your designs and things that might need tweaking can be discussed at this meeting – after all, they have invaluable experience – and this can save you a huge amount of time, money and wasted proofs.
  • You can build a personal rapport with the manufacturer: if they care more about you, then they care more about your product. It’s amazing how far this personal approach can get you when you are first starting out.

If a manufacturing supplier says no to a face-to-face meeting and doesn’t allow you to look around their premises, you have to ask yourself why. There MIGHT be a good reason, but it is a bit of a red flag. A manufacturer who is truly proud of their work will relish taking you round the premises to show off how wonderful they are.

2. Discuss the proofing process and your tolerances

A good manufacturing supplier will have a proofing procedure in place. It is important that you discuss this in detail and never assume anything.

Often the cost of proofing will be built into the overall quote. Find out if this is a cost for one proof or if it covers a number of iterations and if so, how many. Ask about what happens if you are not happy with the proofs, what their revision processes are, and what the extra costs are.

It is also important to establish and agree on acceptable tolerance levels (e.g. variations in colour, finish and size) for the final goods once the proof has been signed-off. In our situation, we were not at all prepared for any difference between the proof and the final product.

If we had discussed tolerance before proceeding, the supplier would have explained that there was potential for the colour intensity to differ by up to five per cent either way. Had this variance proved too high for us it would have been our choice whether to go ahead and at least we would have been prepared in the end.

Furthermore, the supplier’s quality assurance people would have been aware that strike-through to the back of the scarf was one of our acceptance criteria, and perhaps would have worked harder to avoid this.

You have to remember that what seems important to you as a designer is not automatically understood by a supplier, you must let them know, in writing, so everyone knows where they stand.

Also, as a start-up, be aware that the supplier has seen thousands of orders in their time and a slight tolerance issue will not seem notable to them, even if it seems shocking to you. Admittedly this fact is not easy to swallow if it’s your order that’s affected!

Once you have clearly established the rules of engagement with your supplier, both parties need to stick to them. Don’t accept unreasonable excuses if you have a written agreement. Equally, don’t suddenly say you’re unhappy with the quality, such as crispness of a design, when you’ve never mentioned it before.

If you do feel that you have no option but to reject an order, think carefully as this can have serious, often fatal, implications for your relationship with a supplier.

3. Know that you’re both worthy

A good manufacturing supplier will endeavour to care as much about you, the small-scale, start-up designer, as they would McQueen or Westwood. However, the cold, hard business reality means there are limits to what you can expect them to do for you.

This doesn’t mean you should accept second-best just because you are small. If you’re not happy, you must express this to the supplier.

We found ourselves in this situation with the satin scarves, and as a newcomer to the industry it was incredibly hard to know how much to push back: Was it ridiculous to demand a reprint? How unusual is a five per cent difference? Is this commercially acceptable? Should we demand a discount?

Related reading: 11 Questions to Ask Factories before Working with them

In the end, we had to weigh up whether to reject the order or accept it. It was a very tough decision to make. The supplier had produced one further proof with the same results. It seemed the scarves couldn’t be printed with the same strike-through to the back as the proof. Was it true that nothing more could be done? We just couldn’t tell.

We were in no doubt that if we rejected the order, it would mean the end of our relationship with this supplier. We toyed with the idea of asking for a discount instead, but it was questionable how much any benefit to us, would outweigh the souring of the relationship.

After lots of consideration, and several glasses of wine, we decided to accept the batch and move onward and upward. We concluded that even with the best will in the world, it was not financially viable for the supplier to interrupt their schedules to improve this very small print run of 25 silk scarves.

Happily, we discovered that we made the right decision. Our scarves are lovely and have been very well received with no mention of strike-through. We also got to continue with our supplier and have gone on to produce some fantastic pocket squares with them.

It turns out that we would have been in the wrong if we’d stuck to our guns and rejected the batch, which brings us to our next point.

Fashion Inisders - Patrick Morrison - getting the best out of your manufacturing supplier relationship
The Noona Scarf

4. Get yourself more than one manufacturing supplier

Just because we accepted the order, it does not mean that we were 100 per cent passive. We paid our invoice and immediately began the search for a new manufacturing supplier. We always knew that we needed more than one supplier, and this just made it seem even more important.

Having multiple trusted manufacturers means you have somewhere to go should things ever break down with one of them. Even if things are going smoothly, you will sometimes encounter capacity issues. So, having a backup option means you can avoid gaps in your product development or supply. It also gives you an independent second opinion if you have any questions about a particular job.

We eventually met with a new and highly respected supplier and were shown around their facilities. We explained that we were seeking a new supplier to give us greater capacity and brought along some of our products, including the contentious scarves.

Amazingly, and somewhat embarrassingly, this manufacturer repeated almost word for word the concerns that my original supplier had raised about the designs. He also said that they wouldn’t be able to achieve anything near the intensity on the reverse of the scarf. It was the best he had seen, in his opinion.

We would have avoided a lot of trauma if we’d known this during our negotiations. It is also rather scary to think of how close we came to losing a great supplier, for the sake of a couple of hundred pounds.

5. There’s no such thing as perfection

Finally, and this is a hard one, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as 100 per cent perfection.

Undoubtedly, you should aim to achieve perfection, but understand that in this world it doesn’t exist. This is particularly true when your products are handmade.

This does not mean accepting shoddy workmanship, just as you wouldn’t cut corners with your designs. But there will always be small, natural inconsistencies. Through experimentation, you will learn what is realistically and physically achievable with your materials, processes and budget.

Related reading: Aim for Good rather than Perfection

Building on your experience and trusting your manufacturing supplier is all part of this learning process. By all means, inspect your proofs and products to make sure they are of the highest quality, but remember that the intensity of your scrutiny will be far sharper than that of your supplier and the customer. After all, you designed it so you’ll know every line, colour, dot and mark.

You have to know when to take a step back. Revisit the product a month later and you’ll probably love it.

Ultimately, trusting and working with your suppliers in a constructive way, rather than a combative way, will mean they work harder for you. This is easier said than done, but having someone on your side offering access to their wealth of experience, will help you achieve the quality you are seeking. Build a close and collaborative relationship with the right supplier and you’ll be well on the road to success.