Meenal Malhotra is a seasoned fashion manufacturing professional. Originally from Delhi, she studied fashion design there, before working in the fashion industry. As soon as she had some experience under her belt, Meenal set up her own manufacturing unit and worked with international and local brands. She has recently relocated to London and kindly shared her experience on how to work with Indian Fashion Manufacturers, with the Fashion Insiders community.
‘How to work with Indian Fashion Manufacturers?’, is a question I am most often asked. I just start by saying, “Working with Indian manufacturers and offshore, in general, is not an easy task.”
Not because they are difficult but the delivery of the final product is oftentimes based on various factors which might not be in direct control of the manufacturer.
Why the delay?
The process from idea conception to the final product usually takes longer than expected. Delays can happen depending on the time of year in the country of manufacture. For instance, in the case of India, many factories employ Hindus and Muslims and both celebrate different religious holidays, aside from the nationwide non-working days.
One must inform themselves and keep in mind all the timelines before placing an order and never expect the order to be rushed. Some of the manufacturers do take an order just to earn quick money, but in my experience, a rushed order has never been of perfect quality. Compromises are made at every step, which can be seen in the final product.
For example, I recently got asked to procure an order for some leather-canvas bags and accessories for a famous sculptor in London. The manufacturer we selected to work with had a good reputation and has produced very high-quality leather goods for several Indian clients in the past.
However, the timeline given for this order was not enough. On top of that, some changes had to be made to meet the sculptor’s designs. The order was hurriedly completed at the last moment. Naturally, the quality was compromised, which disappointed the manufacturer as well as the client.
So, while working abroad is not as difficult as it sounds, it is good to bear in mind the following tips before you embark your journey to work with Indian fashion manufacturers.
Here are some learnings from my experience living in India and working with Indian manufacturers:
Quality takes time
One must understand that most manufacturers never want to deliver poor quality to their clients. After all, they too have to sustain a business.
It’s highly frustrating for them if the end product is not liked by the client. In the above example I gave you, the manufacturer made the mistake to take on the order hoping to be able to deliver and delight, but didn’t factor in design changes and allow for a buffer.
Rushing the manufacturing process is never a good idea as it leads to lower end quality. Designers and buyers must understand that more often than not, length of time allowed for an order is in direct proportion to quality achieved for the end product. One is always at the expense of the other.
Cost of manufacturing
Another important aspect is the cost.
Brands need to understand that the world is not as cheap as it used to be.
Costs have increased for everything and everywhere – be it cost of living, food, clothes etc.
India is developing fast and year upon year costs increase which is reflected in the cost of labour.
Hence, expecting an Indian factory to produce everything the way it was done 10 years back, is an unrealistic task.
£5 won’t make a huge difference in a place like London but it can mean three meals for an Indian worker.
In wholesale production, every penny for the manufacturer matters as it determines the profit they make after salaries are paid and material costs.
In many cases, material costs cannot be reduced, so the producers pay their workers less than the minimum wage, which disrupts the fashion industry as a whole.
With most of the fashion brands taking a sustainable route and giving crucial importance to human rights, the designers and upcoming brands should make it a fair practice not to bargain. £5 won’t make a huge difference in a place like London but it can mean three meals for an Indian worker. If you want to work with Indian fashion manufacturers, ‘fair trade’ is a big factor for the factory as well as the workers.
If there is less time to produce the goods, it automatically reflects on the supply chain at some point. The manufacturer will make sure to earn his profit and the workers will have to suffer in the end. The approximate costings must be done beforehand so that one can assess how much they will be willing or not willing to pay.
This will make the entire process much easier.
It’s important that the designers keep an open mind during the sourcing stage of the development.
India is rich in materials and sometimes there is a better option for fabric or accessories that are locally made or sourced. This also helps in sustaining the local market. The same applies to manufacture techniques.
For example, some stitches might reduce the cost and ease the production time and resources.
Designers should make a conscious effort to source materials from the market they are producing in as it reduces the transportation costs as well.
At the sampling stage, they should visit India and see the availability of the raw material they want to use.
India, among other labour-intensive countries, has a huge stereotype for not delivering on time or being untrustworthy.
Everything goes hand-in-hand and there is some background to this story as well.
Many manufacturers tell me that some buyers visit their exhibition stalls (at trade fairs like IIGF) and spend hours chatting up and asking questions. They talk about ins and outs of the factory processes, materials used, vendors, factories etc. All of these are valid questions and signs of interest. These are all ‘signs’ that everything is naturally moving in the right direction.
But when it comes to formalising the enquiry or placing the order, buyers back out with statements like, ‘Oh! I was just enquiring, I don’t want to buy now.’ or ‘I will get back to you.’
This leaves the manufacturer frustrated and angry that valuable time that could have been spent on a genuine enquiry, was wasted.
Therefore, buyers need to come with a genuine interest in buying and make up their mind whether they want to work with Indian fashion manufacturers or not, else it’s a waste of time and energy for both parties.
Assuming that manufacturers need buyers more than buyers need them, is a mistake.
Another common misconception among buyers is ‘credit terms’.
Assuming that manufacturers need buyers more than buyers need them, is a mistake.
Business, by all means, is the purchase of goods and services in exchange for money. When working with someone new, if a buyer would be cautious about giving an advance, so would be a manufacturer in making something for someone who hasn’t paid anything. Like, you are unsure whether they will give the order or on time or at the very least, fulfil it, they are unsure whether you will pay on time or pay at all.
The best thing would be to pay in advance, an agreed percentage split of the total order value and have payment instalments made as per agreed milestones.
Manage your expectations
Another apprehension is the blingy nature of fabrics or loud designs to offer.
There are twenty-nine states in India and each state brings unique flavours to its products.
If East India will give you subtle textures and embroideries then the North will give you bright colours and mirror work and the West will give you dense patchwork and detailing.
When you come to work with Indian fashion manufacturers, know what you are expecting and don’t let the assumed fear disappoint you. You will find all the extremities of designs, so be prepared.
Communication is the key
Clear communication is of utmost importance. From delivery dates and quantities to final samples, an assumption of any kind creates problems.
It is vitally important to remember that even though English is widely spoken in India, many of the workers sewing the garments and products most probably won’t speak English. Some even may not be able to read and write.
If you are a native English speaker – remember not everyone is. Use simple words and keep to simple explanations as much as possible until you know how good the other side’s grasp of the language is.
Therefore, communicating clearly at all times and documenting all conversations in an email (written form) is of utmost importance.
Clearly drawing out the product, explaining the techniques (visually as much as possible) and detailing you’d like applied will go a long way to getting a sample that lives up to your expectations.
Lack of infrastructure
Be mindful that though India’s GDP is growing faster than China’s, it is still a developing country. So, problems like lack of civic, professional and social service infrastructure, is still prevalent when you work with Indian fashion manufacturers.
Not only the buyers but also the artisans and many times, the manufacturers suffer from these problems. Getting the artisans to move away from their families and to the cities to work, is ‘outrageous’ in their sense. They would be very much comfortable and can give their best work when working in their villages, with all the materials given to them directly.
That’s why, many manufacturers like Krishna Wool and Touch of India, have recognized villages and craftsmen who have skills but no resources to show it. Since connectivity by road or network is poor, such manufacturers have offices in the metro cities of India, and are the face of these artisans (through fair trade) and communicate with the foreigners themselves.
For smaller orders, it’s always better to go to smaller production houses as they are always looking for more work and will give western designers precedence and do the work more diligently.
The costs may be little higher than their bigger counterparts, but the orders will be delivered on time.
Huge production house might not take up small orders. If in few cases they do, expect not enough attention to be paid in most instances.
For a small order, personal care is required which the small manufacturing units provide. Thorough research is required to find small units and it’s best to have an agent or a trusted party for that.
If you are still unsure about a factory, then looking them up online would be beneficial.
Out of the two that work with Indian fashion manufacturers, only Utelier hand-picks manufacturers to go live on the platform, allows them to put as much information as they want about them – location, minimum order quantity, product images, unique selling point, processes performed, materials used and then it promotes these manufacturers.
With thriving businesses and increasing export activities, the way Indian manufacturers work has evolved to a great extent if the designers are well prepared.
Working with Indian manufacturers offshore is a good option for any growing business looking to improve margin, but it is not a cheap option, to begin with. Getting to know a new culture and develop a new working relationship from afar is absolutely possible, but it takes time and initially may suffer from mistakes. These teething problems with good communication, trust and effort on both sides can easily be resolved to make way for a productive and prosperous business relationship.