Working with leather goods manufacturer overseas was not something Rebecca Hafenrichter, the founder of minimalist handbag label, Becca Haf London, considered when she started working on her first collection of handbags and small leather goods.

But after some not so great samples made locally and difficulty faced to make her design at the right price, she decided to try manufacturing her collection in Ubrique, Spain.  A small town famous for its 400-year-old leather industry.

Following her first trip there to visit her manufacturer for the first time, she summarised her experience for us.

I chose to manufacture in Spain’s leather capital, Ubrique, because the town is renowned for its highly skilled and experienced leather craftsmen.

I’ve been working with a manufacturer in Ubrique for a year now, but my first trip to see the factory and the town for myself was only a few weeks ago.

My initial reluctance to visit the factory was because of the costs involved.

As a start-up, every penny counts and I am constantly weighing up the cost and benefit of everything I do. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and it ended up being an invaluable investment.

There is a steep learning curve to starting a business in the fashion industry and my visit to Ubrique helped to level it out greatly.

Here are a few reasons why I would recommend you visit the factory when working with leather goods manufacturer overseas:

Understand the factory and how it operates

Until I visited a factory, I didn’t have any real understanding of how they operate.

When I visited, not only did I see a production line of leather goods for the first time, but I also got a greater insight into the actual business, the way it is structured and the way labour is divided.

Seeing the production line and learning about the material sourcing meant there was much more transparency.

It gave me a context for their minimums and costings. It also gave me a greater understanding into how I fit into the grander scheme.

A factory can tell you how many employees they have and their monthly capacity, but that means very little until you see it for yourself.

Finally, I understood how my work was prioritised, and what happened on their end when I made a request or made changes etc.

All this helped me to understand the best ways to work with them.

Talking to the factories also gave me an insight into their unique challenges.

One of the most valuable things I learnt about was the sampling process. It’s a crucial step, but it’s also quite uneconomical for factories. This got me thinking about the ways in which I can help this process run as smoothly as possible: being clear on what I want from the beginning, creating well thought out tech packs and spec sheets, mocking up designs and trying to preempt and solve problems before they arise.

Understanding the process also helped me to manage my own expectations.

Face to Face Communication

One of the reasons I visited when I did was because I’m about to go into production, and I wanted to tie up some of the loose ends with my samples.

I wanted to make sure we were on the same page and that nothing was lost in translation.

The first production run is a big investment, and as much as we all love email, there is something to be said for talking all the issues through face to face.

It’s actually much less time consuming than going back and forth on email. It leaves less room for error and definitely put my mind at rest.

Build relationships and find the right manufacturer fit

It’s always good to put a face to a name – whether you’ve been working with a factory for a little while, or you are looking to start a new relationship.

When I first started looking for factories overseas, I got nowhere by sending emails. I made more headway when I picked up the phone, but nothing beats meeting in person – it’s a much easier way to communicate what you are about and how you see yourself working with a factory.

It also gives you more credibility. Fashion is a saturated industry and lots of people want to launch a collection.

By going to see factories you’re showing them you’re committed to what you are doing, which in turn helps them commit to you.

Visiting new factories also saves a lot of time and money when it comes to deciding whether they are a good fit for you. You can quickly see whether their work meets your standards, whether they have the capabilities to produce what you want, and whether they understand your style and aesthetic. By speaking to them, you can also get a better feel for the people you will be working with and whether they share your values.

There is a certain amount of gut instinct involved, but seeing factories in the flesh and meeting the people who run them removes a lot of the unknown. If you don’t have a recommendation and all you have to go on is a website, you can feel a bit like you are shooting in the dark and could end up wasting a lot of time and money developing a product with a factory that ends up not being right for you.

See the scope of the industry

While visiting Ubrique, I met with a number of leather agents and hardware suppliers.

Previously, my manufacturer had been sourcing materials for me. I would send them swatches and samples and they would match them to something similar. This was a great place to start, but it was also a bit limiting as I only saw the articles that they chose.

When I visited the various leather agents in Ubrique, I saw how much was actually available. The choice was overwhelming! I was able to build my own relationships with the suppliers and see everything they had on offer.

It was the same with hardware. It was eye-opening to see the amount they can do and the possibilities I have available to me. Until then, I found the idea of sourcing materials very daunting and I didn’t know where to start.

My visit demystified the whole process.

Working with Leather Goods Manufacturer Overseas Top Tips

  • Make the most of it – cram as much into the trip as possible. Talk to as many people as you can while you’re there.
  • Set goals for what you want to get out of the trip and have objectives for each meeting. It’s always good to know your success criteria, so you can make sure the trip is of value.
  • Be open-minded: you will learn something from each person you meet. These people have a lot of experience in the industry and they all have valuable insight to share.

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