(First published by Fashion Capital, October 2010)
Author: Nigel Rust B.Sc (Eng) CEng MIMechE, Business Mentor, Coach and Manufacturing Specialist.
For a new designer finding a manufacturer can be a daunting task. Indeed, for the more established designer, finding an alternative manufacturer can also be pretty difficult. Many fashion manufacturers in the UK have tended not to be too good at promoting themselves. So how are you supposed to find them?
Well it must be possible, otherwise how would the big design names of today have got started? And how could the UK fashion industry be lauded as ‘the bright new hope of British manufacturing’ in the business pages of the Sunday Times (Sunday Times, Business Section, page 1, 12 September 2010)?
UK manufacturers are out there. They may not be the big factories, employing hundreds of people that were around years ago, but they are there.
The changing face of UK manufacturing
In common with the whole of British manufacturing, the fashion industry has had to adapt to massive economic changes over recent decades.
Today’s manufacturers tend to be sophisticated, specialised, smaller, more flexible companies. They have to concentrate on making higher value products – products that are better, more innovative, possibly more difficult to make – products that people will pay more for. And this inevitably means lower volumes, smaller factories, a greater emphasis on flexibility and skills, and a general move towards high-end design.
It is also interesting to note that quite a few of today’s fashion manufacturers started up less than 10 years ago – a sure sign that there is a place for new companies with new ideas.
UK versus Overseas
The comments above tend to apply to every developed country – so let’s quickly look at whether you should be looking for your manufacturer in the UK or abroad.
There are enormous benefits to be gained from using a manufacturer close to your base: being able to go to the factory to discuss changes or clarify technical points; seeing what’s going on for yourself to make sure you are getting what you asked for; checking samples, toiles, sealing samples, first runs; checking quality before its too late; avoiding unnecessary delays. There can also be significant cost & time savings for delivery. Imagine needing a sample for a show when it is stuck at the airport!
So given that it is preferable to find a manufacturer close to home, why do some designers use overseas suppliers? There are two main reasons for doing so: Price and Specialisation (some designers might also say Quality, but I include that in Specialisation – if, for example, a UK manufacturer can’t match an Italian competitor’s quality the Italian must be more specialised in that type of garment or process, or you are not dealing with the right UK manufacturer!).
Price: If your production quantities are high enough the price benefit you might get from Eastern Europe, India or the Far East might outweigh the extra cost of travel, transport, hassle, longer delivery times, reduced flexibility etc. But the price gap needs to be significant to make it worthwhile. When doing your calculations you need to take into account all of the extra costs involved in overseas supply, including the potential loss of business from late delivery due to customs delays or other unavoidable problems.
Specialisation: If you have a particular requirement that just isn’t available in the UK you have to go where it is available. Just like there are regional specialisations in the UK, there are national specialisations that you may want to take advantage of in other countries.
There is also a third way you might want to consider when your quantities get big enough – some UK based manufacturers also have overseas facilities, so they can produce where it is most cost effective and take the hassle on your behalf.
So, to summarise, it is always worth looking close to home first. If you are looking overseas, make sure you have done your cost and hassle calculations.
How to find them
So now to the nitty-gritty of where to look for a UK manufacturer.
The three main places to look are:
- Your friends, colleagues and acquaintances – word-of-mouth;
- The internet;
- Trade Associations.
Of course, by far the best way to find a suitable manufacturer is by word-of-mouth. So don’t be afraid to ask everyone you know if they can suggest someone. You don’t have to give away your trade secrets to do this.
Unfortunately word-of-mouth doesn’t always work, and might even limit your search somewhat. So there may be no alternative but to trawl the internet.
The main problem with a web search is that you find a lot of retailers, wholesalers and importers that are difficult to separate from the manufacturers. So here are my suggestions of websites that are worth looking at as a starting point:
- The ‘Manufacturers Online Showroom’ on the ‘Industry’ tab on Fashion Capital is by far the most comprehensive list of London manufacturers.
This website saves you a lot of legwork – it shows you photos of the company’s work as well as listing what they specialise in and what docket sizes they can handle. Full contact details are given as well. Note: this site is being revamped at the moment and may not be immediately available – but it is worth waiting for.
- www.freeindex.co.uk has a long list of UK manufacturers. Simply scroll down to ‘Manufacturing and Industry’, click on ‘manufacturing’ then on ‘clothing manufacturer’. This website gives you a short write-up on each company, so again it cuts down on your research time. For example, I found a company in London that had the following information:
“The firm delivers comprehensive sampling and production with no minimums to fashion designers and couture houses, which is intended to meet current demands for quick turn around at all times. With well equipped sample room, the business also has experienced staff producing high quality garments to the client’s specifications”. – That tells you quite a lot.
- The longest list of fashion companies that I have found is on www.Yell.com – enter ‘clothing manufacturer’ in the search criteria. If you ask for the whole of the UK you get over 70000 names. If you ask for London you get over 7000. Unfortunately not all of them have details about what they do. And there are wholesalers among them as well. So there is a lot more digging to do.
- There are short lists on a few other websites: e.g. www.uksmallbusinessdirectory.co.uk (55 clothing manufacturers listed the last time I looked); www.upmystreet.com (60); www.britishcompanies.co.uk (25). You may get lucky on these sites but the fewer companies listed the less likely you are to find what you are looking for.
- The big traditional directories such as www.kellysearch.co.uk and www.kompass.co.uk have so many non-fashion categories that they are quite time-consuming to navigate. They also tend to have a lot more retail, wholesale and importers to wade through. But if you drill down far enough on their search criteria there are a few manufacturers. These websites seem to be more geared up to getting you a quotation than helping you to find a manufacturer nowadays. Their newer rival www.applegate.co.uk has a limited list of clothing manufacturers.
- If you just google what you are looking for (e.g. ‘womenswear’) you will find a few direct links to real manufacturers once you have waded through the retailers and wholesalers, but the websites listed above are probably an easier starting point.
There are several Trade Associations that will have manufacturers as members and that should be only to willing to help put you in touch with them. There are regional associations, such as the East Midlands Textile Association (EMTEK), and trade specialist associations, such as The Silk Association of Great Britain and the Knitting Industries Federation. EMTEK, for example, list 32 manufacturers among their membership on their website, www.emtek.org.uk. Others associations may make such information available on request rather than on their websites.
Finally, of course, don’t forget you have Fashion Capital’s expertise at The Workshop and The Factory.
So once you have used the above tips to draw up your short list, you have now reached a critical point in your search – the selection phase.
Selecting the right company is not easy. But there are processes that can help you get it right. Unfortunately this article is not the place to go into detail on this topic. But if you would like to know more why not sign up for Fashion Capital’s ‘Be Business Ready for 2011’ workshops (www.fashioncapital.co.uk – learning/seminars).
If you are looking for more detailed one-to-one help then please contact me, either through Fashion Capital or directly (firstname.lastname@example.org)