Any successful fashion brand carefully listens to what its customer wants and tries to meet demand quickly with either well-planned inventory or just in time production, fulfilled through their own e-commerce channel.
Many well-known, traditional brands have the opportunity to use advanced data analysis and the gathering of invaluable customer feedback to plan and produce correct quantities of the right inventory. Or, as another option, they start offering their own personalization options. Nike, New Balance, Converse and other shoe brands are prime examples of these successful brands. Other fashion categories are also made customizable by brands like Brooks Brothers (shirts and suits), Pringle of Scotland (knitwear), Oakley (sunglasses) and Longchamp (tote bags).
But what about the smaller, less known, up-and-coming brand names? How can they find a balance between sustaining their traditional wholesale business model with healthy brand exposure and growing a lucrative direct-to-consumer business through their online channel? Could they potentially offer customizable styles on their website by finding an efficient way to produce these items without significant additional costs? I believe so. This article explores businesses that can help achieve this goal.
Designers have a couple of options to start offering custom styles:
Hire an on-sight dedicated tailor for one-off customers’ requests.
Very costly, time-consuming, there is a high chance of delayed orders, need to have fabrics stock and capacity to dye or print on fabrics. All of this results in high price point of a custom item. Only high-end designers can afford this.
Outsourcing custom orders production to a small-batch manufacturing facility.
I am a huge believer that in the near future the fashion industry is going to be transformed by just-in-time, no-minimum manufacturing model, that will let consumers pre-order designer pieces in a preferred size, color or print and a variant of design detail.
We are going to take a look at the on-demand/small batch production landscape. There are currently 4 business types catering to this forward-looking opportunity.
Below is an overview of several sourcing databases, which serve as connection platforms for brands and production facilities.
Maker’s Row offers an enormous database of US-only manufacturers, that includes comprehensive information on each facility, contacts and ratings by real businesses. An integral part of Maker’s Row platform is its project management tool, that facilitates sourcing from multiple factories, makes the production process seamless and easy. Another invaluable side of Maker’s Row is their free educational content, inspired by its community of creators. The major advantage of using the platform is expertise of makers and hustlers within this passionate network. Gathered and shared through the website’s “LEARN” section, the platform provides dozens of useful posts on the design, sourcing and manufacturing process, as well as sales growth and business development, which is invaluable for any aspiring entrepreneur. The downside or Maker’s Row is that it only offers a list of US facilities, when a brand might want to consider partnering international for cheaper production options.
Small creative businesses’ favorite, Etsy has been toying with the idea of connecting their nurtured brands with a network of manufacturers, so it has recently launched a beta version of the Etsy Manufacturing platform. The idea behind it is to help nurtured by Etsy brands scaling and meeting the growing consumers demand. Etsy states that selected for the program manufacturers are open to working with small businesses, and fit independent designers’ needs.
Wrapsew is a marketplace that connects manufacturers with brands or individuals, that can post their projects and have interested and competent makers bid to execute these projects. It is a safer, clearer, more fashion oriented version of Alibaba. Upwork or Fiver for fashion production, if you prefer. Wrapsew performs full background checks on all makers and manufacturers to ensure their ability to work on orders. The company also acts as a legal mediator between the 2 parties and helps resolve any issues.
Custom Made is similar to Wrapsew, but focused on catering to consumers, not businesses. The website offers listings of independent furniture, décor and accessories, along with just a few apparel makers. There are 2 options for a buyer: to customize an existing product, selected from hundreds featured on the website, or have products created from scratch, following specific design guidelines. This site could be a great way for brands to explore new categories, perhaps tap into the lifestyle goods market opportunity.
Platforms like the ones above, — with multiple listings, ratings, categorization and customer service, would be very helpful for brands’ initial search for additional manufacturing help to fulfill the customization side of their businesses. Thanks to a simple screening process and opportunity to safely test ride various production workshops, these marketplaces could be a great way to create potential long-term manufacturing partnerships.
There are ways for brands to quickly test new styles without an extra investment in raw materials and production. They could either offer pre-order items on their website and only produce if an item was ordered. Or they could introduce new styles through fashion retailers that use a pre-order model, selling directly to the final consumer.
Moda Operandi is a pioneer in the trunk show/pre-order business model in fashion. They are offering both collections from the next season to pre-order and in-season multi-brand highly curated selection of luxury goods. Moda Operandi provides strong marketing and praised status to brands featured in their trunk shows. In addition, a brand benefits financially as there is no need to spend money in advance for production — 50 percent of the total orders’ wholesale price is paid to designer right after the trunkshow ends in order to use these funds to produce pre-ordered items. The other 50% are paid upon delivery of the full order.
The Coterie and Nineteenth Amendment are a new type of pre-order businesses that have an advantage of serving both parties. For consumers, the value proposition is the unique pieces that can be pre-ordered directly on site with lower than the traditional retailer’s mark up. For young brands — the benefits include access to interested consumers and manufacturing, and order fulfillment service for products sold on these platforms. They act as a platform to showcase designs, pre-sell, produce and pay brands a percentage of the sale.
The Coterie only offers very limited design capacity for designers and is more of a customization website than a professional platform for brands.
Nineteenth Amendment is closer in concept to Moda Operandi, but with several major downsides. First of all — there are exclusive selling terms for brands. Designs that are sold at Nineteenth Amendment cannot be sold elsewhere, thus limiting designers’ creative and business freedom. Another issue is that there are a number of unknown, fresh designers featured on these sites. The brand selection is not as curated and inspiring as the one on Moda Operandi. This turns established designers away — they do not want to be associated with immature fashion brands. They might have already found more adequate ways to distribute their designs and purely seek a fast turn, no minimum production service rather than a space to sell.
If these companies can open up the capacity for brands to use their manufacturing facilities for selling these garments on their own, I believe both The Coterie and Nineteenth Amendment can bring much more value to the industry in the long run.
What if brands need to handle the on-demand production on their own and communicate directly to the factory as opposed to through an intermediary? There are numerous cut and sew small producers or local manufacturing facilities that are located all over New York City’s Garment District. These are mainly used by local brands and designers for product development, sampling and, in some cases, for just-in-time production of latest trending styles. The greatest challenge for a brand that is not as well established yet is to negotiate an acceptable production time slot and reach a fair price for that type of manufacturing. With a high demand such small factories services, the cost of production is typically very close to the cost of a sample — unacceptable if the brand wants to make a business out of their custom offerings.
There are currently very few full service production facilities that offer quality pattern development to the final product, as well as affordable, small batch or no-minimums production.
Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA) is a part of Pratt institute’s manufacturing facility offering full service development and production. In their own words, they are “committed to providing production services that bridge the gap to scale faced by emerging companies”. This may also include small batch orders fulfillment.
Manufacture NY among other initiatives to help small fashion businesses provide a selection of membership options for brands to use the technology and other space perks. This lets them produce items they have no capacity to fulfill in their own design studios. Basically, Manufacture NY lets members rent sewing machines inside of the facility, but does not provide seamstresses/technicians to work on a custom piece.
SourceEasy is embracing the challenge of making full-service on-demand production feasible. However, with factories located in China, India and Vietnam, the lead times are way higher than the time a spoiled-with-fast-fashion customer would agree to wait. Also, an absolute no-minimum strategy is not possible, simply due to the higher than production shipping costs.
The business that is tackling full service development and small-batch production is Matter.io — currently focused on making jewelry, using 3-D printing.
HaveItMade is a project I am currently developing, aimed at leverage technology combined with skills of independent garment making professionals. The goal is to help brands quickly develop additional styles and produce them within 10 days after the customer places an order. This will help brands market their custom offering not as pre-order, taking weeks to fulfill, but as simply produced just-in-time, quality pieces.
The fashion manufacturing process has yet a long way to develop in order to reach true and feasible on-demand production capacity, become more sustainable, effective and affordable. With great help of the businesses above, I hope we will see our industry change in the coming years.
In the final part of this series I am going to introduce some of the developing technologies that are enabling more efficient manufacturing, and look into some challenges of producing on-demand.
Image credit: CC by Eva Rinaldi