Emerging Designers: How to Build a Successful Manufacturing Relationship?

Dutch Sustainable Fashion Week
Catwalk | Photo Courtesy Dutch Sustainable Fashion Week

Production is one of the main issues emerging brands face in their life cycle. More often than not, young brand undervalues the importance of their manufacturing partner which, according to Dessy Tsolova founder of Utelier, is a vital mistake. Utelier is an online B2B platform connecting designers and producers making everyone’s life easier. Dessy talks to Fashion Bloc about the essentials of manufacturing for the emerging brands.

This article is a part of DIY Monthly – A Digital Agency Membership with Fashion Bloc fashion agency.

Fashion Bloc: How did you come up with an idea of Utelier?

Dessy Tsolova: After working for many years in the industry, within luxury brands managing design and development teams, and constantly being asked for industry contacts, for advise and help, I realised how opaque and unhelpful the industry is to newcomers as well as to people in it. The idea for Utelier was born out of the desire to improve the core functionality really. To bring in process and transparency and educate how to be and do better.

FB: Tell us a little bit about your professional journey.

DT: I studied Fashion Design & Business and upon graduating immediately began working with the small designer brand where I also interned while studying. I began my career in high-end ladies clothing but over the years worked with knitwear, soft accessories and ended up loving and working with leather accessories by the end of it. I have mostly worked with luxury brands like Burberry, J&M Davidson and Smythson where I was overseeing the design teams, the development of collections and then the production cycle – from idea to store really. Working for small brands was most exciting as it allowed me to pretty much be involved in all processes and learn how a fashion business works as a whole. From the design idea to pricing, checking invoicing, shipping, quality control, sales, PR, marketing… you name it – I have done it! But it is only now that I appreciate that varied experience and hard work.

FB: What is Utelier and how is it unique?

DT: We are an online B2B fashion manufacturing platform connecting people with ideas for a product to industry specialists who can help them in their journey to make it. We are still (for now) free, global. We are unique in the fact that we connect people not just to manufacturers but also to designers, suppliers and industry specialists that often are so hard to find – like lawyers, pattern cutters, seamstresses, agents, etc. We also offer a software that allows designers and brands to create spec packs for their products and store them on the cloud so they are able to access them at any point of time from anywhere. They can annotate their designs and documents revisions – an invaluable industry tool that often is overlooked and underused. Finally, we have a growing by the day knowledge and resources platform that aims to demystify and educate fashionpreneurs on how the industry works from the inside and help them grow their manufacture businesses better.

FB: How do you source your Utelier partners – manufacturers?

DT: We started by listing our immediate contacts and via recommendations, but over the years now we meet many factories and partners at trade fairs and now that we are out there and little more known, many join us by themselves having heard of us or our success stories. We try as much as possible to check the partners that join us and get listed and as much as possible visit them, speak to them. Having a good quality partner is very important to us. We want everyone who uses our platform to have a success story and help improve the industry, not the opposite.

FB: What are the main struggles young brands face in the supply-chain management and sourcing?

DT: Well…. I can write a novel about it… But the main most common challenges startups face, aside from finding factories to work with, is then knowing how to work with them effectively. That lack of knowledge lands them in trouble such as – overcommitting to minimums and being left with a lot of stock they struggle to sell (convert to cash), paying for goods (often in advance) and ending up with sub-standard goods, paying too much for products, thinking they have found the right factory only after much wasted time, money and heartache to realise they are the wrong factory to work with, etc. All easily made mistakes given the vast lack of knowledge and experience. And it is very disappointing and sad to see the same mistakes over and over again.

FB: Have you noticed any patterns in the mistakes brands make when starting to work with a new manufacturing partner/supplier?

DT: YES! The biggest mistake is the lack of “common sense” applied by people – designers mostly when they approach factories. Then the lack of preparation prior to contacting the factories. By that, I mean that many brands may not have all the information, to begin with, but they don’t bother to even research and see how they can come across better, more professional and help the factory deliver better for them, think of them in a better light, take them more seriously. They rarely think how can they present something in a way that will help the factory in minimum time understand what they want to do. Instead, they think somehow the factories will read their minds and make it happen. Not asking enough questions to understand how things work. Not understanding well enough and in minute detail their own idea and the product they want to make. And perhaps last but by far not least – expecting to pay little for something amazing. Not knowing the real cost of what it will cost to make the idea, what it will take to sell it, at what price. The lack of preparation and research at every step of the way is what I see hiding behind most mistakes startups make.

FB: What is an essential advice for a brand that is just starting outsourcing the manufacturing? Where to start?

DT: Assuming they know really and truly who their customer is, what is the right price for them to sell at and are aware of what margin they need to make to survive and thrive – then researching about the various manufacturing options available is important. You can make the same item in different countries for different costs, different quality and with different minimum order quantity commitments. Knowing that allows you to zero in on where is the right manufacturing place for you and your product. Then speaking to as many factories as possible, visiting as many as possible – if you can’t visit – Skype the owner – see their face and try to find a level of connection. Fashion is a very personable industry and the success of your business is largely based on the quality of your relationship with your manufacturers. And most importantly – use your common sense and listen to your gut feeling.

FB: Can you share a success story of a designer-manufacturer relationship?

DT: There are many, but perhaps a nice one is an experience someone in our community went through. He was designing and printing silk scarves and his maker delivered the wrong quality samples or production – I cannot remember. Patrick the founder was very upset. He contacted me to ask for advise how to handle the situation – what were his options…. Long story short – he could have either not paid and created a drama and lost this relationship before it had even properly started or figure out why it happened in the first place and find a way to resolve it. So after much thought, he decided on the latter. He got on a train and went to visit his maker for the first time face to face, learnt about the process and realised there were many details he wasn’t aware of which led to the misunderstanding, they found a solution to the problem and 3 years on – he is still happily working with the same factory making amazing silk scarves. He actually told the story in a blog post here: