Bianca Gates, co-founder of Birdies, a footwear brand that was launched in 2015, said establishing relationships with factories early on was one of the most challenging and most important phases of getting the brand off the ground.
“Footwear manufacturers tend to go to a different factory for different types of footwear,” said Gates. “Boots have one factory, sneakers another, high heels another. Our problem was that we were trying to take components of different kinds of shoes — like slippers and sneakers — and pull them together. It just took about two years full to find the right factory to reimagine what our [signature] slipper could look like.”
Young digitally native brands looking for unique new ways to manufacture products often find it hard to convince factories to do things differently. The brands are often new enough that they have little proven success or leverage. To get their foot in the door, they’re starting small, looking for open-minded factories and building strong personal relationships with factory owners.
A brand’s relationship with factories often evolves over time as the brand grows. Vanessa Stofenmacher, founder and creative director of Vrai a direct-to-consumer jewelry brand launched in 2014, had virtually no connections in manufacturing when the brand was first launching.
“In the beginning, it was literally just walking around downtown LA in the jewelry district and just talking to people on the ground floor of manufacturers,” she said. “Literally walking in, going door to door and talking to people. Then once we had a foot in the door and got to know people, we started asking around for larger manufacturers to work with. The more you grow, the easier it gets to negotiate, but it’s really hard at first.”
Most factories won’t even consider talking to a brand unless they can place an order for $50,000 in product, and even then it will take some talking to get them to collaborate, Stofenmacher said. This leads to a Catch-22 situation where young brands need to sell product in order to make money, but they need to make money to order product. On top of that, while some factories take care of sampling and development costs for new products, others will stack those costs on top, making the partnership even more expensive. Stofenmacher said the factory her brand currently works with, a jewelry-specific facility located in Los Angeles, has been a fruitful and positive partner, but it requires Vrai to pay its own additional costs to develop new products, which she compared to R&D costs.
“We began the manufacturing process ourselves,” Stofenmacher said. “We actually worked with multiple small manufacturers to create one product. So we’d get the gold cast by one person, the stones set by another, until we had a finished piece. Then once we were finally able to afford orders large enough, we started to approach bigger manufacturers. We outgrew the first few steadily, and now we have several larger manufacturers in LA, New York and Mexico. Jewelry tends to be very traditional, so it was a hard sell at first being a non-traditional online-only brand.”
DTC handbag brand Dagne Dover had a similar trajectory, starting small before proving success, in order to show larger factories that it was worth working with.
“We started in New York because we didn’t have any traction,” said Jessy Dover, creative director of Dagne Dover. “We started local, which I would recommend. You don’t have to fly back and forth to monitor the situation. At first, it was just a single room with just one guy, in the Garment District. Then we started to expand. We shifted three times. Then came a midsize factory in Asia, and now we have a larger factory there.”
Building personal relationships with factory partners is also key, according to several brands. Dover said manufacturing partners should be teammates, noting that her team and people at the factory they work with communicate through Slack and other methods practically every day.
“It’s really important to have an open relationship where you can actually tour the factory,” Stofenmacher said. “Some factories are really closed off and not open about how [their work] is done, or they won’t let you see what goes on in the factory. It’s important to find those that let you come in and take photos. It’s good for customer service, too, since you can update people on where their orders are in production.” What’s more, customers are demanding the type of transparency that comes with an open-door policy.
Lauren Bucquet, founder of 1-year-old footwear brand Labucq, is in an interesting position. Despite her brand being young, Bucquet herself had years of experience in the fashion industry as head of footwear at Rag & Bone. That experience helped her sort out manufacturing much easier than fellow new brands.
“I launched with a factory I had been working with for five years, that I’d visited dozens of times,” Bucquet said. “We knew each other well, and they trusted me because of our history together. This relationship was one of the reasons I felt confident starting Labucq in the first place. I was really upfront with what I wanted to do, and even with our history, they still took two weeks to confirm they would give me a shot.”
“I felt I was fortunate to have the opportunity, and there wasn’t much negotiation, aside from minimums — we were able to meet in the middle on starting quantities. Our main factory wouldn’t have given us the time of day without the existing rapport. The good factories have a good reputation for a reason, and they’re working with the good brands, and there’s not too much space for a startup.”
As Bucquet says, there are a lot more new brands in need of manufacturers than there are factories in need of brands to produce for. All the women we spoke to for this story said that factories, especially newer ones and those based in countries other than the U.S. and China, are becoming more adventurous and open-minded in how they work with younger brands, but that there’s still limited space and competition to work with the best factories.
“When you’re on the lower end of the totem pole its harder to get in the door,” Stofenmacher said. “I think a lot of factories are eager to take on new clients and push their own boundaries, but you have to keep their attention once they take you on, since they probably have several brands they work with. It’s a struggle to get a dedicated account manager and get your pricing requirements met. They want to get new customers in the door, but they cant always meet the expectations of the clients.”
Stofenmacher said her current project is creating an “assembled on-demand” model with her factory partners, in which the factory would pre-produce multiple individual parts of jewelry pieces, which can then be assembled in different ways to the customer’s preference — a process she likens to ordering something at Chipotle.
“It’s a new system for the factories we work with, but they were really into it, which is great,” she said. “We’ve worked with people in the past who were stuck in their ways, resistant to change. You have to find places that are open-minded.”