How To Find Custom Clothing Manufacturers For Startups
Published: March 21, 2021Updated: September 24, 202212 min read44 Comments
Finding custom clothing manufactures for startups is all about finding the perfect fit. If it's not just right, then it's not going to work out long run. And, I never recommend brands go with the first apparel manufacturer they talk to. Finding your supply chain partners is more of a numbers game, and the truth is, you definitely always want to have a backup or Plan B.
In my signature course the Summer Sourcing Intensive - where you will learn to source in 10 weeks, I give you access to my VIP list supply chain list, which is perfect for startups that need low MOQs. The list has over 300 apparel manufacturers that are happy to work with small start ups. Plus 700+ other industry resources like fabric suppliers, trim suppliers, and even pattern makers.
But, if you want to try and tackle your supply chain on your own without my mentorship, this article will teach you exactly how to stop googling terms like clothing manufacturers near me, and start finding the best clothing manufacturers around.
Remember Goldilocks And The Three Bears? The childhood story about a young home invader who made herself comfortable in a bear family's house? She ate their porage (one was too hot, one too cold, and one just right), sat in their chairs (one was too big, another too small, the last just right), and slept in their beds (one was too hard, one too soft, and one just right).
When you start building your supply chain and reaching out to custom clothing manufacturers for startups, you want to be Goldilocks, meaning, be picky, and make sure they are just the right fit for your brand. Remember what is right for another brand, might not be right for you.
Where To Find Clothing Manufacturers For Startups
Let's talk about how to find manufactures first. Because, before you can even decide if an apparel manufacturer is right for you, you need to know how to find them. I see a lot of young brands struggle with this. And, when they finally find someone that will work with them they jump right in, without ever asking themselves - is this the right partnership for my brand?
So, to be able to be picky, and not just settle for whatever apparel manufacturer that will agree to work with you, you need a nice big list of prospects.
Here is how to find clothing manufacturing companies.
Go to events and make some friends with other startup brands. This method takes time. Because, established brands are not just going to open right up to you and hand over all the hard work they did to build their supply chains.
The key here is to share. Give others information that you have. And, when you do that, they will be more likely to open up and share with you the apparel manufacturers that they are working with.
The other day I got an email from a brand asking me for my ethical supply chain list. I let them know, that list was only for my students and clients, and not for free.
Then they went crazy.
They told me I was a "gatekeeper" and that keeping my resources secret was harmful to factories because I was denying them work that they desperately needed for survival.
BTW, this is totally not true. For starters, my factories currently all have more than enough work. So much we are actively turning away projects at this point.
The lesson here. Don't be entitled. No one owes you anything. And, please don't assume that factories are desperate for your order (I promise you, the good ones definitely aren't).
Now, on the flip side, if you talk to brands I have worked with in the past, or friends I have made in the industry along the way - I am an open book. Need a block printer in Jaipur, here are 3 to reach out to. Looking for a garment factory in LA, I got you, reach out to my girl here.
For my friends, I'll help them in any way I can. And, they do the same for me. When I need something they offer up their tried and true partners right away.
We have an unspoken agreement to help each other however we can. My garment manufacturers are theirs to use if they need help.
When you think of networking think of it as a give and take. When you give more than you take, you will always end up with exactly what it is you need. And, if you take only one thing away form this article, please let it be that.
There are so many helpful other groups out there... (I have found so many cool and helpful people in these groups) and, Reddit is another great place for asking questions and sharing resources too.
... At your own risk. Google is the wild west of custom clothing manufacturers for startups.
So, remember to do your due diligence to find the perfect custom apparel manufacturer, don't just just google, ask the right questions, and make sure they are the right partner for what it is you need.
Trade Shows And Online Databases
Personally, I recommend using trade shows or online databases over google when searching for custom apparel manufacturers. Because suppliers that go to these shows are almost always a little more vetted. That is because most shows don't let just anyone in - they only take suppliers with good reputations.
Many startups think that trade shows are only for huge brands. This is so wrong, all fo the shows listed below have special areas to highlight supply chain partners that are happy to help small start up brands.
Sourcing At Magic - Apparel Manufacturing Trade Show
"Bringing the fashion industry closer together for continued commerce in an online B2B market place"
Sourcing At Magic is probably the biggest sourcing trade show around. Twice a year the biggest design teams and buyers trek out to Las Vegas to get business done and meet clothing factories from all over the world.
I love Common Objective's resources for smaller startups and brands with a focus on sustainable and ethical manufacturing. They are a powerhouse of information and free resources that is dedicated to teaching fashion newbies. So, take advantage.
Trust me, they are a huge help in finding clothing manufacturers for startups.
"Common Objective (CO) is the global tech solution for a sustainable fashion business. Our technology simplifies and rewards best practice, turning sustainability from a cost into an opportunity."
If you want to make in America, Maker's Row is the supplier database for you.
"Your end-to-end manufacturing process - all in one place"
"Save time sourcing. Find the perfect sustainable manufacturer or supplier in just minutes. Our search engine matches your textile sourcing needs with the best-suited sustainable manufacturer or supplier. It saves time and keeps you in control."
And, my last recommendation is a global database. Kompass has you covered no matter where in the world you want to make your product - they are represented in more than 70 countries.
"Your route to business worldwide."
Finding The Right Fit
Now that you know where to go and look for potential clothing manufacturers for your startup, you now need to know how to vet them.
Let's dive in.
One Was Too Big
This is the number one mistake startup brands make when choosing their supply chain partners. They want to work with the supplies that the big brands work with.
When it comes to manufacturing in India, especially Jaipur, everyone wants to work with Anthropologie's supply chain. Conscious startup brands always want to know who Reformation and Everlane are working with. And, swimwear companies are always after Frankie's suppliers.
Trying to work with major industry players as a startup is a rookie mistake.
You Will Always Be Last In Line
When you are just starting out with tiny orders, you and your designs will always be pushed to the back.
The truth is (whether they say it or not) suppliers prioritize their biggest customers because those are the people that make them the most money. If they have someone order a couple of thousand units per style, and you are over here making 20 or 100, that big client will always get priority over you.
I had a client who spent a year trying to get their line produced in Bali, with one of the "best swimwear manufacturers" that "all the best brands use". While the factory was capable of making a beautiful product, when push came to shove and there was limited room on the factory line - her order always got sent to the back of the workflow, and inevitably never got made.
There was always someone "more important" that needed their work finished first.
It's Not Personal
It's just business. For a factory, it's the same amount of work for them to make 20 pieces or 20,000. The product development process is always still the same. The work and hours they need to invest are the same. The only difference is that with 20 units they need one sewer and with 20,000 they need a lot more.
With those bigger orders, they end up making a lot more money. And, unless they are a charity, the reality is that money is what is needed to stay in business.
Big Factories Are Highly Specialized
The other downside to working with a big factory is that they tend to be very specialized.
Big brands don't just work with one factory. Sometimes they work with hundreds. And, each supplier in their supply chain is extremely specialized. They might get their swim from one person, underwear from another, t-shirts from a third, and so on.
With big factories, they prefer this specialization because it makes them more efficient. As their workers make one product over and over again, they start to get really good at it, and a lot faster at making it. When sewers are constantly bouncing between different products they never become as good as if they made the same thing.
Big brands can work this way because they have huge teams that can manage communication with so many suppliers.
The problem here is that you are, most likely, a team of 1. If you are making your first collection with 5 different styles, you probably don't have the time to be managing sourcing, product development, and production with 5 different suppliers, possibly in 5 different countries.
The easiest way to manage your supply chain is to find someone that can make it all in-house (more on that in a minute).
One Was Too Small
Do yourself, and your brand a favor, and avoid the startup niche manufacturers.
There is a new business model cropping up - factories designed to help small startup companies, just like yours. They market themselves as being startup friendly and specializing in small orders.
IMO, you should avoid them.
They Are Ridiculously Expensive
Here are the costings I got to developed 3 dresses in LA with a manufacturer that specializes in "helping" small brands.
Patterns with 1 round of revisions - $1365 per style
Making 1 sample garment - $1000 per style
Marking and grading - $200 per style
Technical drawings - $300 per style
Retainer for "project management + sourcing" - $5000
So, in total, to develop samples of 3 styles you would pay $13,595.
And, to be clear, these aren't super fancy couture gowns we are talking about, they are, to refer back to our old friends, the type of styles you would find at Anthro - cute but nothing too complex.
What It Should Really Cost
Now, because you are new to this, you probably have no idea what making patterns, sourcing, and sampling should actually cost you. Don't worry, I am going to break down the pricing for you.
Patterns with 1 round of revisions - $100-$300
Making 1 sample garment - $150-300 per style
Marking and grading - $0 per style - you do not need this yet, you can pay for it once you get closer to production, so skip it for now
Technical drawings - $20-100 - hire someone off of Fiverr, there is tons of amazing talent at prices that won't bankrupt your startup
Retainer for "project management + sourcing" - $5000, personally, I charge $300 per hour, and a project like this would be about 10 hours, so about $3000. But, if you are bootstrapping you can do everything yourself and not have to pay anyone anything.
Working with me, or someone that isn't out to take advantage of startups, you will pay about $4000, for your samples.
Now that is a huge difference!
So, Why Are Companies That Only Cater To Small Startups So Expensive?
Some really are just taking advantage that newbies have no idea what they are doing and how much things should cost. Their business model is not to take brands on and nurture them for a long-term partnership. But instead, they squeeze them for as much cash as possible, then going out searching for their next victims as their current clients go out of business because of impracticable and way too expensive charges.
The second reason is a little less nefarious. But, it requires a little insider knowledge.
Remember how I told you how it costs the factory the same amount of time and money to develop styles for someone making 20 pieces or someone making 20,000?
When factories only take small orders, they need to make their money somewhere, so they end up needing to charge huge management rates to make ends meet.
When you work with someone who is start-up friendly but also a professional that has bigger clients, they are able to make the bulk of their income on those bigger orders and do not need to charge you an arm and a leg to make your small orders.
They Might Outsource
The other downside to startup-focused factories is that they often outsource. Making a little bit of everything requires a lot of machinery. And, most small factories can not afford it all. So, they tend to specialize in a few different types of items and outsource everything else.
When you work with someone who markets themselves as a clothing manufacturers for startups, often they don't even tell you they are outsourcing. When you stop by to visit them they have a nice little workshop with busy sewers, so you might just assume your things are being made there too. But, all too often, they are not.
Always be clear about where and by who your goods are going to be made. And, if you can, try to plan your factory visits while your garments are on the line, being made, this way you can see it with your own eyes. Plus, you can get tons of great content for your Insta and website.
They Aren't Masters At Anything
If your factory is making everything in-house, that might also be a bad sign.
The person who makes your winter jacket should not be making your swimwear. For starters, they require totally different machines. And, as I mentioned earlier you want people working on your garments that make your type of product all the time, so they are really good at it.
Getting It Just Right
The perfect supplier will strike a balance between too big and too small.
Makes What It Is You Want To Make
The first thing you need to do to determine if your supplier is a good fit is to confirm they produce what it is you want to make.
Don't go to a garment factory and ask for help making bedding. The person you work for should be specialized and an expert in what it is you need to be made.
Make sure you know the person that will be managing your account. Often when you first start working with a factory the owner or upper management will be communicating with you. Then, once they get your production deposit, things change, someone new is managing your account. They are usually lower level (read less experienced), and things may start to go wrong.
Make clear when you talk to your factory partners that you know exactly who will be managing your account through all stages of development and production to ensure good communication. This will also reduce the chances of things going wrong in the process.
Or, if they are going to outsource, they should be upfront and honest about it. Some things just don't get made in the factory. An example of this is buttonholes. Many factories, especially ones in NYC pay another service to do their buttonholes for them.
It's industry standard, and really no big deal. But, always make sure you know if anyone else will be working on your garments.
An Established Business, Looking To Grow
Basically, to sum everything up - what I am advising is that you want a middle-of-the-ground factory.
You don't want a huge player, and you don't want someone that is focused only on teeny tiny orders. You want someone that has solid business with medium size brands and they are interested in taking a risk on someone smaller
Someone, like you.
They do this in hopes that you will grow, and become one of their bigger clients.
Every factory I have ever worked with has a story about a client they took on that in the beginning started producing only a few pieces a season, and a few years later grew to hundreds or thousands.
And, why can't this dream story be your business's too?
Need More Help Finding Fashion Manufacturers?
And, as always, if you have more questions about how to find the perfect apparel manufacturers for your brand, please ask them in the comments - I'm here to help!