You live, you learn. And, luckily for you, in my decade in the fashion industry, I have made tons of mistakes, which I am open to sharing with you. This way you don't need to make them too. I know that I have kind of become known for all things fashion in India, but it took me a long time to get to this place. So, here it is, everything I wish someone had told me about manufacturing clothes in India.
I am going to take you thought the good, the bad, and the ugly of clothing manufacturing.
But, before we get started - make sure to sign up for the FREE Sourcing Secrets Workshop. Plus, I will be doing a live Q+A at the end to get all your startup questions answered!
The first 2 workshops filled up with over 400 registrants! So, I am doing one last session on September 29th @ 8:00pm et (that's NY time), for everyone that missed out!
If you can give me 1 hour of your time I can teach you the three biggest mistakes startup founders make while sourcing their products, and what you should be doing instead.
Now, let me make one thing clear. I love living and working in India, and I literally want everyone to work there and come and visit me too. I am not making this post to scare you away from working in India, I am making this post to teach you what can, and often does. go wrong, this way you can prevent it from happening to you, have the best experience possible, and end up loving the country as much as I do.
India's Bad Reputation
When I first entered the fashion industry, back in 2011, there was a big push for companies to diversify their supply chains. To industry insiders, this was often referred to as the "get out of China plan".
Around that time, China's cost of labor was rising, and brands were looking for the next spot to have their fashions made. And, back then, India's prices could not be beaten so everyone was trying to start manufacturing clothes in India.
So everyone said zài jiàn to China and aggressively started moving their programs to India. But, the orders they placed never came, and if they did they were 6-8 months late. So late, they couldn't be sold until the next year's season. It was a disaster.
What ended up happening is that many brands abandoned their India orders and placed rush orders in China to get goods into their stores as fast as possible - losing a lot of money in the process.
And, that was the end of the get out of China, and move to India era of the early aughts.
Fast Forward To Now
The reverse is starting to happen.
India is much, much better at delivering on time. And, if you really know what you are doing you can find some of the best supply chain partners in the world.
What I find really interesting, is that in the past 10 years the cost of labor in India has increased, and now, China in many cases (depending on the type of product) is actually cheaper. These days I am not a stranger to brands to stop manufacturing clothes in India and asking me for help moving to China from India for better pricing options.
Infrastructure Is Crucial To Supply Chains
And, that is because China is insanely efficient. The best way to understand China's efficiency is to understand that the entire country has been set up to make things and make them as quickly and effectively as possible.
Have you heard of the Christmas Village in Yiwu?
"Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fiber-optic trees to felt Santa hats."
That is some serious, efficiency. Now, I won't get into just how coordinated the entire country is to have things made in this post, I am going to save that for another day. For now, just take my word on it.
India is set up so a lot of the knitting textile industry and knit products work in the South. And, the majority of woven textiles and garments productions is towards the north. Then, there are hubs around the country that are known for organic cotton growing or other specialties. For example, the state of Gujarat is famous for its support of artisan clusters and villages. But, in reality, everything is kind of happening everywhere. There is not a lot of organization or communication systems, or to be frank, infrastructure like China has.
And, that is why manufacturing clothes in India takes longer - they don't have that competitive infrastructure edge the way China does.
People in India aren't "lazy", they are just working in a more archaic system, a system where power outages are normal, and cell phone or internet reception is never guaranteed.
The Beauty Is In The Chaos
Now, most clothing manufacturers in India these days are not going to ship your goods 6 months late, but, when you start working in India, especially if you are coming from China, it is important to understand, and accept that things are just going to take a little bit longer.
Watching India's systems at play can be anxiety producing when it's your first time. I remember looking at my supply chains after visits and thinking, omg, how is this ever going. to work. And you know what? It always does.
And, that is so symbolic of the culture. To an outsider it's like what the heck is going on. But, to everyone else in the system, it's all working out just fine.
Working here you really do need to give up some elements of control, and just go with the flow, and trust the process.
Everyone Has A Scam Story
Seriously, everyone. People I know in India literally joke, that if you haven't been scammed then you aren't really doing business in India.
Sometimes the injustices are small, and you almost feel sorry for them, needing to scam you out of such a tiny bit of money. And, sometimes they can be earth-shattering.
Here are two examples of times I have been scammed in India.
Be Careful Of The Bait + Switch
I was with a friend traveling from Delhi, to Agra, to Jaipur. We hired a driver to take us the entire way. He gave us a price for the trip, we negotiated a little, came to an agreement, and got on our way.
When we got to our hotel in Jaipur, he demanded double what he originally quoted. We both looked at each other and were like umm no, that's not what we agreed to.
He then let us know that he knew the owner of the boutique hotel we were staying at - a subtle threat. As two girls traveling alone, we were basically coerced and scared into paying him the unfair price he demanded. So, we did.
What that story taught me was that finding a good and trust worth driver is important. Especially if you are a woman traveling alone. Do I pay my driver more than I probably should? Yes, absolutely. Is he worth every penny? Honestly, I would probably pay him more for his trustworthiness and the level of safety he provides.
Now, Here Is How This Same Type Of Scam Works When Manufacturing Clothes In India
Basically, the factory will make everything according to plan, you think things are going off without a hitch, and then it's time to ship the order. You get your final invoice, and all the prices are higher than the original agreement. You even have written documentation showing the lower agreed-upon prices.
I have actually onboarded new clients in the middle of this type of crisis and was asked to help negotiate the release of their goods. They had found some random supplier on the internet, decided to work with them, then found themselves in this type of mess, and wanted me to help me get their orders.
I almost never get involved, because this is a battle they are not likely to win. And, I prefer to work with clients from the beginning. When you start manufacturing clothes in India I like to prevent this type of thing from happening in the first place.
The factory's basically saying pay me what I want or you don't get your goods. And, if you want to have clothing to sell for that season, you must pay them whatever they ask for. They know you are desperate, so they take advantage of that.
Another Version Of The Bait + Switch
There is one other way factories will scam, and why it's so important to have a good quality assurance plan. They will make 1 perfect sample, take a picture of that for approval, and then the rest of the order they ship will be straight-up unsellable garbage.
You have already paid for the goods, and they are not going to refund you. Plus you waste all that money on international shipping.
If you are new to manufacturing clothes in India, I always recommend using a third-party quality assurance company, or getting on a plane and checking every single one of your garments before they ship.
Understanding Work Culture + How It Leads To Delays
Work To Live vs Live To Work
There is this meme, and I wish I could find it, that I saw a while ago about the difference between the United States and European work culture. At the top, there is a girl in the hospital that says something like "I am so sorry I will be unavailable for 2 hours while I get surgery, I will be answering emails as soon as I am awake from the anesthesia. And, on the bottom is someone on a beach saying I will be out of the office for the entire month of July, please do not expect any responses.
When it comes to working culture, American's in my opinion, are the word in the world.
There is a saying in India that they work so they can enjoy their lives, and if they are not enjoying their lives, then why bother working? And when you are manufacturing clothes in India, you should always keep that in the back of your mind.
That Time Me + 10 Other American's Got Ditched In A Village...
Here is an example of the work-life balance mentality. I took a group of people to a village to learn about artisan crafts. And, this was a super remote village - a 4-hour car ride to the closest city.
What they didn't tell me was that 1 of the days we were visiting, there was a local village holiday. So we get there and have a great first day, we had a full itinerary planned for the second day, but that night they let me know everything for the next day was canceled. Because it was a holiday no one wanted to work.
I said ok, maybe we will just sightsee, could someone please take us around hinting that the person who booked our trip should at least do us this courtesy. The problem was that because the village was extremely remote, no one really spoke any English, at all.
She said no, she wanted to enjoy her holiday and we were on our own.
And that was that.
Now, you are probably wondering why did they invite us to come if they were going to ditch us. Well, they didn't want to turn away the money. I was paying them a lot (more than they would ever make in their day job). So, they figured, get the money, get them here, and once they are here and the cash is in our bank account, there is nothing they can do.
And you know what? There wasn't anything we could do but book a car and leave for the city where there were things to do.
Are you noticing how the scam is always kind of the same, some variation of bait + switch? I made a rookie mistake here, I gave them the cash up front. Never do this, always pay partially, or after the service.
Holidays + Wedding Season
There are so many holidays in India, not just national holidays, but local village holidays.
I think a great example of this is the holiday Holi. You might be familiar with the American appropriated color runs that rip of and bastardize the holiday. Anyway, Holi is a celebration where powdered colors are thrown, leaving you looking like a rainbow.
So, on the calendar, Holi is actually only 1 day. But, in India, it is actually played for about 1 week. Every village has its own day that they celebrate, that is different.
So, keep this in mind when working in India. Don't just look at the holidays on the calendar, take the time to learn all of the local holidays of where your supply chain is, and how that might affect your delivery times.
The other thing you need to watch out for is the wedding season.
Wedding season always causes delays in supply chains. This happens in the late winter and early spring and is a time when many factory workers travel back home to their villages to celebrate their families' weddings.
The workers often take off without any notice and return when they feel like it. The inconsistencies in labor in the factories end up causing chaos.
Early on, when I first started manufacturing clothes in India, I once asked, aren't they worried about losing their jobs? And the answer was no.
If when they came back there was no job for them, they would just find another one, even if it was lower paying. To them, enjoying their family's celebration was more important than stability.
And, that is such a difference from the American work culture. I can not tell you how many special occasions for family and friends that I missed working in fast fashion.
Saying no to my boss or taking time off was not an option. In my first first years in the fast fashion industry, I took 1 day off because I literally was too ill to make it into the office because that was what was expected.
Keep An Open Mind
While the delays because of holidays can be frustrating, ultimately I think it is a nice thing.
Let me explain.
I think it's good they feel that they can live and enjoy their lives, and have not yet let us westerners pressure them into never-ending workdays and "working for the weekend".
In fashion in the states, everything is treated as a high-stakes dire emergency. Seriously, late orders are treated with the seriousness of a bank hostage situation.
But, is that the right way of doing things? In my opinion no.
I remember one time my supervisor wanted me to do this crazy travel schedule where I literally would not be sleeping for days. And I was like umm, why don't I just do this, it will still get the job done, and I won't have to be sleep-deprived.
Her response was well I paid my dues when I was your age working like this - so, you should too.
My suffering, because she did 20 years ago, was her priority, and she was very clear about that.
I have said it before and I will say it again. Changing the fashion industry is not about going into developing countries and saving them from themselves. Changing this industry is going to rely on ousting the masochistic sickos of 7th Avenue in their high-rise corner offices.
That is why supporting small brands is so important to me. You have the opportunity to be different, you can make your own rules, and work on your own terms, and really be the change in culture that the industry needs.
So, new brands, if you take anything away from this post about manufacturing clothes in India, please let it be this. You might learn a lot more from your suppliers about how to live than you thought you ever would.
Yea, I was pissed that I was left all alone with a group of tourists who had never been to India tasked with the responsibility to show them around a village where I could communicate with practically no one. But, if I am going to get real, I also kind of envied her ability to just not care and want to enjoy her life and not work.
Why Is Someone Always Sick?
I think everyone that has worked in India has been given the excuse that a family member is dead or is sick, so that is why their order is late.
And, while too many Westerners it sounds like the dog ate my homework, to understand why your goods are late you need to understand Indian culture.
In India, they live with extended family. Take a look at this article that I wrote for Fashion Revolution a few years ago, peaking into the life of an artisan weaver. Not only did she live with her inlaws, but also her extended family. 10 people in a 2 bedroom house.
This is normal.
There aren't really nursing homes in India, I mean, maybe there are, but I have never heard of anyone sending their parents to one.
In America, we move out of our houses, usually around the age of 18, and sometimes never look back. We are on our own, and if we choose to make a family we do that on our own too.
In India, the family unit goes beyond mom, dad, and children. It's aunts, uncles, and all the extended family often under one roof. And, the responsibility to take care of one another is much stronger than here in the west. For this reason, when someone is sick, it is not abnormal for everything to stop and for what it feels like, everyone to take care of them.
Again, the priorities are different.
Maybe, The Differences That Fashion Views As Bad For Business Are The Reason So Many Conscious Companies Want To Work In India
Think about that for a minute.
Personally, I believe that these cultural differences are why India is one of the leaders in the push for ethical and sustainable fashion. And why so many brands who are prioritizing conscious fashion are choosing manufacturing clothes in India above many other countries.
Celebrating life, taking time for yourself, enjoying what you do, are all baked into their culture.
While many times Americans think they are saving "poor Indians" by giving them work, I think in many ways they are helping to save us.
Working in India helps teach you to slow down, be patient, and not take work so seriously.
TBH, I think that is a big part of the reason I enjoy living there so much too. Yes, trying to get things done in an efficient way can feel maddening sometimes, but that forced slowdown is something I think so many of us American truly need to live sustainably.
We all need to slow down and prioritize what's important.
How To Find Apparel Manufacturers in India
Ok, I hope I did not scare you away from working in India. Even as I wrote about all of these wild stories of being scammed, and things not going my way, I look back on them fondly. They all taught me something, helped me step outside my comfort zone, and understand the country and it's people a little better.
Now, I do not expect you to have your own horror story. In fact, I truly hope you don't, and that is the reason why I wrote this article. So, here are a few tips to keep in mind while finding suppliers that will you with manufacturing clothes in India
Be Careful Of Yes Culture
In India, no one ever really says no. And, this can be kind of problematic when trying to get work done. Where I see this happen the most often is delivery dates.
I watch as a lot of new brands demand unrealistic delivery dates, and then get angry when they are not met. In India, it is in their culture to say yes, to get the order, and then to worry about how it is going to get done later (remember that story about me getting ditched in the village, that was yes culture at work).
When new clients tell me their stories or ask for my help getting themselves out of a situation, I always ask what timelines they were working on, and how late the goods are. And, they always tell me some insanely unrealistic timeline.
I tell them the truth is that they should have known better. Even though the supplier said yes, they should have known it was not really possible.
Another example of yes culture.
I was working with a local tailor to make some custom pieces for myself in Goa. This is one of the first times I had a garment made in India. I explained what I wanted, and asked if they understood everything. They said yes. So I said ok, see you in a few days.
The garment was nothing like what I had wanted. So, I started going through everything with them again, and that is when I realized they were yessing me.
At one point I literally said "what did I just say" and they said yes.
OMG, face palm emoji, IRL.
So, to avoid being yes'd, and to make sure communication is clear, I never take yes as an answer. Instead, I always ask for them to explain back to me what it is I said. If they can do that, then they understand, if they just say yes, then there is more work to be done.
Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not Talk To Manufacturers In Online Forums
As I mentioned earlier, this a recipe for disaster.
The latest social media scam...
So here is the latest Instagram scam I have been seeing. Random scammers are reaching out to influencers, telling them they own sustainable and ethical factories (they don't), and getting the Instagrammers to promote them.
Basically, these "ethical suppers" are just local people that go to the markets to buy cheap, unethical, mass-produced stuff, and they resell it for 10x more than they bought it for under the gise they are helping communities.
In short, it's a racket. And, when you buy from these people you are actually promoting the exploitation of workers who made the goods in not so great conditions.
So, do yourself a favor, think back to when you were a kid on AOL and your parents said don't talk to strangers on the internet. Don't trust suppliers you meet on social media.
And, On That Note, Skip Google
As I have recommended many times before, use garment industry trade shows to find suppliers instead.
And, one more time, in case you missed my other articles, always get references that can vouge for the suppliers you work with.
Again, I don't want you to feel scared about working in India, I just want you to be prepared, and know what to look for. This way your first experience working in the country is a good one! When you know what to look out for you can prevent bad things from happening and keep the experience positive.
Also, I really hope you open your mind and instead of being voyeuristic and looking at yourself and your brand as a savior and solution, to also take the time to learn and grow.
If you need help finding suppliers in India that are trustworthy, that just so happens to be my specialty. So, feel free to reach out and ask for help - email@example.com