Getting Started for Fashion Entrepreneurs: Find a Designer, Manufacturer, and Supplier

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Thanh’s blog, pthanh.com.

By Thanh Pham C’14, founder of fashion startup Jean & Isola

A little side note to what inspired this post: I was on the Wharton fashion startup trek a few weekends ago (basically a day field trip for MBAs sponsored by the Wharton Entrepreneurship Club) and in between nodding off (it was a long 5 AM bus ride to NYC) and furiously jotting down notes, I started having this strange feeling of déjà vu; I felt like I had already seen my last few sentences somewhere. Sure enough, these were questions and that I had heard, and asked, a few times: when you’re just beginning, how do you find a manufacturer/designer/supplier?

Old sewing machine

Generally companies don’t like to release contacts of suppliers because they view it as proprietary. I personally hesitate to share my contact list on a public platform like this because it might mean my products will be put further on a backlog of client projects, but I’m happy to share this information privately so feel free to email me for my manufacturer’s specific details if you need a starting point (Jean & Isola manufactures in NYC’s Garment District).

Unless you are hoping to use a specific brand’s manufacturer (which will require online snooping, contacting past employees in product development of said brands through LinkedIn or by hiring them, or watching the brand’s manufacturing promotional videos for key details like workers’ names/locations to guide your search), these are endless resources online to find the right designer/manufacturer/supplier for you. Below I’ve included some ideas that are by no means comprehensive but that I hope will help you on your search. I will update as new ideas come to me (usually after my weekly lazy Sunday coffee chats with fellow entrepreneurs). Good luck!

Designers: When I work, I have to oversee and visualize every element of the product development including design, however not every fashion entrepreneur has a design background or passion for it. There’s been an increasing trend of MBAs starting apparel/accessories lines so a lack of a design background or degree is not necessarily an end-all.

Possible ways to find a designer:

  • Post on the job boards of top design schools such as RISD, Parsons, and Pratt. One of the perks of going down this route is you don’t have to pay a fee to do so. Contact schools that are near to you so that you can easily meet the designer to interview them and see whether their aesthetic fits your project’s needs, brainstorm, and edit sketches together. However, looking internationally at schools like Central St. Martins (London) or Domus Academy (Milan), will give your products a fresh, unique aesthetic perhaps difficult to find domestically. If you’re looking for a particular aesthetic such as Scandinavian minimalism, then it makes sense to recruit abroad at the Danish Design School.
  • Almost everyone at some point in their career wants a sense of ownership and designers are no different. Look on LinkedIn at designers who have been working 2-5 years at top brands and contact them. More often than not, they are frustrated with the bureaucracy of large fashion companies and will make a career change if promised flexibility over their work and more ownership over decisions.
  • Use a professional designer search. One of the fashion startups we visited during the trek was MM LaFleur, a women’s workwear collection. They used a recruiting firm to hire their head designer, Miyako from Zac Posen. If you’re nervous about hiring a designer just out of college, then this might be the best route for you.
  • Check past winners of prestigious design contests. For example, another startup we visited was Dagne Dover and they found their designer, Jessy Dover, through a competition sponsored by Coach.

Possible ways to find a manufacturer: 

  • Maker’s Row is an immensely easy to use resource for finding a manufacturer in NYC. I chose NYC manufacturing initially for personal reasons. I strongly believe firms that capitalize on a US market should give back to the country by supporting domestic industry and our workers. NYC manufacturing, however, is also practical since you won’t have to deal with lead times and clearing customs early on when your energy could be better focused elsewhere.
  • Attend trade shows. While a majority are geared toward featuring suppliers and materials, I noticed at LineaPelle that there were shoe and luggage manufacturers present. It’s also possible to ask these suppliers, especially those who have been in the industry for a while, for referrals to manufacturers. You can find a solid list of some trade shows here, but it’s important to pick what’s relevant to your particular business.
  • Referrals from those that have worked in the industry including your designers and suppliers.
  • Directories. If you do end up using a directory, make appointments to meet the factory in person to gauge their business practices and working conditions.
  • There are full product development firms out there that will oversee from sketch to finished product but this may be too expensive for emerging designers/entrepreneurs.

Note: I can’t comment on overseas manufacturing since I have no experience there, but I strongly believe it should only be considered after you’ve prototyped and established demand (tangible orders!).

Possible ways to find a supplier:

  • Attend trade shows. If you don’t have the budget to fly to out of state trade shows, then look up their exhibitors catalogue. Highlight relevant names and then do a google search. Most firms will have websites in English.
  • Work backwards. Under the details of a similar product online, it will list the material and location. Usually on their blogs or websites, brands will refer to details like the names of people working at the mill, which will allow you to easily search based on location (see below for more detail).
  • Request leather/textiles catalogues in the mail in order to feel the material if you don’t have local stores.

Thanh headshotBio: Thanh Pham (C’14) is the Founder and Creative Director of Jean & Isola LLC, a women’s luggage and travel accessories brand set to launch in Fall 2014. As a Penn undergraduate and member of the Wharton Entrepreneurship Club, she blogged on her personal website (pthanh.com) about her experience establishing a fashion company. Now a full-time entrepreneur, she continues to research and write about her business in an effort to encourage students to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations while in college.

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One Response to Getting Started for Fashion Entrepreneurs: Find a Designer, Manufacturer, and Supplier

  1. Hello,

    I really enjoyed your post, it was very informative. I am a partner in a new design firm and we are always keeping our eyes open for new talent as well opportunities to white label. Thanks for writing this piece.

    Regards,
    Brandon Kelly, CEO NYCVanity
    http://www.nycvanity.com

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