A manufacturing partnership is one of the most critical decisions a fashion brand owner makes. When a fashion brand owner forms a partnership with a manufacturer, the brand is entrusting the manufacturer with the responsibility of managing the brand’s production activities—which can range from sourcing materials to monitoring labor compliance. With all the responsibilities required to manufacture designs and all the costs faced during this process, a successful brand-factory manufacturing partnership cultivates the problem-solving necessary to ensure a business’ stability and growth, even in times of rapid change. By contrast, an incompatible manufacturing partnership can lead to a fashion brand’s ruin. For example, reality star Kylie Jenner recently faced backlash after releasing her new swimsuit line, Kylie Swim. Customers emphatically criticized the line’s poor-quality, astonished that a star like Kylie could make such a poor-quality swimsuit collection, particularly because of her previous successes creating other acclaimed product lines. The case of Kylie Swim demonstrates that even well-established brands are vulnerable to issues that may arise during the manufacturing process. Actually, well-established brands arguably run a greater risk because production and quality issues could endanger a brand’s illustrious namesake. Therefore, every fashion brand—especially well-established ones—must ensure they’ve strategically partnered with the right manufacturers. So, how can well-established brands evaluate the fit and performance of their manufacturers?
The answer isn’t evaluating the manufacturer yourself—it’s getting a manufacturers’ broker.
What Is a Fashion Manufacturers’ Broker?
- A manufacturers’ broker acts as an intermediary between a fashion brand and a manufacturer
A manufacturers’ broker plays a pivotal role in the manufacturing process because they provide access to important market information that isn’t readily available to just anyone – even those who are well-connected in the fashion industry. Indeed, the best manufacturers’ brokers work on a team, with each team member focusing on different aspects within a series of evaluations. These likely include:
- Assessing pre-established values, goals, and roles – The best manufacturers’ brokers will abide by their own set of specific guidelines, and only partner with manufacturers and fashion brands who follow those same standards. For example, brokers may only partner with organizations that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and ethical labor. In this case, to protect migrant workers, brokers would limit manufacturers to certain geographic regions. Additionally, brokers would ensure that both the manufacturing owners and machinery come from the country of production. These verifications mitigate exploitative treatment towards workers by manufacturers and combat the environmental damage that comes from outsourced machinery.
- Verifying proper manufacturing operations – Manufacturers’ brokers ensure that manufacturers have all the documentation necessary to form a partnership with a fashion brand. For example, brokers will verify manufacturers’ documentation permitting export abroad, which may vary depending on the country. Also, brokers will consider trade agreements or regional rules and regulations. To learn more, read our blog on international shipping.
- Evaluating quality standards – Brokers will assess the craftsmanship of a prospective manufacturer by looking at the manufacturing materials and the production methods used to realize designs. In addition to quality checks, brokers will evaluate craftsmanship that specifically claims a particular country (e.g., Made in Italy). Thus, brokers will evaluate whether a manufacturer’s product, in fact, reflects a country’s craftsmanship. This craftsmanship evaluation is more complicated than it sounds, as it requires extensive knowledge in fashion and design history. In countries like Italy where manufacturing techniques derive from generations’ old practices, it’s important to work with a broker who understands a country’s manufacturing legacy. Really, this understanding comes from a broker with close ties to the manufacturing world. They would mostly likely have manufactured at some point themselves, or spent years in the manufacturing world for that particular country. In the case of Italy, the highest-quality manufacturers have produced for generations, and only brokers with close ties to these family-owned manufacturers will know the ins-and-outs of Italian craftsmanship.
How Do Manufacturers’ Brokers Find High-Quality Apparel Manufacturers?
Manufacturers’ brokers source potential manufacturing partners from events such as fashion trade shows, where brokers search for manufacturers. During this searching process, brokers acquire manufacturers’ contact information and schedule discovery meetings, where they begin their preliminary evaluations to determine whether the manufacturers make a good prospect.
In addition to fashion trade shows, brokers will also find potential manufacturers through artisan trade associations. This is particularly the case for Italian apparel, footwear, and accessories manufacturers, where artisan trade associations prove a valuable partner in locating strong manufacturing candidates, according to the MakersValley CEO, Alessio Iadicicco.
Beyond fashion artisan trade associations, brokers source potential manufacturers through word-of-mouth. This is a great starting place in the manufacturing partner search because it provides direct accounts from people who are already partnered with those recommended manufacturers. These accounts can illustrate more nuanced information that’s important to know before forming a manufacturing partnership such as deadlines, communication style, product quality, and more. This word-of-mouth approach is also utilized by emerging designers. However, the caveat of using the word-of-mouth approach as an emerging designer, or even an established fashion business owner, is that other fashion designers are often unwilling to share important manufacturing contacts with their current or potential competitors. Thus, a manufacturers’ broker is key because they are perceived more as intermediaries, thus less threatening, than competitors. Furthermore, even if one designer chooses to share their manufacturing contacts with another designer, it takes a manufacturing specialist, like a broker, to research and vet a potential manufacturer because of the highly specialized knowledge needed in the manufacturing world.
What About Well-Established Fashion Brands That Already Have a Manufacturing Partner?
For those fashion brands that already have a manufacturing partner, what should motivate them to partner with a broker to find additional manufacturers? It would seem that a well-established brand that already has a manufacturing partner wouldn’t need to make a change, especially if that same partner has produced for the brand through its success. However, given the big risks and high costs fashion brands confront while partnering with manufacturers, only an intermediary actor like a manufacturer’s broker can properly evaluate a manufacturer’s product quality, certify craftsmanship, verify their documentation, and assess their manufacturing operations. Thus, it’s nearly always worthwhile to confer with a manufacturers’ broker for the following reasons:
- Manufacturers’ brokers can source the highest-quality and most compatible manufacturers for brands because of their expertise.
- Brokers can devote the exorbitant amount of time necessary to research and vet manufacturing partners, unlike designers who simply don’t have the time.
- A fashion brand’s partnership with a manufacturers’ broker also means access to a whole network of already-vetted manufacturers. Since brokers create this network out of their own close ties to the manufacturing world and their specialized knowledge, they can introduce even the most established brands to discrete manufacturers with expertise in a designer’s product niche.
- Manufacturers’ brokers remain up-to-date with shifts in the manufacturing world and changes in the production practices in their manufacturing network. Thus, they can notify designers of changes that may directly impact a brand’s designs or operations.
Ultimately, one of the most compelling reasons to partner with a manufacturer’s broker is because they act as a safeguard between the designer and manufacturer. For example, a common complaint about manufacturers amongst designers is that manufacturers are often unresponsive. But a noteworthy benefit of working through a manufacturers’ broker is that a broker can act as a mediator between designer and manufacturer. Manufacturers are more likely to respond or negotiate if a more objective third party, like a broker, intervenes to problem solve rather than personalize issues that often arise in the manufacturing process. Thus, a manufacturers’ broker is key for fashion businesses to troubleshoot manufacturing problems, advocate for their fashion brand, and ultimately protect its stability and growth.