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Journal of a Sustainable Fashion Startup

Looking for the manufacturer of your dreams?

 

This was our mindset back in the summer 2019 when we first started researching manufacturers. Even though we had zero experience in tights manufacturing and had no idea where to start, one thing that was clear to us was that we were not just looking for a supplier, but rather a partner who was able to bring to life our product vision. This meant finding a partner who could work hand in hand with us to create better tights for women, and the planet. 

So, how did we go about it?

TIP 1 - Write your non-negotiable

First, we started by writing down the list of what we refer to as our ‘non-negotiable’ criteria, mainly centred around the aim of leaving a beneficial footprint for human society and the environment. 

★ Have sustainable practices at the core of the business, instead of just being an added value.

★ Operate in Europe. 

★ Work towards eliminating the concept of waste by establishing waste management strategies (i.e. the reuse/recycling of materials; the use of renewable energy; a clean water system; a carbon neutral program, etc.)

★ Minimise or avoid (the must!) the use of chemical products (i.e. dyes must conform to the OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 [1]; use low toxicity materials, etc.).

★ Focus on low energy consumption best practices.

★ Develop ethical programs for its employees and the local communities to foster social fairness.

★ Be prepared to comply to the B Corp [2] principles 

B Corporation for a Sustainable Fashion Startup

 

TIP 2 - Use OEKO-TEX®  buying guide and Make it British

Secondly, we looked at industry certifications such as the OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 and B Corp, so we could cross check them against these. We came across the very handy OEKO-TEX® buying guide [3], and it turns out, there are quite a lot of Italian manufacturers using this certification!  

It’s good to note here that although we were recommended to use Alibaba (the bible to find manufacturers), this website is useless when it comes to details on the European manufacturing landscape. So at this stage our main, and only resource was Ecosia [4]

We hoped that we will be able to produce our tights either in the UK or in France to reduce our CO2 emissions and to retain a proximity with our manufacturer.  Thanks to the support of Make it British [5] we quickly realised that hosiery factories are non existing in the UK and that Italy is still regarded as the cradle of pantyhose. Their engineering is world class, and their workforce is the most knowledgeable. 

After emailing over fifty factories across Italy, we received only a handful of responses. This is when our non-negotiable list kept us focused and made it easy to eliminate the ones that didn’t fit with our vision. 

Oeko Tex for a Sustainable Fashion Startup

TIP 3 - Speak to as many entrepreneurs as possible

We spoke to many other startups to collect their advice on a number of topics including the best way to deal with Italian manufacturers and get their tried and tested do’s and don’t. Here are the main ones we used to the letter:

  • Be prepared for high aka ridiculous MOQ (minimum order quantity) 
  • Go to trade shows related to your industry and start building a relationship. This might help you counter the MOQ issue
  • Almost the whole of Italy shuts down in August so keep this in mind for your timeline, you won’t get anything done this month of the year!
  • Allow at least 8-12 weeks for prototyping 
  • Don’t be too friendly with your manufacturers, put boundaries

After 3 months of intensive research and many skype calls in broken english, we selected our top three manufacturers and went to see them during a very busy three-day visit in Italy.

 

the Cradle of Pantyhose Drawing

TIP 4 - Get an expert in your field on board

Here are three things that made our first visit extremely productive and we highly recommend you do them too: 

  • Have a Bernard [6]! Someone who has a strong understanding of the industry and is an expert in the field. This was a huge advantage, firstly to help us understand this extremely complex industry and secondly, to increase our credibility in front of these suppliers.
  • Have a simplified technical pack [7], gathering the details of the products you wish to make. 
  • Have many product samples (bags and bags of tights in our case!) from other brands. To show them what you like and dislike. 

      Bearing in mind neither Marie or I (Sophie) have a background in hosiery, this first trip to Italy taught us a lot more than we envisaged. Of course visiting tights factories was impressive, but we’ve also learned not everyone will be as passionate as us about our futuristic vision, and that’s ok. They simply might not be the right partner. Also, who knew we could talk about tights non stop for 3 days?! 

      Billi London and Bertrand Saltier

      TIP 5 - Be prepared to make compromises

      By this point, we had been working on our brand vision for about 8 months, so we had a very strong opinion of what we wanted. 

      We also had a very naive opinion of what would actually be doable. As new enthusiastic entrepreneurs, we just wanted it all, now, and did not want to hear factory owners (or anyone, for that matter), saying no to us. 

      By definition, being an entrepreneur of a startup means delivering a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. And to do so it is recommended to launch your product fast, test fast, and learn fast. Having all our criteria met from the get-go was a little idealistic when we need to be pragmatic. So be prepared to make compromises where you can with a view to revisiting them. Be realistic and accept that it won't be perfect right away, otherwise you’ll never get started. 

      So trust us, and get over it, you won’t launch with a collection of 10 different products, in all colors and sizes!

      Let’s resume. We’ve spent four months researching, contacting and selecting manufacturers. We spent three days visiting our top three in Italy. Now what? 

      Game on, it’s time to build our proper Technical Pack and get the first prototypes done… 

      Making Compromises Billi London

      BONUS TIP - Listen to your gut feeling

      Yes you will have to make compromises but equally if you are not confident a manufacturer is prepared to go on this journey and innovate with you, and is not letting you challenge them, then listen to your gut feeling and start researching again. Do not cut corners, in the long term, it will be all worth it!

      “Partnership is crucial. This is the most important goal for startup brands to take on.”, Kerry Bannigan, founder of the Conscious Fashion Campaign, supported by the United Nations Office for Partnerships.

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      [1] The OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certifies that products meet the strict limit values for harmful substances and that they are not present in critical concentrations. The product may thus not contain any harmful substances or in limited quantities which represents no danger. This certification establishes standards a responsible use of chemicals and toxic substances. 

      [2] Certified B Corps are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving of a global movement of people using businesses as a force for good. 

      [3] The OEKO-TEX® Buying Guide supports companies that want to consistently operate in a sustainable way in the selection of reliable cooperation partners and in the sourcing of suitable raw materials. The online directory also offers end consumers the chance to find OEKO-TEX® labelled products.

      [4] Ecosia is a search engine using the ad revenue from your searches to plant trees where they are needed the most. It stands for a better internet. 

      [5] Make it British’s mission is to make it easier for people to buy products made in Britain, so that manufacturing skills can be kept in the UK. 

      [6] Bernard Saltiel, Former Le Bourget CEO. Founded by his grand-father in October 1924 in Paris, Bernard Saltiel joined the family business in 1978 where he remained CEO for 15 years. In 12 years, he transformed the domestic business from an €11 million brand to €91 million international entity listed on the stock exchange. Saltiel left Le Bourget in 1993, two years before the brand was sold to Edi Group. Le Bourget to this day is one of the most familiar and established French hosiery brands. Saltiel now acts as an international consultant in the textile industry for retailers and resellers. Saltiel became Billi London's adviser in September 2019.

      [7] A tech pack gather all the instructions a factory needs to create a design and it will contain:

      • A technical sketch of a garment, front and back, with close-ups of unusual details
      • All construction and sewing details
      • A list of fabrics, materials and trims, including suppliers if available
      • Artwork for prints, embroideries, patterns, labels, etc.
      • Packaging instructions