As China has come to be a dominant force in fashion manufacturing, brands have been weighing the wisdom of solely producing in that — or any — single location. But coronavirus has made the move to diversify sources more urgent and logistically challenging.
For example, footwear brand Sarah Flint does more than 90% of its manufacturing in the Lombardy region of Italy, which has been hit hard and continues to be locked down, making production of shoes impossible. But setting up a new manufacturing partnership right now isn’t easy.
“The most difficult thing right now is that you can’t travel,” said Donny Greenberger, COO of intimates manufacturer Gelmart. “You can’t go and check out new factories, you can’t meet people, you can’t inspect things. There are major difficulties. And every country is dealing with it differently. For us, we were still able to communicate quite well with our partners in China, even when factories closed. But in some areas it’s been harder to get in touch with people.”
In addition to China, Gelmart works with factories in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Gelmart’s Chinese factories are all reopened, at nearly 100% capacity, but its factories elsewhere are all shut down.
“Because of all the tariffs and trade war, we started diversify,” Greenberger said. “Thank God we did. We moved a lot of goods outside of China when China shut down, and when those other places shut down and China opened back up, we started moving things back to China. If you’re not diversified, it’s going to be a really difficult time.”
Among brands that are currently seeking to diversify their production is a common feeling of uncertainty about where to look. For those that have recently secured new partners, there’s a feeling of instability, knowing their locations may become affected by the virus, upending any plans.
“When China shut down, our production manager said we needed to diversify, since we do 90% of our manufacturing in China,” said Courtney Klein, CEO of maternity brand Storq. “So we started looking for sourcing in Peru, Turkey, Portugal and Vietnam, as were a lot of other brands. We were in the middle of ramping things up in the new factories, and then those places shut down. There’s nowhere to go that feels like a good answer.”
“Manufacturing is really hard right now anywhere,” said Ari Jogiel, founder of his eponymous Los Angeles fashion manufacturing company. Jogiel manufactures for more than 100 brands, but declined to disclose specific names citing non-disclosure agreements. “Even if your factories are open, you need fabric supplies and raw materials from suppliers in other countries who are also facing the same limitations. We get fabrics from places in Latin America and Asia that have canceled our orders. And it’s getting harder every day.”
For the fashion companies that did manage to diversify before the coronavirus pandemic, manufacturing has been much smoother. Greenberger said he’s thankful Gelmart has a wider range of production options. However, he said moving production to different countries over the last two years, while simultaneously trying to fill orders for Walmart, the company’s largest partner, was tough.
And producing outside of China came with its own drawbacks. China is the gold standard for fashion manufacturing and raw materials, Greenberger said, and other countries do not typically have the same level of quality coupled without also having higher costs.
It’s the same reason that Feit, a footwear brand that has a small team of highly trained craftsmen who make all its shoes in China, did not start diversifying once its China factory shut down. The more appealing move was to just absorb the losses from manufacturing shutdowns.
“Our sourcing is based on finding manufacturers with unique skill sets,” said Tull Price, founder of Feit. “For example, our hand-sewing team in southern China we put together and helped train. No one else in the world makes footwear by hand like that, so they are rarely replaceable. Moving our products does not make sense because our makers are not interchangeable. Instead, we will stick with our partners, push our delivery dates, refine our model, stagger our releases, offer more pre-order and continue to expand our non-footwear categories, which naturally diversifies our risk.”