A leading jeans manufacturer goes smaller to be better.
Apparel manufacturing is entering a new era where quality, not quantity, is the new “gold standard” for orders. Until recently, manufacturers vied for bigger orders, with the focus on volume – at any cost. That’s starting to change.
Quantity still counts, but quality (manufacturing premium products) determines who will survive in today’s tough manufacturing environment. The factories that are skilled at making premium apparel are slated to be the survivors in this cut throat industry.
Union Apparel recognized the shift in the market and evolved its business to be able to service the demands of the premium denim market. The Hong Kong-based jeanswear manufacturer adapted its business model to become an expert in the manufacturer of selvage denim jeans, which includes being able to accept very small minimums.
Seeking Small Orders
“We’re very flexible, we can do all size orders,” said Philip Law, managing director, commenting on a business strategy that might appear counter intuitive in a region that has made its fortune as the go-to place for big volume production.
His strategy is paying off and 2011 will be a record year for Union Apparel. “We have 40 customers doing medium to small orders. When you group them all together, it’s a good business,” said Mr. Law.
“We are now building a model factory that will cater to the more constructed, super premium market and we are training our staff to be very skillful with vintage, premium jeanswear,” he said.
Union Apparel’s “artisan” factory, to be located in Shunde in Southern China, will employ just 200 workers, tiny compared with the thousands of workers most factories employ. However the factory will have more flexibility and enable the company to accept orders of as little as 300-500 pieces, ideal for the high end jeanswear market.
“Our factory will be like a big sample room with more handcrafted production and a good base to make small runs. Automation is not enough. You need product development, you need to create premium products,” said Mr. Law. “However creativity has to come from the heart.”
“Automation is a capital investment that enables you to be more efficient. However these days the margins [on volume orders] are so small that it’s not enough simply to streamline your production processes. Today you need to be able to produce more innovative, high end products in order to stay in the business,” he added.
“Having the latest technology is not a must. You need experience. Technology is only a tool. It needs to be in experienced hands in order to be beneficial.”
The factory will provide a more congenial work environment than typical facilities, something that is critical these days both in terms of retaining workers, as well as meeting overseas buyers’ demands for Social Responsibility and Compliance.
“We’re known for our wet processing,” said Mr. Law. The artistic nature of this process is better suited to a smaller operation. Each [final garment] is unique. A standard QC person could not handle the inspection of these orders. You need a highly trained person who understands these finishes.
An Eye on World Markets
“We’ve been subscribing to Inside Fashion for a very long time. We find the comparative information on various sourcing locations very useful. Inside Fashion gives us a world market view, covering both the movement of key brands as well as the sourcing side.
With its eye on the premium denim market, Union Apparel has also toyed with its own apparel brand. “We might re-launch our own brand, however in the near term our design efforts will be focused on contributing ideas to our customers,” said Mr. Law.