Production is a topic that’s often glossed over. We’d all be left with an empty wardrobe without it, but it doesn’t enter the conversation unless we’re talking vagaries about local manufacture or horrific disasters. We spoke with Pete Macdonald, who works with several independent designers (his contract means he can’t name them), to find out about what production really consists of. Take a leap to see our conversation.
We wanted to know more about production. At times it feels like working in production is like being a goalkeeper in that you don’t hear about it until something goes wrong.
It’s definitely not the sexy part. If we’re talking about being a dream, then this is the reality. It’s a very human side, the bit where your accountants are involved, your producers are involved. It’s down to making the right commitments at the right time. It’s down to understanding how you need to be supplied. It’s about understanding your risks. It’s about managing all those things. It’s a very difficult thing to do in conduction with the dream, the creative side. It’s very difficult because those two things are often clashing. I think design is about keeping your options open whereas production is about whittling your options down and making decisions. A to B.
What are some of the main issues in production?
Things always go wrong in production. When you’re producing fabric, something could go wrong with the finishing or something could go wrong with the raw material. If your fabric needs re-finishing, it’s gonna impact on the schedule and it’s all about managing that. It’s very rare that you order your fabric, it comes right the first time, then goes to the factory, gets cut and gets made.
So it’s factoring in all those checkpoints.
And then factoring in a bit of fat. If something should take four weeks and something goes wrong you allow a bit of time before your cutting, you just reverse engineer. You start with your end product and work backwards from there and if you understand the process and each segment of the process is supplied and the risks and how to minimise those risks. With clothes, it’s delivery and if you’re late with the delivery then that’s bad news.
We’ve heard a good few delivery horror stories.
Massive horror stories. Sometimes it’s just down to an individual in a factory who’s overworked, tired and messes up the order. They order the wrong yarn, something very human. And then once that’s been done and that comes out, you go, “My god, what’s this?” Then you have to work backwards.
I remember Eytys who’s first order sunk in a convoy disaster.
Doesn’t shock me. We’ve had a FedEx trucks catching fire. I’ve had stuff which has been pinched from a warehouse. Everything. Stuff delivered to the wrong address.
Yes, definitely. I think this industry is littered with stuff like that. I think Paul Smith said that he learned early on to not put his order forms in the checking luggage. He went to a sales trip to Japan, his form went in his checking luggage and his suitcase was lost, so he lost all his orders and couldn’t remember any of them. If you read up on the really experienced guys you will see universal problems.
What sort of companies do you produce for?
We produce small designers. Well, what I mean is designers with small runs. Independent designers or bigger companies who have a product range they don’t wanna handle.
You’ve said before you used to do mostly big companies but now you do mainly smaller ones. What brought on this change?
I think it’s empathy with the smaller designers. With clothing companies, all the risk is front-loaded. You’re putting a lot of time into something that you don’t know is gonna sell. You’re taking all the responsibility of the purchasing, the branding, the showroom, the platform, the trade shows. And you don’t know what you’re gonna get out of it. And the moment you finish, you have to start again. You’re chasing your buyers. Working in production, inevitably we get involved in sales strategy because your production is determined by how you need to be supplied, which is determined by how you’re selling. And then you’re getting into payment terms, cash flow and the costs and what product is it, is it constantly changing… Ultimately, it’s in production but it’s in sales strategy, logistics, running a business, because it’s all part of the same business.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about production?
Assuming [that] the production manager or whatever can see into your mind. Even your care label you need to design — It’s really tough if you’re an independent designer because big companies have departments for this.
How much does government regulation affect how factories work?
Those kind of regulations are enforced by really big groups. If you’re gonna work with Arcadia, Zara, there are various standards that they insist upon. For instance, are the clothes put through a metal detector before they leave the factory? Because if there’s a pin in it and a child’s wearing the garment then there’s going to be trouble. You have a whole range of different factories from cowboys to laboratories.
European regulation is very stringent. What you can achieve in Europe is completely different to what you can achieve in China, India, Bangladesh. A factory in Bangladesh has free range to use any product they want to achieve the results. If you’re talking vintage washes and that sort of thing, there’s substances you can’t use in the EU because they’re very harmful. To be responsible is expensive. You have to treat people fairly, you have to pay them fairly. You have to ensure it’s a safe environment. We don’t work with India or Bangladesh at all. We mainly work with Portugal. But you can find factories in Portugal that disregard all regulation.
But yes, regulation does affect how factories work. It changes the culture. If you know that, if you’re used to standards being enforced, you’re much better at delivering standards. So the conversation is different. It’s much less likely that stages are skipped.
Do you think the current factory conversation is quite binary?
I think it’s unfair. The East is a big place. You can get amazing quality there. I really don’t think East and West is a quality issue anymore. I think it’s a supply issue.