Production Pitfalls – Confessions of a Fashion Star Winner

I’ve never told this story publicly before.

Partly because I didn’t want to disappoint all of the fans that were inspired by my story on Fashion Star with the dirty production details following the excitement of the show.

And partly because I was embarrassed for a long time about how naive I was with regards to production in the actual world of fashion—which is nothing like the glitz and glamor of the finished products you see on TV.

Fashion Star

TV editing happens for a reason. TV shows are an hour long. And the production process to create an immaculate sample and then fulfill an order of garments in the real world? Well, it’s a grueling process that can take up to 6 months. Who has time to watch that on TV?

Let me back up.

But before I do, let me reassure you that this story comes with a few lessons learned and an incredible resource for you, emerging designers—so stick with me.

When I first moved to New York after graduating from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, I had fashion design stars in my eyes. Sure, I had heard the horror stories of interning for free and making countless coffee runs before ever being allowed to touch a pattern.

Yet I was ready to pay my dues.

Sure enough, on the first day of one of my several internships, the production coordinator (for a now defunct label) welcomed me with a Post-it note held over her shoulder. Without turning around from her computer screen she said, “Dunkin’ Donuts is downstairs. Here’s my order.”

I remember her order often included donut holes or what Dunkin’ Donuts calls Munchkins, so for the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Munchkins. As you might have guessed, she pops up again in this story.

Fast forward through far too many great stories in NY’s garment district to fit into this blog, and I end up winning NBC’s fashion reality competition show, Fashion Star. As the winner, I earned a $6 million dollar design CONTRACT with H&M, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Fans of the show had access to my designs in stores and online. A true dream come true for an emerging designer…

H&M Final Collection 2

To this day, people comment, “I can’t believe you won $6 million…” I must remind them that the show’s featured retailers had to pay for those little things called production and distribution of the orders placed for my designs. In other words, the majority of “my” $6 million dollar contract winnings went to the cost of producing and distributing my designs to stores across the US and those ordered by fans online.

Keep in mind that up until this point, “production” was me and my sewing machine and a lot of blood, sweat and tears in my Lower East Side Manhattan apartment. You can imagine the sheer bliss during my time on Fashion Star as I was able to design, create and see my visions come to life using all of the available resources courtesy of three major retailers. Not to mention a major television network. It was one of the great experiences of my life.

Following my Fashion Star win, I received a message via LinkedIn from Munchkins.

Munchkins “knew she knew me from somewhere” and just wanted to let me know that she now ran her own production company in NYC and if I needed anything going forward to let her know. I politely reminded her that I used to fetch her coffee and that indeed, I was under a time crunch (4 months) to create a collection before the next New York Fashion Week. I didn’t want to miss out on the publicity momentum from my recent win as I tried to start my own line without the backing of NBC, H&M, Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.

While my gut told me working with Munchkins was not a good idea, I reasoned that at least I would be working with someone I knew and I had already witnessed her deliver a collection in a short period of time as an intern. I agreed to a meeting. Then I agreed to make my samples with Munchkins. And finally, I agreed to make the order I received from Saks following my NYFW showing with Munchkins.

I learned three valuable lessons during my small run production experience with Munchkins.

1. Take your time, do your research and trust your gut.

True, I was under a time crunch, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have done more research and trusted my gut. And while I didn’t necessarily know the right questions to ask as a newbie to the production scene, I did know how I felt each time I left Munchkins’ office. And it was rarely “excited about the process,” but more panicked and overwhelmed with the costs and requirements of something I had never done before.

As an emerging designer, deciding to work with a production company is a big step and your learning curve is about to get really steep. Choose a company that you feel comfortable with—if you are feeling rushed through the process, intimidated or leave a meeting without your questions answered, walk away. You will be spending a great deal of time with your production company, often needing to clarify details, redo samples and make adjustments. Building a relationship of mutual trust and respect is vital to your peace of mind.

2. Understand that in most factories, the smaller your production run, the higher price per piece. And most factories have minimum order numbers you must meet.

Large scale retailers, like H&M for example, can produce and sell thousands of one style in one color/fabric way, and so the people who sew these thousands of garments can most likely produce them at lightening speed (probably with their eyes closed), producing more in less time and driving the cost down. Other factors drive costs down as well, like fabric purchased in bulk, but as an emerging designer, you may not have the luxury of large orders to start out. Therefore, you can’t likely afford to buy more fabric than what you need. Finding a production company that will produce small numbers of garments at a price you can afford per garment can be a challenge.

Munchkins tried to get me to increase the numbers of my one order from Saks to drive the costs of production down, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk. What would I do with extra inventory? What if someone didn’t buy the extra sizes I would randomly decide to make? I certainly didn’t want to contribute to our already-out-of-control landfill problems due to garment overproduction.

3. For emerging designers, producing overseas is not always cheaper than producing in the U.S.

I produced the bulk of my order for Saks in China with Munchkins as the middle woman between me (the designer) and the factory overseas. I often asked a question on Monday, only to receive a response on Wednesday. When samples arrived via expensive international shipping, it felt like Christmas. Once samples were fitted and adjustments noted, it was like expensively shipping my kiddos off to summer camp knowing I wouldn’t see them again for a couple weeks. When all was said and done, I knew I should have kept the process closer to home.

For large companies, producing overseas is most likely a “no brainer.” However, when you are just starting out, timely and open communication with your factory is key. Mistakes are going to happen. Samples won’t fit and will need to be remade. The wrong color thread may be used. When you begin to add up the cost of delayed communication due to time difference and the costs associated with sending samples and production runs overseas…well, you get the idea.

So, why tell you this long production story?

Because I have an incredible resource to share—one that may have saved me a few headaches and a lot of dollars. And one that is likely to save our landfills from unnecessary garment waste.

Emerging designers, meet OnPoint Manufacturing. 

Designers, OnPoint Manufacturing makes one garment at a time and the cost per unit made is the same whether you are producing one garment or 1,000 garments at a time, which means you are never stuck with inventory, you produce only what your customers have ordered and there is no risk that overproduction on your part will lead to additional waste in landfills.

And the vibe at OnPoint is one of dedication to making a positive difference in how clothing is manufactured. They are making production easier for designers in terms of:

•  Time – No waiting for overseas back and forth communication.
•  Risk – You don’t need to guess how many size 6s to make. You can let actual orders guide production.
•  No inventory – No extra inventory means you are not stuck with a bunch of clothes with no home.
•  Producing any run length – You can produce one dress, or 1,000 dresses at OnPoint.
•  Ordering any size – Your actual order determines the size.
•  Creating any variation – Your customers can enjoy customization of garments.
•  Quick shipping – Shipped directly in 72 hours or less, your customers will not need to wait long periods for their orders.
•  Local production – Made in the USA means no long wait times for samples.

If you are an emerging designer toying with the idea of production, do your research and check out OnPoint Manufacturing. And if your goal is to win a fashion competition TV series, let’s talk. Not only can I help you win, but I can give you a few tips on how to prepare for the fun that will follow your victory!

 

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Kara Laricks is a regular contributor to the University of Fashion. She’s also a New York based women's wear and accessories designer. As the first winner of NBC's Fashion Star, Kara has designed collections for H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her masculine meets feminine line, Kara Laricks, debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2012 and her S/S 2013 collection sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue. Kara's designs have been featured on the Today Show and HBO's True Blood as well as covered in Women's Wear Daily and on Style.com. Kara holds Master's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and in Fashion Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. An educator turned designer, Kara is dedicated to supporting emerging designers and inspiring others to follow where dreams lead.