Quality is the best business plan.
“That’s a gorgeous dress. Where do you guys do your manufacturing?”
“New York City.”
“Oh that’s so cool. Queens or Brooklyn?”
“Neither – Manhattan.”
Cue the quizzical / astonished look. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – we manufacture all of our dresses in the Garment District (aka the area immediately south of Port Authority and Times Square, aka some of the nastiest blocks in NYC). You instantly start asking, shouldn’t this be incredibly expensive? How do the costs make sense? Surely you don’t mean that there’s a factory with seamstresses literally putting dresses together? These are all excellent questions. Here’s the scoop:
In spring 2018, we started laying out our plans for Ava James NYC. Our vision from the get-go was to create gorgeous yet quality dresses. In our younger years, we had both been avid consumers of fast fashion: Zara, H&M, Mango, etc. You name it, we bought it. We hated spending money on work clothes (which is completely counterintuitive if you think about – you probably wear your work clothes far more frequently than your non-work clothes). Now that we are in our 30s, we want clothing that doesn’t fall apart after the first few washes. We also want clothes that fit better and are actually lined (seriously, what’s with all these form-fitting dresses that aren’t lined??). As such, quality was of paramount importance to us.
Moreover, because our sample size was 14, which almost no factory is used to, it was incredibly important that we were hands-on during the whole sample and fit process, especially since we knew that we were going to have multiple fit sessions. Lastly, we wanted to make sure our factory and patternmaker were on board with our mission and how we wanted to accomplish it.
So we had several options available to us. One of the strong contenders was China (naturally). We both grew up in Hong Kong, a stone’s throw away from the apparel region on the mainland. Our parents still lived there so it was possible to crash at our parents’ place while we shuttled back and forth over the border. We also thought about Korea as a possibility since that’s Saena’s permanent home base. Here were the issues that we encountered (note, these considerations weren’t just Asia-specific; we would’ve had these issues whether we were in the Caribbean, Latin America or Asia):
- Travel Cost + Time – given that I was based in NYC, it would’ve meant frequent flying back and forth. More travel = flights, hotels, meals, cars. Not only would this have been draining (especially since I was pregnant with my second child at the time. Crazy I know, but that’s a story for another time), the travel costs and time would’ve certainly added up. Who wants to do a 16 hour flight in coach class multiple times over several months?
- Ongoing quality control – we mentioned previously about our need to be as hands-on as possible. Since a typical pattern / sample creation and development process lasts at least a month, usually two, ongoing quality control and regular meetings with the factory would’ve been a logistical nightmare unless we were permanently camped out at our overseas spot. Moreover, the bigger concern was how we would manage the fit process. First off, plus-size fit models are almost impossible to find in Asia. Secondly, patternmakers are much less familiar with creating garments on a curvier woman. While we had some who were eager to learn, we frankly weren’t interested in being their first guinea pig. Thirdly, we were concerned with managing the quality control process from afar once we started manufacturing.
- Costs – it’s not just about the per unit manufacturing cost. There’s also: shipping fabrics to the factory, shipping costs, customs / duties / taxes, fees at port (assuming you’re shipping things by boat rather than air which is much more cost effective but also takes forever), trucking from port to our office… Most of these costs make sense when you are producing huge quantities at scale. Which wasn’t where we were at nor did we want to be.
A more sentimental piece to our manufacturing puzzle was that the NYC garment district has been slowly dying over the last few decades. It used to be huge in the 70s and 80s but once manufacturing started moving overseas, it’s been very difficult for many of these family-owned factories, many of which are owned by folks who worked their way up over the decades (we had one owner who used to be a seamstress, another who was a pattern-maker, and even one who used to affix the labels onto the garments). There’s been a bit of a renaissance in recent years, particularly since customers are now much more conscious of the origins of their garments. It’s no longer just about getting the cheapest price. All of this meant that our manufacturing choice was a no brainer and we are extremely proud and happy to say that we are MADE IN NYC.Funnily enough, making in NYC made the most sense to us from every aspect – logistics (who can argue with a few stops on the 2/3 train minus the usual MTA headaches?), quality control (fabulous factory that has extensive experience with other high-end designers albeit newer at the plus-size game), costs (manufacturing and fabric costs only).