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How to work with an overseas clothing manufacturer

'These are the rises and falls in business, that's why they say it's not for the fainthearted.'
Sandra Brand, Alessandra

Top tips

  • Take the time to cultivate relationships and trust with your overseas suppliers by visiting them and touching base often
  • Paying your suppliers on time builds trust and gets things done on time
  • Be mindful of language and distance barriers, keep communication simple and clear

The business

Sandra Brand grew up on the factory floor helping her father run his clothing manufacturing business. Her grandfather made slippers for the Australian ballet. As part of a close Italian family, there was no doubt as to Sandra's future career.

Now, Sandra runs her own business, Alessandra, specialising in lush cashmere. Sandra designs her pieces in Melbourne, sources most of the yarn in Mongolia and manufactures the pieces in China.

Finding an overseas supplier

Sandra found her main factory in China thanks to a recommendation from her brother, who is also in the rag trade. He had been producing Merino wool jumpers out of China and gave Sandra this particular factory contact. Her main contact there, Jenny, speaks very good English. Jenny heads up a department there that does millions of dollars of business in the US, Germany and France, which was also a good sign (that they can maintain big, demanding orders). Within a month Sandra visited the factory and took a tour. She liked that it wasn't a sweat shop, there were a lot of workers and they were well cared for, many even lived onsite. She has now worked with Jenny for more than 10 years and they both cultivate the relationship and respect for each other.

Overcoming language barriers

Despite this, there are ongoing issues. 'Somebody in the food chain can still get things wrong,' she says. A simple misunderstanding in the colour code of a yarn written on a garment specification can mean a sweater is made in bright orange instead of pale green--as happened to Sandra a few years ago. To combat confusion and translation errors, Sandra keeps her directions and requests very clear and simple. 'I never overload with information,' she says.

Have backup plans

Despite years in the business, there's always a chance a shipment will arrive late or quality control slips. Sandra tries to head off problems by bringing her production cycle forward. She's clear in explaining this to her factory contacts too, so they know she's trying to give them as much time as possible to do a good job.

Pay suppliers on time

Sandra learned about integrity as a child. In the 1970s and '80s, during bad economic times, her father was always mindful of his staff. 'Never forget that the people on that factory floor have children to feed,' he would say to his daughter.

Today, Sandra always pays her suppliers on time. 'I get my stuff made as I never have, and never will, let anyone down on payment,' she says. 'It goes back to the lessons I learned as a child.'

Currency fluctuations can be stressful as her foreign orders are in American dollars. She pays on delivery of a shipment, which can be months after an order is placed. Trying to hedge the Aussie dollar is virtually impossible, she says. It's about riding out the cycles. 'These are the rises and falls in business, that's why they say it's not for the fainthearted.'

Checklist: Find and choose suppliers

The result

Sandra has manufactured in China for more than 10 years. She made sure she chose a manufacturer with a main contact who speaks very good English and that treats its staff well. Now that Sandra explains things more simply and has brought her production cycle forward, there are rarely errors and delays.