Most Fashion Designers Never Meet Their Suppliers; They Should

Updated: Aug 5

By Vogue Business

This article was originally published July 2, 2020. We are sharing because it discusses the importance of transparent and integrated supply chains and how that ties into sustainability.


Design teams should learn more about the factories that make their clothes. For brands and suppliers alike, the benefits are manifold.


Ayesha Barenblat’s organisation Remake, founded in 2016 in San Francisco, leads trips to manufacturing countries to help student designers understand what goes into making clothing and “bear witness to fashion’s impact on people and our planet”. Barenblat calls them “immersive journeys”, and the impact on young designers can be profound.


“There was something about that experience that left them altered,” says Yvonne Watson, associate dean for curriculum and learning at Parsons School of Design. Her students were thinking and talking about fashion differently when they returned from one such trip.

This kind of immersive learning has the potential to be more than a device for college students’ education. Sending designers to learn more about how their suppliers operate, including the pressures on factory workers, could transform the way they design — and, ultimately, lead to a more sustainable and ethically driven supply chain process.


“Most people graduating from these prestigious schools have never seen a dyehouse — the chemical smells, walking through the vats,” says Barenblat. Being able to talk to the owner, she explains, opens up a dialogue about how certain dyes are more polluting than others and what that means for water resources locally or for workers’ health.


Immersive learning for brands

Some brands are beginning to understand the potential of immersive learning. The North Face, Coyuchi and Prana have sent design teams to work with The Renewal Workshop, which helps brands restore clothing to like-new condition. Designers have learned about product repair and circular design principles — and, crucially, the immersive residency offers a model for thinking differently about problem-solving. A goal of these residencies is to improve designers’ understanding about how their products wear over time. A more sophisticated appreciation as to how a garment tears or succumbs to abrasion leads to better designs — and products that last longer.


While closer cooperation with suppliers can help resolve practical design studio issues, it can also help to engender a clearer appreciation of social and environmental challenges in the manufacturing process. A number of brands are leading the way by partnering with sourcing communities more directly, such as shoe brand Veja or Kate Spade’s on purpose programme in Rwanda. An underlying philosophy is to push aside the “out of sight, out of mind” way of thinking pervasive throughout the fashion industry. Progressive brands want to understand the human and environmental costs and ethical challenges of their supply chains, not look away from them.


Immersive visits support the fundamental process of building personal relationships with the workers at the beginning of the supply chain. Designers learn to appreciate more fully the human repercussions of every decision they make. As former sourcing executive Roger Anglin told Vogue Business for our June story on combating racism in the supply chain, “The supply chain is about people. You have to think about [suppliers] as people who live around the corner.”


Small design choices can have big impacts

Ioli Tzouka, senior designer and director of sustainability at State Bags, was one of the Parsons students to visit suppliers in Sri Lanka with Remake in 2017. There, she saw the significant ripple effects of seemingly minor design choices. Scraps piled up when fabric had to be cut to accommodate even slight design embellishments. Workers had to spend extra time to keep up with extra details on each order. “When you want to make a little tiny pocket of leather, you don’t really think of the impacts, like how much material you need to throw away,” she says. “Or this type of pants requires three types of stitches, how long is it going to take?”


Tzouka now tries to keep waste to a minimum while designing and considers what every detail of a product order might mean for the makers involved in its production. For example, the choice of a nontoxic material might have a double benefit — reducing environmental contamination, she says, and being healthier for the people who work with the material every day.


She thinks, too, about the human cost of manufacturing deadlines. Tzouka heard from women in Sri Lanka worried about finishing an order of thousands of jackets to meet a tight one-month deadline, with pay deducted for minor mistakes. “How can I go and demand for something to be made in less than a month?” she says.


Brands such as Eileen Fisher and Stella McCartney have identified clear benefits from allowing more time for all the steps involved in fashion production, from fabric samples to shipping. It is often crucial for reducing environmental impacts and can alleviate the stress and labour burdens placed on suppliers.


All brands could benefit from slowing down and thinking about the potential consequences of even minor requests, says Yvonne Watson of Parsons. “Every time a designer makes a change, even if it’s a quick change, it causes more work, more overtime. Sometimes it means unpaid overtime.”


For Tzouka, another lasting impression from her trip to Sri Lanka came from talking with people in the factory offices responsible for communicating with brands. She learned they often are aspiring designers themselves, and have smart ideas about the designs they’re being tasked with producing. That experience has since informed how she engages with the factory in her role at State. “I always ask their opinion on things. They will tell me, ‘This is how you design it here. It’s not going to work, or it’s going to take too much material, or it’s going to take a lot of time, maybe we can suggest this.’”


That might sound like common sense, but it remains an atypical approach in an industry that operates mostly through one-direction communication between brands and suppliers. This one-way dynamic has been highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many brands cancelling orders rather than engaging in dialogue and finding ways to share the pain with their suppliers.


Ethical best practice is invariably linked to brands that have close relationships with their suppliers or own their own factories and employ the people who make their products, rather than outsource the labour to the cheapest source.


Immersive learning trips might help signpost a way forward for brands, says Watson. The immersive process can kickstart a shift in attitude towards their relationship with suppliers.


For designers such as Ioli Tzouka, that shift cannot come too soon: “Since the beginning of colonialism, we have treated the rest of the world as a giant factory and as a provider of stuff that we get for next to nothing, and we don’t provide anything in exchange.”


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