Starting a Fashion Company: Production Sampling

Whether you are a seasoned business owner or launching a fashion business for the first time, understanding your production calendar is a critical juncture in scaling up your business. It’s certainly something experienced brands will attest to: in most cases, you need more time and samples than you’d expect. For all brands, it’s vital to have a clear production plan and to have the right people and resources to execute that plan properly. 

In this article, we’ll unpack what a successful production cycle looks like and how fashion businesses can work backward to create timelines.

At a Glance: What’s a Production Timeline?

When you’re in the process of designing a collection, it’s not merely a matter of having sketches and moving right into production. 

You might be in a situation where your sketches are strong and ready to go, and that you are prepared to produce the collection. What you should be thinking instead is more along the lines of: “Here are my sketches, now I have to make the sample, maybe in a greige or a muslin.” 

In this scenario, next come the fittings, and after the final fittings on the muslin or the greige sample, it would be time to move on to creating patterns. Once the patterns are finished, and your tech packs are done, then you can finally start to move into sampling. There’s a happy medium to be found, basically cutting the difference between when you begin the design process to how long development will take. 

How Do I Start to Plan My Production Cycle? 

This question is the perfect place to begin. One great strategy for planning the production cycle is starting with photography. Do you have a date in mind for a photoshoot? Benchmarking things around photoshoots is a productive planning move because photo shoots require having all your products in-hand. Whether it’s for a trade show, your lookbook, or to post products online, photos are necessary—which is an excellent identifier for a starting date. 

Working backward is key. You can begin creating your production timeline by identifying when photoshoots will occur. For example, if you’re planning to do a lookbook photoshoot in January to hit the market in February, you’ll need to have final samples in hand by December. 

Once you identify a date to have samples in hand in December, the next step is to consider how long producing the samples will take. If that process takes eight weeks, for example, then the December milestone quickly turns into the end of October. 

How Do I Plan for Size Inclusivity? 

For new startup fashion brands, the odds are that working with production for the first time won’t yield the best samples right out of the gate. New businesses must plan for a window of time to accommodate additional fittings and size grading to guarantee that all the different size runs are working. 

This is an especially important point for brands committed to size inclusivity. Why? Well, each sample won’t have just one fit, as you’ll be trying multiple sizes with multiple fit models. You’ll likely need a fit model to try the extra, extra small sample and another fit model who is a baseline for an XL or two XL. 

Once again, working backward, consider the first set of samples to arrive, and then make room for one or two different kinds of revisions. What’s most important about this process is that everything stems from the original patterns, tech packs, and prototypes.

What’s an Ideal Window of Time for Testing? 

One of the most significant issues that new startup fashion brands face in this process is testing. Most businesses will start in design and development with a certain number of styles. However, when it comes to the sample making process, some samples will come back spot on, while others will need some revision and tweaking to be successful. And many times, samples will be drastically off the mark. 

It’s a hard situation to be in, especially if you’re waiting to go to market and are on a tight schedule—which, in the fashion industry, is often the case! The best way to avoid putting yourself in this challenging position is to plan and avoid creating a short window of time for testing and refining the product. Instead, create a much longer window of time than you think you will need. 

For new fashion startups, we recommend approximately nine months to go through design, development, and sampling to make sure the product is exactly right.

When you’ve nailed the product down, know your categories, and have an understanding of how the product works on an inclusive range of fit models, there are fewer outliers and it’s safe to start to diminish the production timeline. As your confidence grows, you might be able to do three months or maybe even six months as a happy medium. But if you’re testing out new styles, and venturing into new product categories, it is essential to maintain enough visibility and time to allow for adjustments. 

What is Working With Manufacturers Like? 

In many situations, most manufacturers won’t share all relevant information upfront, because it’s in their best interest to simply get the design, create a product, sell you what the bulk will look like in the final PO, and move forward with production. 

On the other hand, some manufacturers will work hand-in-hand with you as a business leader to establish a timeline, action calendar, and a work-in-progress report (WIP). It’s an ideal situation if you can work together to finalize costing and trims. 

Unfortunately, in many scenarios, manufacturers will take their creative license when it comes to producing the product. It’s vital to stay on top of the relationship and be aware of what your manufacturers are doing. 

What is Top of Production (TOP)? 

No matter how often you’ve gone through the sampling process, even if you’re iterating down to the finest details, at the end of the day, the one element you from your manufacturer is the TOP. 

TOP stands for “top of production.” What does that mean? That refers to the cross-section of colors, styles, you have ordered, and is taken from the first production run. Before you order in bulk, TOP is the final sample stage where you will have an opportunity to see the entire product line. It’s not just what the samples look like; TOPs will reflect the final goods that you’ll see in stores. 

What Does a Product Developer Do?

As a brand owner, you are responsible for viewing the design position with a full understanding of development and production. But, you don’t have to shoulder this burden all on your own. To aid with that, utilize your Product Developer—who will likely be one of your most significant assets. The Product Developer knows all of the different options you have in sourcing fabric, or how a different kind of trim is going to impact your bottom line and your cost of goods. And, most of all, they’ll know which factories will work with your brand to create a particular kind of design, stitching, or product that you want to launch.

For new and growing businesses, a small team might start with just a Head of Design, and you might be doing production management yourself. Over time, it will be increasingly important to build out a development team. A great Product Developer is reliable in technical design, can design your tech packs, and is someone who will guide product development and understanding sourcing. Lastly, choose a Product Developer who will stay on top of your manufacturers.

For more information on starting a new fashion business, check out our article on “Fashion Startup Operations: Setting Up Systems and Processes“. Our post “How to Prep Your Fashion Brand for Size Inclusivity” offers a closer look at how size-inclusivity affects sampling and size grading. And make sure you check out our download, “The 21 Point Checklist on How to Launch Your Business.” You’ll learn more than just production, like how to string your timelines together to allow for a profitable and successful business launch. 

For one-on-one industry expert help on starting a fashion company, email hello@scalingretail.com to schedule a consultation.

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