With an impending flight in two weeks and keen to avoid another sample fiasco, I enlisted the help of a sourcing agent that previously worked on a project for Alexis’s family.
Close the Circle specialized in sourcing eco-friendly and sustainable materials, and I asked her to deliver a list of potential factories. Our requirements were:
- Mature factories with on-site visits available
- Dedicated Quality Assurance (QA) processes
- Evidence of efficient processes (involved production manager present on the floor, quickly fixing problems, new equipment with records of maintenance)
- 3rd party quality control for working conditions and workers rights
- Production availability ASAP, and willing to work with smaller orders (we were planning around 300 bags for the first launch)
Even better if they were all located in the same area so we could visit easily. And Vivian and Laura (our agents) pulled through with the list on May 23, the day after I arrived in China. She was even sweet enough to make a map for our visit!!
Of the list of 10 factories, I picked 4 that most closely met our criteria, ranging in size from smaller (100 people) to large (1000+ people). Vivian helped set up wechat groups with the manufacturers so I could tell them about Freja and also arrange visits. There were SO MANY wechat groups and I really pushed my grade 4 comprehension level of Mandarin to the limit.
Everyone I talked to at the factories was so welcoming and eager to show us around, and we set June 2nd as our tentative visit date.
Because in the meantime…I had to choose different materials. Our first sample came out way too wrinkly and soft, so I wanted something sturdy and thick for this second round. Vivian helped me choose a thick 1.2mm leather-finish ultrafiber to use as the exterior, and a 0.6mm ultrasuede for the lining.
We put in our request, and then crossed our fingers in the hope that the sample materials would be available before we visited the factories (all of their material is custom made so for small sample quantities like we requested, they had to wait until another client put in an order for the same material then make a few extra meters for us).
Ahh the perks of being a nobody.
It took about two weeks, and I had to push my return flight to New York back a couple days, but the sample material was successfully delivered to all the factories on the day of our visit.
The factories were impressed with our skillful coordination. I call it dumb luck, but coordination sounds better. #ninjaskills
On the morning of the visit, my dad and I woke up way too early to take a 6am flight down to Guangzhou, where all 4 factories were located. We wanted to arrive by 8am, because factory shifts typically start around 8:30.
Two reps from the first factory picked us up from the airport, and thus began our very long (but extremely educational) day in 100F+ degrees and sunny Guangzhou.
We only made it to 3 factories because my dad had to take a nap in the middle of the day, but it was such a rewarding experience, especially to a handbag lover like me, to see bags of all shapes and sizes come to life.
First of all, handbags are incredibly time consuming to make. Each handbag requires 20-30 steps to complete – from cutting the material, adding interfacing and lining, hardware, shaping the bag, stitching layers, painting edges, hanging to dry, adding hardware, and lastly packing …and each step needed to be juuuust right.
Of the 3 factories we visited, factory B and C really stood out to me.
- This was a smaller factory, with around 100 employees. They had 7 clients, and mainly catered to the Chinese market
- The factory was clean and efficient but a little run down. The bathrooms were old, and there was no central AC for the workers, only fans.
- We had lunch with one owner – he told us factories in china are suffering because of the recent tariff increases. A lot of factories are struggling to survive, and a lot have closed and moved to Cambodia/Vietnam /Bangladesh to cut costs (2000 rmb vs 6000 rmb per worker monthly) and survive. He has four kids and lives and works with the workers every day, and returns home only on the weekend.
- Happier to work with smaller MOQs, the owner was also the manager and worked his way up from the production floor. Super knowledgeable about bags – they don’t make anything other than PU bags.
- One of the biggest factories on the list, over 1000+ employees. They had numerous clients, all international.
- Very impressive and clean, large facilities and separate offices. Have a team of 100 people just for samplemaking. Mainly focus on bags but also manufacture shoes, jewelry, and other accessories.
- Widely recognized as the gold standard for factories in China
- Higher MOQ requirements
Since the material had arrived at the factories by the time we visited, I was able to instruct each factory to make a slightly different variation of the product (different linings, thicknesses, interior finishes, finishes, closing mechanisms) to test out which combo functioned (and looked) the best. Looking back, I think Anna’s sample was a blessing in disguise. It obliterated all my expectations (in the worst way) and made me a much better communicator to the new factories we visited.
After a long day of walking, we arrived at the airport sweaty, exhausted, and so looking forward to going home…only to rudely be told our flight home was cancelled.
We booked a mid-morning flight for the next day, hauled ourselves to the nearest hotel, ate some delicious fried rice, and passed out.
We received our samples from the 4 final factories a few weeks later. There was a stark contrast in speed, communication, level of ownership behind the product, and quality between the different samples. Much like dating, it’s SO IMPORTANT to try out a few different factories when developing a product:
Factory A: Extremely vigilant and easy to communicate with, tested out 4 variations without me having to ask. This was the best sample we received on the second round. This bag was made with two layers of the 1.2mm material.
Factory B: One of my favorites during the visit, but ultimately failed to deliver. The bag had no structure, and the stitching was subpar. This sample was also delayed by over a week. This was made with a single layer of 1.2mm material.
Factory C: Nicely done, and our agent was easy to work with. Expected nothing less from this factory. This was made with one layer of 1.2mm + 0.6mm, suede lining.
Factory D: Sample was finished very quickly (3 days) but size was way off, and they didn’t follow instructions we gave. This was made with one layer of 1.2mm + 0.6mm, leather side lining.
We liked Factory A and Factory C’s samples the most, and decided to move forward with them to make the third round of samples. We really loved the shape and structure of Factory A’s bag, but they used two layers of the 1.2mm material and it was way too heavy. Factory C’s bag, on the other hand, was too flimsy and needed more structure.
We also wanted to make design changes to the bag, to make it even more special. From hardware to stitching, we came up with a way to make every single bag unique. We’re keeping it a secret for now, but I think you’ll love it (:
Making things happen Jenny