Artisan-Made: How to Mass Produce a Line that Feels One-of-a-Kind

artisan-made, slow fashion

Why Produce an Artisan-Made Fashion Line?

The Age of “One-of-a-Kind” Fashion

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Do you consider your designs works of art rather than products of merchandise? Are you bored with the industry’s standardized approach to production? Many of us are. In response to the socio-environmental effects of fast fashion, one-of-a-kind, artisan-made clothing is a major conversation in today’s industry– thanks to the Slow Fashion Movement.

As $10 H&M tops become less desirable: the idea of novelty, custom-made garments is refreshing. Many designers are catching what we like to call the “one-of-a-kind fever.” But is this concept good for business?

Why the “One-of-a-Kind” Concept is Entrepreneurially Impractical

We meet several designers wanting to start lines of one-of-a-kind pieces that are fit for each client. Some even sew the pieces themselves without hiring professional patternmakers and sample-makers (which is admirable but not recommended). And while it’s true that custom clothing signifies quality and yields less waste, this model can stifle financial and operational growth- especially for a start-up with limited time and resources.

The biggest perk of entrepreneurship is not having to trade your time for money. Designing entirely custom will eat up your time AND your budget. You will either spend all your time developing and sewing custom pieces OR all of your money paying a pattern-maker and a seamstress for year-round production versus seasonal. The time and labor spent will inflate your prices and most people won’t be able to afford your clothes.

Mass production allows you to produce multiple units at one time; it’s vital for online sales, profitability, and low production costs. Plus, having an inventory of each style maximizes sales potential. We know that online sales is key to sustaining a lasting business. It’s hard to maximize sales if there’s only one of each style. Your goal as a designer is to be creative– but remember: your goal as an entrepreneur is to make money while you sleep! Mass production whether small-scale or large-scale allows you the freedom to do that.

The Question Is: How do you mass-produce a line that feels novel and one-of-a-kind?

One way is through a collaboration with artisans. Artisan-made fashion has become a buzzword in the move towards sustainable business models. Brands like Edun, Maiyet, Brother Vellies, and Lemlem have all adopted this concept In their business approaches. There are so many ways to collaborate with artisans! For example, If you’re developing a shoe line, finding an artist with a rare method of shoe-making could yield an interesting product. Or maybe you want to produce a line of shirts in bulk- made with hand-painted fabrics. You can partner with artists to develop your textiles and your line still carries that one-of-a-kind appeal.

Benefits of Artisan-Made Production

  • Artisan-made production instantly elevates your designs. They adopt a luxury, one-of-a-kind feel even when they are mass-produced.
  • Artisanal pieces are harder to replicate.
  • Clients will develop an emotional connection to the designs.  (Marketing reports show that customers are willing to spend 17% more on hand-crafted items when shopping for a loved one.)
  • Supporting artisans actively preserves their craft for years to come.

Establishing Successful Relationships with Artisans

#1: Decide if Artisan-Made Production Will Serve Your Brand’s Vision

Would an artisanal touch propel your designs forward?  Does hand-made construction make sense for your aesthetic and your market? If you’re designing an athleisure line with durable, sweat-proof fabrics- then maybe this isn’t a sensible move. If you’re not sure about your category, look at your sketches/ideas. Brainstorm where hand-crafted details or construction would be suitable. Maybe your line has simple silhouettes but you want to use unusual hand-woven fabrics. Maybe you want to produce a line of leather goods that doesn’t look so industrial. A hand-made approach might be just the touch you need!

Also, think about scale. Artisans can produce multiple units but within small to medium scale quantities. We suggest having an approximate number of units in mind and communicating this upfront to ensure your deadlines can be met.

#2: Find Artisans/Craftsmen

This is the fun part! Finding talented artisans and craftsmen to work with! Start by accessing your pool of resources. Do you know any artisans or makers in your local area? Maybe you have roots in another country? Liya Kebede, supermodel and founder of Lemlem was inspired by her Ethiopian roots. Lemlem’s primary mission is providing work for the surplus of weavers in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia- specifically women who were struggling to find consistent employment. Today their mission has expanded to artisans in Kenya as well.

Or maybe you have no connections with makers. Aurora James founded Brother Vellies after stumbling upon incredible shoemakers throughout her travels in Africa. The expansion of this concept has opened doors for companies like Nest and Ethical Fashion Initiative who exist for the sole purpose of connecting designers and companies with collectives of artists/makers from all over the world.

#3: Utilize Their Strengths and Skillsets Through Effective Communication

Communication is key in any type of collaboration- whether it be through factories or artisans. A major difference between factories and artisans is standardization. Most factories can accommodate a range of services based on industry standards. Artisans usually specialize in a certain type of craft and a very specific method of making. Their methods are not as accommodating, so it’s very important that you are properly aligned from the beginning.

Quality issues can arise if you’re not on the same page about even the smallest of details. For example, if you’re developing hand-woven silk fabrics, you don’t want to collaborate with a group of cotton weavers. For one, they aren’t experienced working with the materials needed for your line. Secondly, their looms and equipment are probably most suitable for the fibers that they are accustomed to working with. Before embarking on a new collaboration, make sure that they are comfortable working with materials needed for your line and that they have the tools necessary to develop quality work for your specific needs. We suggest developing test samples before you undergo production; the extra time spent will be worth it once you find the right partners!

Even after finding the right artisans, the ongoing communication is crucial in achieving consistent quality standards. If the artisans are local, then frequent visits are easy. If you’re forming relationships abroad, develop a budget for travel visits or consider hiring a production manager based in that location.

Does this type of production interest you? If you’d like to learn more about producing a fashion line or adopting this method, contact us here or try out our online course Production Like a Pro for startup designers! 🙂

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