5 Days in China

A behind-the-scenes look at manufacturing in China

As co-founder of a women’s apparel startup, one of the best parts of my job is traveling to China to visit with our manufacturers. It is also one of the topics that I am asked about most frequently. People want to know:

  • How do I survive the flight: Xanex and white wine.
  • What our factories are like: Clean, well-lit, and full of experts.
  • How many times I’ve eaten dog: So far, zero. Also, not all Chinese eat dogs; some actually try to save them.

This past month I went to China for the 5th time to visit with our factories. No need to take the 23 hour flight. Below is a small window into what’s it like to be on the road in China for 5 days.

Scenes from the street in Shenzhen. Many modes of transportation are used when we’re traveling in China: walking, biking, driving, Uber-ing, flying, ferrying…

Day 1

I arrive in Hong Kong and take a ferry over to Shenzhen, where my colleague, Abby, lives and works. The next morning we travel via Uber (yes, there is Uber in China) to our first new factory tour. We are currently trying to find a manufacturer for a leather tote bag that we are developing. We are still a very small company, so we have decided to use our resources, experience, and knowledge of working in China to produce a high-quality leather bag rather than going to Italy.

The process of finding a new factory is not easy, even when you have an expert Chinese production manager like Abby. There are millions of factories in China, and finding the right one can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It takes time, patience, and perseverance. We already visited two other factories the last time I was in China that did not pass our quality control standards.

Samples of top grain leather helps us show the factories what quality leather we are looking for.

Abby brings me to a factory that she has contacted via phone and email. They have sent her samples, but we have to see the factory in person. We arrive at the facility and I begin to have misgivings. There are two male managers that tell us about their business. (All conversations are in Chinese and Abby translates for me). The bags in their showroom are mainly travel bags, suitcases, and backpacks. Not exactly the style we are going for. We see the factory floor where they have two production lines of old sewing machines that have not been maintained well. There are only two women working and they are sewing polyester makeup bags. The facility is generally not cared for. I immediately decide there is absolutely no way we are working with them. We continue the tour for politeness-sake. Then we Uber-the-hell out of there.

The leather market in Shenzhen.

Our next stop is a leather market in another neighborhood of Shenzhen. The vast majority of leather goods manufacturers in China source leather from tanneries in the Dongguan /Shenzhen /Guangzhou area. We take a walk around, looking for leather suppliers that might meet our needs. We then head over to the office of another leather bag factory. This visit is much better. We meet with their manager, a young woman, who shows us their sample room and showroom. While we can see the quality of their bags is better than the previous factory, this is just their office. Their factories are located in Dongguan. It is a rule of ours that we do not produce with anyone without personally visiting and seeing the production facility. We won’t be able to move forward with this manufacturer.

Abby’s son, Ren, rocking the Nemo hat.

That evening Abby takes me Gymboree with her mother, father, and 3-year old son, Ren. Halloween is becoming increasingly popular in China and they are having a theme party at her son’s Gymboree. Knowing that her son likes fish, I brought him a Nemo hat (made in China) from Party City (purchased in Boston). He loves it, but insists on being Captain America for Halloween. The world is a crazy place.

Day 2

We wake up and fly to Changshu to visit a third leather factory. As soon as we arrive at this factory I am struck by the beauty of the landscaping. Hundreds of plants and flowers are artfully arranged around an outdoor water fountain. Beautiful trees shade the factory buildings. We are brought into the sales office and I am struck by the rich smell of leather that fills the air.

Sample cards from the factory in Changshu. Gorgeous colors and leather so soft I literally rubbed it on my face.

Abby and I meet with Ivy, the sales manager and discuss their manufacturing process. This factory actually has a tannery on-site and imports hide from the USA and Brazil for tanning. They also employ two Italian leather experts to develop new leathers every year and are using some of the most progressive tanning methods. Their leathers are gorgeous — rich in color, soft to the touch, yet durable. I feel like we have found “the one”. The only downside is that they are used to working with huge, global brands. We discuss our business and she likes our model — selling direct-to-consumer. She is also impressed with the amount of business we have been able to do with a team of 4 people. We leave our meeting with the agreement that Ivy will give us a quote for our bag and we’ll go from there.

Day 3

Abby and I travel via bus and metro to Hangzhou, where we will stay for three days. Our knit factory and our woven factory are both located in this city. We use this day to catch up on work and some much needed sleep.

Our navy A-Line was on the production line while I was visiting the factory.

Day 4

We wake up early to meet with our woven factory. We meet at their office and ride with the general manager and the production manager to the factory, about an hour away. We have a long to-do list to get through; we are headed into the holidays and want to make sure we are prepared. In the past two days, the product developer, Mr. Jin, has sewn a sample of our Pencil Dress in a Medium so that I can try it on and see if the new fabric passes quality control. I try the dress on and confirm that the new fabric is perfect. After that we move through a long to-do list that includes:

  • Confirming the new fabric for our Chambray Shirt Dress
  • Examining and finalizing tech packs for three new future products
  • Discussing two new styles of dresses with the pattern maker
  • Choosing fabric for these new dresses with the production manager
  • Performing quality control on one of our dresses that is on the production line and will be ready to ship in one week

It’s a long day, with a lot of translation. Communication and clarity is key in making sure that product is manufactured correctly. Abby is the key to making this whole process work flawlessly.

Mountains of beautiful, soft cashmere sweaters at our knit factory,

Day 5

My last day in China is spent at our knit factory in Hangzhou. We meet with our project manager, Betty, at her office. Again, we have a to-do list a mile long that includes examining a new knit dress sample, confirming the fit of our (soon-to-be-released) t-shirts, and discussing two new products. The factory’s expert designer teaches me about some new knit techniques. He helps us to understand the benefits of one type of knit versus another for one of our future products. All of this conversation is in Chinese, and again, Abby translates and there is a lot of pointing, gesturing, and looking at samples. It never ceases to amaze me how much I learn every time I visit our factories, despite the language barrier. Designing, sampling, and manufacturing is truly a collaborative process.

West Lake, lit up at night. A must-see if visiting Hangzhou.

That evening we take a stroll around West Lake, a beautiful lake located in the heart of Hangzhou. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, due to its storied past and natural beauty. It is one of my favorite places in China. There are musicians playing traditional Chinese folk music under pagodas that look out over lotus blossoms lit up by hundreds of LED lights. Old folks dance to century old songs next to teenagers break dancing to Justin Beiber. We meander through quiet paths, among weeping willows and bamboo groves and pop out on a sidewalk that leads to a busy, bustling square dotted with an Apple store, a Forever 21, and a Tesla showroom. Visiting China is always a dynamic experience, entirely worth the 23 hour flight.

Katie Doyle and Jay Adams are the co-founders of Brass, a new women’s clothing brand sold exclusively online. The company launched in September 2014 with a curated collection of women’s basics.