Project 12, Fashion production: How to produce an eco-friendly designer Tote

In fashion, as well as any given industry, developing an idea into a product is a daunting task. Where do you go from a foggy image in your mind? What are the milestones of fashion production? Well, sketching is a first step, then you could try estimating the cost of production and a retail price, devise a tech pack, and manufacture your final product. Seems we’ve got every step in order, but one. I never considered this step until I was assigned, through Parson School of Design Fashion essentials program, to assemble one: A mockup! In this article, I will walk you through the steps I took to produce one of my creations, a sustainable tote. Though I’m still in the early stages of my process, I will share with you the steps I completed up to date. From sketching, constructing a mockup, to devising an estimation of the production costs as well as a retail price.

Step 1 Sketch

My signature bag has a round element to it emerging on the front, supporting a world map. It represents planet earth.

Eco-friendly tote bag featuring world map

The heart behind the design was to depict a revelation I had after I moved to South-Korea. I moved to south-Korea in 2010, freshly graduated from university to pursue post-graduate studies at Gangneung-Wonju national University. For a year, I studied Korean in a language school. The school had a lounge, where students and faculty would gather. On the wall, was hanging a large decorative world map. The first time I saw it, I was intrigued by the layout, different from the world map we had back home. On the map I saw growing up, my home country, Cameroon, was at the center. I genuinely thought something was wrong with this map. The African continent that occupied the central place on the map I was used to, was way off to the left for my taste. As I pondered, I had an “aha” moment. I was blind but now I was enlightened. I was experiencing, literally, a different ‘point of view’. Every country highlights it’s perspective of the world. My design taps into that. It portrays different points of view inviting us to carry them around, for all to see.

Step 2 Mockup

A Mockup is a bridge between a sketch and the final product. It’s used in the fashion industry in accessory business. It gives a body to your design. You can assemble one using oaktag, light card stock, paper or muslin, tie all the pieces together with tape, staple or such. Christian Dior extensively used it to give his sketches form, constructing them to the detail using muslin. A mockup is vital to the production process. It’s a great way to sample your product, make adjustments to your design, figure what material would work best, remove and or add elements that prove necessary to the final product, save production costs, and could be sustainable depending on the material you use.

I made a mockup of a signature purse using paper we keep for reuse purposes in our home. I used around fourteen A4 format pieces of paper (415cm x 294cm) and tape . While constructing it, I realize my design was more elaborate than what my construction skill could render. I had to be creative.

The earth-shape element on the front was ambitious. To mimic the sketch, I used one of my son’s football ball — the real-one, called soccer for reasons I have yet to grasp — as a mold. I wrapped half of the surface with paper, applied tape to maintain the shape. Then, I took that hemisphere, used it as a mold to construct the front element of the bag, taped it and voilà.

Tote bag mockup made from reused paper

Step 3 an estimate.

These are the components to account for when drawing an estimate of the production cost and retail price: the amount of fabric required, materials, embellishments, labor. After summing them up, we get the cost of production, then forecast a margin and estimate a potential retail price.

Now the world is changing, as we realize increasingly our impact as a species on the earth. A call to sustainability across the industries, leaves no doubt that the future of the fashion industry, 1st or 2nd pollutant, must be sustainable. Big retailers have introduced conscious lines and practices, using recycled fabric or collecting old garments. But it’s still a long way to go. My dream is to see a revolution in the Fashion industry where all designers subscribe to sustainable fashion. In other words, we would design and produce items using eco-friendly materials and ethical methods, for the least.

I agree it’s a tiny bit idealistic, but what if?

I based my accounts for production costs on these principles. Starting by choosing an eco-friendly leather fabric to work with. I researched vegan leather, and found blogs hyping the latest creative alternatives. But found with more hardship stores actually selling them. If you are like me, an aspiring designer or a small business or even just new to all this, and you are planning on working exclusively with certified sustainable fabrics, such as vegan leathers (different from fake leather pvcs), their accessibility and prices might make you think again. Yet only an increase of the demand, will trigger the economy of scale, and generate more products and lower prices.

The latest alternatives for leather such as Apple leather or pinatex, are still not available on online platforms, so I resolved to use cork fabric and found some on Etsy. I figured, after constructing my mockup, I would need 3 to 4yards of fabric to produce my eco-friendly leather tote. The reality is the fabric is pricey. I could get, for a fraction of the price, the same amount of a less sustainable option of leather fabric. Ultimately, I choose to stick with cork fabric. It’ll cost a lot more, but it’s worth it. I estimated the purse would cost around $388 to produce, and probably more if I outsource the manufacture. The retail price, including 20% of profit, $77, and the retailer cut, would be around $490.

Production costs, profit and retail price

Step 4 Outsourcing (optional)

This is for those who like me aren’t that good with leather or don’t have the skills to manufacture the products. If you plan to outsource the production anyway, you’ll need to contact a sewing contractor, inquire for the costs and include it when calculating the production costs and retail price estimate.

I’ll update this post as I move forward with this project.