In September I made my first trip to Guangzhou (the garment and textile region) in China, to meet our potential manufacturers. I went on my own and was lucky to meet some very good suppliers that we are now sampling with. Here are three things I learnt on my first visit:
- Get your visa early. The Thursday morning that I decided to go to China, I was flying out the following day to Singapore. I saw on the visa website that in order to obtain a visa, you needed to go to the visa centre in person (unlike most other visas where you can do this online), and you needed to have booked all your flights and accommodation prior. I had to rush that Thursday to book my itinerary and get to the visa centre in Melbourne by midday, so that I could apply for a rushed visa to pick up the next day on the way to the airport. Lucky I already had some recent passport photos lying around at home!
Tip: If you’re not sure what your final itinerary will look like, just book accommodation with free cancellation and you can figure that out later.
(I had to commute to a couple different regions during my one week stay)
- Pre plan logistics as much as you can prior. This includes:
- Sourcing factories before you plan your visit, either via internet search, alilbaba, using an agent if you’re time poor, or any other means
- Making conversation via WeChat (the main communication app used in China, with extra cool factors like Chinese/English translation so you can both communicate in your own language). This also ensures that any last minute changes are communicated promptly during your trip (e.g. if your factory contact suddenly needs to change dates, or if you stay longer at one factory in the morning and need to delay your afternoon meeting by a couple hours). Note I managed to get by only on wifi at each location and did not buy a sim card specifically for this trip.
- Organising your transport options, for example airport to hotel, or hotel to factory if it’s a few hours away. This might be a shuttle from the airport (I used Klook for most of my airport transfers), or a full day driver if you are going to multiple locations. Always keep a record of your intended factory addresses and contact details (I saved mine in screenshots and on paper). It’s surprising how stressful it can be to have to organise transport when you can’t speak the native language and your schedule changes, or you are having to commute at odd hours (early mornings/ late nights)
- Organising translators – generally they can be booked per hour or a full day (the latter being useful if you need someone to accompany you to more than one factory in a day). It’s good to compare different websites and make contact with a few and to have back ups (on one day, my translator simply didn’t show up after we’d communicated on wechat and whatsapp). Also note that most translators are not specialised in garment manufacturing (for this you will likely need to go through an agent or other trusted source), but if you’re confident on what you need this isn’t a problem – they are just there to translate, under your direction. Some also provide the option to do follow-up and QC for you after you leave the country.
- Bring your notebook/ pen and paper with you (I was surprised about how many pages of notes I wrote down during each visit)
Tip: If you don’t have physical garment samples ready, have a photo or copy of your designs on hand to show the factory so they can assess whether they can make your garments.
I only remembered on Sunday night to print out my design boards to bring to the factory on Monday, and was very lucky that I was staying next door to a printing centre. I had to take one of the hotel attendants with me so they could translate to the shop assistant what I needed.
- Know why you are meeting the factory. It might seem obvious but it’s important to know what you want to achieve out of each factory visit. Generally for the first visit it’s to ensure that the factory is able to make the garments that you want, within the price and timeframes required, as well as observe their work practices. I wrote down a comprehensive list of questions that I covered during each visit, and also asked any other questions that popped up. Each visit would generally take about 2-3 hours and would include a sit- down discussion as well as walk around the factory. My list of questions included:
- Factory history and current setup, including number of workers, production capacity
- Other brands they manufacture for
- MOQ per style/colour/size
- Fabric and accessories sourcing
- Printing capabilities if relevant
- Request to see samples (specifically ones similar to my designs)
- Walk through their process from sampling to production
- Timeframes – sampling and production; when are their busy periods and impact of Chinese New Year disruption
- QC process
- Workers conditions
I made sure to document everything on paper and then write this up properly in an excel spreadsheet so that at the end of the trip, I could compare each factory properly. I also took photos of any samples I liked so that I could easily follow up with suppliers after leaving the country.
Tip – If price is important to you prior to conducting a visit, you can send the factory some tech packs or clear design pictures with specific fabrics identified. Allow up to a week to receive sampling and production quotes.
Chiara is the founder of CIIARA. A French-born Vietnamese living in Melbourne. Passionate about dance, fashion and social change.