Recently I started watching the HBO series how to make it in America again since It first aired in 2010 when I was a struggling footwear designer in NYC trying to make a name for myself. If you haven’t seen the show it’s about two friends who are trying to start a denim line in NYC and are learning on the go.
In one of the early episodes in season 1, they are trying to find a denim manufacture and they hit road block after road block. There was even a scene were they go to a Jean shop and try to bait the owner into telling them where he makes his jeans and he gives them a fake address uptown that they later find out is a Boucher shop.
This made me reflect on how I was able to get into the footwear manufacturing business and connect with factories, and it also reminded me of the shit I had to deal with to get there as well. I get asked all the time about factories from a lot of different people, and some of those people maybe reading this post right now. I just wanted to share some of my story and maybe you might find some value in it…or not.
There is another scene in the show when the main character Ben goes to see one of his old professors at FIT to try and get a denim factory recommendation from him. The thing that stood out in that conversation is his professor says something like “I will see what I can do, but people are very sensitive about giving out there supplier contacts” and that is so, so true.
Why are people like myself so reluctant to giving out this information? Is it because we don’t want to give out a recommendation and that person make you look bad with your factory, wither its because of a late payment or the factory not thinking your serious. Or Is it because we selfishly don’t want you taking up our factories time therefore taking away time from something they maybe working on for us, or is it because we know how hard it was to establish that contact and what it took to build that relationship. I would say all of the above is correct and I can think of 10 more reasons as well. For me, the last point is what resonates the most.
In 2006, I had my first opportunity to go to china as an independent designer. The key word is “independent” because I did not go with one of my past employers like New Balance, or Adidas which would be a much different trip if I did. Going as an independent allowed me to be everywhere and do anything. Going as an employee of a brand is cool but you know there are certain restrictions and you have to be very careful when crossing that line of trying to make your own contacts when your employer just spent $10,000 for you to go to china for 2 weeks to work on there stuff only.
I was working with an old friend and mentor of mine as a freelance footwear designer at that time. He was well established in the shoe biz with over 40 years of experience working for all the top brands as a creative director and designer. We had a great relationship and we still do to this day. When he went independent he used his experience to get design and development contracts with brands. He used my youth and creativity to meet the requirements of those design contracts and it also helped that I was consistently being paid for my work. The arrangement was simple, I would create the drawings, tech packs and blueprints which is experience I had from my days of working at New Balance, K-Swiss, Adidas and Timberland and he would go to china and develop the shoes with his factories.
One day he said to me, I think it’s time you come to china with me and see how all of this works. My first thought was, “sounds great, but I can’t afford that shit”. He said listen, let’s do this…you come up with the plane fare and I will pay for your food and lodging and you can pay it back with 2 months of free design work for one of my clients…without even thinking I said DONE DEAL!!! My next move was to try and get $1200 for a plane ticket, first I asked my parents who were both broke AF. Then I went to this guy who was a donor of my HS back in Florida and he also sat on the board of directors. He owned a massive accounting firm in NYC that was worth millions. I won’t say his name but I’ll just refer to him as AC.
AC supported the school, its students and alumni and i was always able to reach out to him for advance. I wrote him a letter that described the importance of this trip and what it would mean to go to china at this point In my career. I also included references, and a 6 month payment plan on how I would repay him the $1200 with interest. I thought for sure there was no way he could say no, and that’s exactly what he said to me…No! Of course I was pissed and I’m pretty sure at some point I even thought he didn’t like black people or something. It made no sense to me, but I knew I had to move on. I went back to my parents and told them what happened and they were able to give me a few hundred dollars, and then I went to my sisters and friends and was able to collect enough money to buy my plan ticket.
When we arrived to Hong Kong it was late, and after a 16 hour direct flight from NYC the Last thing you want to do is commute even more which is exactly what we had to do. We took a bus from HK to Dongguan which is a 2+ hr bus ride, were you have to cross the boarder from HK to mainland China which is a whole process within itself, but this was all apart of my learning process of how you get things done on this side of the world.
The next day we went straight to the factory. Shoe factories are very interesting, there are so many moving parts and just the size of them can be overwhelming. From this one trip I was able to meet and work directly with the factory GM’s and other shoe industry people who live in china. Once you know a couple of guys like that it becomes very easy to meet more industry people, the key however is you need to consistently go to china and I recognized that almost immediately.
China can be an intimidating place if you don’t go with someone who knows the ropes but after a couple trips with my colleague I knew I needed to build on the foundation of relationships that he helped me start. Eventually I began consulting on my own and would use those same contacts in china to make new ones, and I also started traveling to china on my own. I learned that when you show up people take you serious, I wasn’t trying to do everything through email and Skype and I knew I had to be there as often as I could and they respected that. I did whatever I could to keep buying those plane tickets, and before I knew it my network grew. My colleague didn’t just hand me the contacts he made me work for it, and when I was able to show him I was serious about taking that step and going to china, I am sure that showed him something that made him comfortable with introducing me to his colleagues and friends. He cracked the door open for me, then I kicked that shit in and took advantage of what was on the other side.
Even at that point there is still more work to do to gain the trust of people. The dinners and drinks you have to buy, bringing gifts from the states like “l love NY” t-shirts which was always my go to. It was those little things that allowed them to believe in me along with my work ethic and they were willing to help me and watch me grow. Like all relationships some of them come and go, but over the last 12 years I’ve been able to establish a core group of people, factories and suppliers that I will continue to work with for the next 12 years and beyond. I don’t even know how much money I spent over those years going to china, and I can’t remember how I made it, but I do remember the grind, always thinking ahead and how to get to the next opportunity.
So before the next time you ask someone “do you know any good factories you can put me in touch with?” really give some thought on how you can answer that question yourself. It could be an industry event in another country, or an article you read in WWD or you just wake up one day and say I’m gonna go to china and figure this thing out.
One thing for sure, I can guarantee your answer is going to require you to do something that everyone else is not willing to do and that right there is what will separate you from the rest of the pack.
Good luck on your journey and maybe I will see you on the other side of that door you kick down.
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