The beleaguered local garment manufacturing industry is getting help from unexpected quarters – a high-netting design studio. Nicole Morris, owner and head merchandiser of live design studio House of Fashion, unveiled her vision for a revitalised CMT (cut, make and trim) sector at the studio's recent opening at 153 Loop Street, Cape Town.
SEVEN YEARS IN CHINA
Dubbed 'part-garment construction' by the diminutive, magnetic Morris, the vision took shape during 7 years and 40 buying trips to China on behalf of a top design studio whose employ she left in 2008 to start her current business.
During that time she rose to the top of her game by making gut-driven but uncannily successful selections for leading retail clients, and learned much about the arcane workings and channels of global garment sourcing.
"Nobody tells you this, but whole-garment sourcing is a mistake," she says, "especially for a local factory lacking the resources or skills to make complex features such as pleated dress panels or rhinestone-encrusted leather jacket-fronts."
BRINGING IT HOME
As a result, says Morris, local factories have either passed up production of garments or taken on the work anyway, making watered-down versions (fewer gemstones, shoddy workmanship or other ills) with limited retail success.
To overcome the stunting effect this has had on the local industry, she came up with the idea of 'part-garment construction'. "Part-garment construction' takes a piecemeal view of manufacturing, breaking it down into easily made and more complex parts," she explains.
It's only logical, she notes. Indeed, it is how it is done in China – whole-garment manufacturers are really assemblers to a degree, sourcing specialised panels from other factories.
COSTS LESS, CREATES JOBS, FIRST WITH FASHION
In her travels, Morris discovered these 'part-garment' factories, hidden behind the apparel factories that traditionally front China's export market. Taking to source directly from these bit-suppliers, she succeeded in bringing garment parts into the country highly cost-effectively while supplying work for local factories.
"Whereas other design houses travel to New York and London to buy garments at high cost at mass retail outlets, I travel directly to the source," says Morris. "I am the first to show seasonal innovation in South Africa, at a third to half of the cost of other design studios. And while the recession continues to bite into the travel budgets of competitors, I can bring in 350 unique garments every eight weeks."
SAVE, REVIVE AND NURTURE
"Factories can be saved or resurrected and new ones can start up and grow sustainably the part-garment construction way," says Morris. "Retailers can exercise better choices for their customers and a dying industry can again employ unskilled and semi-skilled staff in great numbers."
But the potential doesn't end within the country, she says. "Whole-garment imports attract a 45% duty, while part-garment imports only extract 22%. When a part-garment is imported to re-export, the duty falls away entirely. And that is the real end-game."
Morris says if part-garment construction takes off as it should, South Africa can begin to market itself as an exporter of garments. "With depreciation of the rand against the major currencies over time, this can be a great earner of foreign exchange."
WORKING WITH CHINA
But will China put up with the competition? "We're not fighting China – we're working with them," says Morris. "The South African machining society has collapsed to a large degree, so we are not looking to use those skills to muscle in on Chinese turf. "Part-garment construction is not a highly skilled activity."
Also, Chinese industry is changing, she points out. Due to a variety of factors, including massive rural investment by the Chinese government, an urban-enforced one-child policy and a loss of interest in traditional unskilled jobs among the youth, city factories are running on part-strength at increasing input costs.
In such a scenario, part-garment construction in South Africa is one sustainable alternative, she says. "We can import basic garments and specialised panels, and assemble the lot locally, in that way not relying on unsustainable output from a pressured Chinese industry."
In time, hopes Morris, her dream of dignity and work for the South African textile worker can be replicated in other parts of Africa too.
She relates on a deep level with the plight of factory workers and, in general, Africa's unemployed, having come from a place of vulnerability herself, says Morris.
"You see design studio executives with strings of vintage cars, living in Clifton, and at the other end of the scale is the woman earning R90 a week and supporting several people. It doesn't make any sense. Having come out of a divorce at 28 with nothing and a CV that wouldn't exactly get you meetings, I understand only too well.
"I think the upside for creating work in this industry is massive; it empowers and enables businesses without the skills or even the machines used in high-end manufacturing."
The House of Fashion opened on 5th of August at 153 Loop Street.