http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-07-13/starting-out-in-the-rag-trade

Small Business

Starting Out in the Rag Trade


I own a rapidly growing online company that specializes in plus-size women's fashions, and have just signed a three-year lease for a retail location. My problem is that I have a very hard time finding manufacturers and wholesalers that offer true plus-sizes with stylish appeal. Where do I look for a North American manufacturing company that works with lower minimums (100 to 300 pieces to start) and offers full services from design to production? —C.S., Toronto

If you are not finding manufacturers who will work with you and suppliers who produce designs appropriate for your store, you are not looking in the right places, experts say. "There are so many companies and designers doing plus-size now, it's amazing," says Vikki Vi, www.vikkivi.com, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer who has specialized in plus-size clothing for 25 years.

"We have been updating our line tremendously in the last couple of years to make it more youthful-looking and parallel [today's] fashion looks and trends. We do a tremendous amount of specialty-store business, and we have showrooms in New York, Dallas, and Chicago, and salesmen that travel all over the U.S."

While plus-size departments are now located in such mainstream stores as Old Navy and The Gap, Vi says, not all of them offer true plus-size fits. "Sometimes they take their regular missy sizes and just grade them up to size 18 or 20, but they don't fit as well as clothing that's designed specifically for larger frames," she says. The reason online boutiques like yours are doing so well is that women can find stylish fashions that actually fit correctly—and they may be more comfortable buying over the Internet rather than walking into a retail location and announcing that they need larger sizes.

VENDOR RESEARCH. In terms of buying in smaller lots, you shouldn't have trouble if you hook up with the right designers and manufacturers, says Paul Ratoff, a small-business consultant with many years' experience in the apparel industry. "Most manufacturers that sell to boutiques, including plus-size boutiques, will sell in very small minimums.

There are many manufacturers that fall into this category," he says. Vi agrees: "Our minimums run across a range of sizes, and we supply a very successful business owner in San Diego who buys just 100 to 200 pieces from us at a time."

Finding the right vendors will be key for you, but it sounds as if you should do more research first. Find your online competitors and make notes on who their suppliers and designers are, then search for their Web sites and contact them directly, Ratoff recommends.

CUSTOM ORDERS.Get in touch with the fashion marts in apparel centers such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas and ask for names of local plus-size vendors. Make some buying trips and attend trade shows and market weeks so you can see particular collections and meet designers in person, he advises.

Once you establish relationships with plus-size vendors whose styles you like, you can start asking for custom orders, Vi says. "You could come to us and say, 'I really like that jacket, but could you make it in this print?' or 'Could you put this top in that color to go with that jacket?' and we would cut it for you.

If it's an existing pattern, many suppliers will do that kind of thing for regular customers. If you love a certain missy line, you might even be able to have them cut and sew it in larger sizes for you." Once you find the right vendors, it sounds as if your business possibilities will be endless. Good luck!

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