After a decade of stylish lingerie design, the UK lingerie brand Made by Niki is closing. Made by Niki was one of the first brands that started doing fashion lingerie after Agent Provocateur had paved the way. She also pioneered in sexy shapewear. I was obsessed with the brand when I started out freshly graduated as an in-house lingerie designer in 2008.
After many requests for Niki to mentor people with lingerie aspirations and no more competition holding her back, she decided to share her knowledge in a live session on Facebook yesterday. The pearls of wisdom she shared are highly valuable for lingerie designers, lingerie students or anyone who's interested in running a lingerie business. Niki collected questions from her followers and answered them candidly and elaborately.
|One of the "front-cinch" bra's I was obsessed with|
Which countries or factories are best to manufacture lingerie?
It depends on where you're based, what you're making and what volume you will make. Niki made her first collection of 20 limited edition pieces "Think of England" herself. Victoria Beckham was the first customer for this collection; she bought a corset and matching bra. But it is not sustainable to make your own collection if you're looking for a viable business.
The next 2 or 3 collections (including "Rosary") were produced in Wales, at a factory called AJM (also manufacturing Fleur of England, Agent Provocateur, Lascivious). It is a high quality UK lingerie manufacturer. Producing in the UK is expensive but great for medium volumes of 100 to 1.000 pieces per style. Also UK manufacturers have a cut & sew and handcrafted approach, which shows in the product.
When the brand started growing in volume, they went to Morocco. The "Fresh Foundations", "Original Classics" and "Slinkies" collections were made in Morocco, at TQL Lingerie. Morocco had their recession 2 years after we in Europe had ours and they started to struggle financially and became unable to deliver on their promises, which brought legal and logistics issues for Made by Niki. 10.000 yards of fabric went missing and things got stolen. Be careful if you go produce in Morocco, because corruption is still present.
|Made by Niki "String" pencil skirt and bra|
After this they moved production to Latvia. Latvia has factories of incredible quality and service and is technically precise. The "Candy Floss" collection was produced in Latvia, at VIP Lingerie, around 100-200 pieces per style. A lot of fine fabric factories are situated in the same town as the lingerie manufacturers, which is a bonus.
The shapewear collections were made in China at A Style manufacturer in Hong Kong. Made by Niki also had some moulded styles in the "Atomic" and the "Feel" collection produced by A Style. China is technology based and makes perfect products. But in China the volume is a lot bigger; starting at 1.000 pieces per style. It also comes with large import taxes and logistics costs, so after logistics and taxes were done, a 30% price difference (compared to local and lesser volume production) remained.
Niki recommends finding a factory that is in the country that you're in, or at least countries that are close by and have a free trade agreement with your country. It is easy to visit them, make sure to be present when they're making your collections. There's always a level of interpretation, which can lead to problems.
"No.1 advice: be present"
As the volume was growing, for a few seasons, Made by Niki ran its own production studio on the UK countryside in a town called Ter Langton, Leicestershire. The "String" and "Almost Famous" collection were made here. Although it was sort of a Utopian dream come true (the girls who designed it, made it as well), it also came with its own issues, like planning and volume management. Niki says it is easier to use some else's facilities and let them focus on what they do best.
Niki met manufacturers on trade fairs like Premiere Vision and Interfiliere. You could also ask other brands, but most lingerie brands that are already in business are not keen on sharing their manufacturing contacts, because most of these designer lingerie factories have an ultimate production capacity. So there's a chance that they won't be able to make their collections if another brand places their orders first.
|Modern Vintage "Feel" Shapewear|
How to work with factories?
Lingerie is the most technical and difficult piece of clothing to make. Every single millimetre makes a huge difference to how the product fits. Do not underestimate the cost and time it takes to develop your bra pattern. It costs a couple of thousands of pounds to make bra patterns for 40 sizes and fit them to make them perfect, and then get it made in a factory to exactly the specification that is the correct fit.
You need a detailed list of instructions; how much time each instruction should be taking and how much fabric should be cut for each piece. Also make sure you have a table (size chart) of exact measurements of the finished garment, including the tolerance (up or down by 5% to 10%). But there are some parts of the bra that cannot have tolerance at all, like the centre front part, where it is imperative that it fits right. In those cases Niki gives a tolerance 1 mm in total. Because fabric is organic, it changes and stretches, it is difficult for the factory the make lingerie exactly the right measurements. The more tolerance you allow, the easier it is for the factory to make it, but it may affect the fitting of your product.
The Made by Niki spec sheets also include working measurements (taking measurements all the way through the process). Here you specify the percentage of the collection you want to be checked while it's being made. This will affect the overall cost of the product tremendously. Made by Niki specified 10-20% of the product or even more (up to 50% of the product if it was a limited edition) to be checked. This increases the cost because it takes a long time, the same amount of time it takes some processes of making the garment as well as packaging it. Time is money, so if you want a cheaper product you have to relinquish the control over how the garment fits.
"The more control you want over your collection, fit and design, the higher the prices will be."
Made by Niki developed a lot of their own fabrics together with fabric manufacturers. You have to send the fabric to the lingerie manufacturer; the right amount of fabric. Add on 10% of additional fabric, because factories make mistakes. Let's say the minimum fabric order is 100 meters; if the factory ruins 10 metres, you can't buy an additional 10 metres, you have to buy 100 metres. This costs a lot of extra money and time.
Also, check the fabric before you send it. Fabric factories will send the fabric to you or to the factory that will make your product. Made by Niki always had it sent to them, to check, before sending it on to the lingerie factory. Sometimes it is best value to split the collection up. For example a bra can be made better at one factory and the pants in another. Then you have to split the fabric as well and all the trimmings, etc. So take that in account as well.
Note by me: many lower price segment brands don't develop their own fabrics. They leave the sourcing of the fabric up to their agent or large lingerie manufacturer. Manufacturers work with a lot of different brands and can help you with almost anything. The more control you want over your collection, fit and design, the higher the prices will be.
|Made by Niki "String" fringe bra|
When to design your collections?
If you're planning to be a wholesale brand and if you're planning to sell to department stores and Buyers, you have to have your collection ready to show to the Buyers by the time the Buyers are open to buy. Their order books might only be open for two weeks, so if you miss it, you might be too late. Some of the more established brands like Fantasie, Gossard, Maison Lejaby, stocked in in both their own retail stores as well as department stores, start to develop their collections 2 or 3 years in advance. But they nuance the collection in the process, watching out for emerging trends as they go along. Small brands start 18 months before the collection is due to be on the shop floor.
If you're exhibiting at a trade show, they start asking you for samples 4 months before the show. The lingerie trade shows in Europe are from January to February (for Fall/Winter) and July to August (for Spring/Summer). This is also the time the Buyer's books are open. So even if you're not going to show at a trade fair, you're collection needs to be ready to present to the Buyers at the same time. You'll be showing in January in order to have your collection in stores in September. So 12 months before collections hit the stores you need to have finished the collection and your samples to be ready, 9 months before, you show them to the Buyers.
"Start 2 years in advance"
Then start designing a year in advance of that if you can, so you can take as much time as you need for colours, fitting and re-fitting, trimmings, mega trends, micro trends, watching the industry and seeing which of your previous styles sold well. Also alter patterns if you change the (colour of the) fabric. Black fabric is stiffer (more shrunken) than pink fabric for example.
If you're planning to sell directly to consumer, via your website or private events, designing 1 year in advance is enough. Your designs will be much more relevant this way, unless you have a design style that transcend trends, which is the ultimate aim overall. The best business can be built on a product that doesn't change much from one season to another.
|Made by Niki "String" playsuit|
Where can you source the best lingerie fabrics?
This also depends on what you're making and what volumes. Shipping and logistics wise it is the easiest to buy fabrics in your country or continent. There are 2 categories of fabrics and trims:
- Bespoke: deal directly with the fabric or trim manufacturer, to create fabrics that are specially made for you. This requires quite large minimum orders and ordering far in advance. You also pay more for this privilege.
- Ready-Made: companies like Simon Butler who buys leftover lingerie fabric of large brands like Victoria's Secret and M&S. UK designers get 80% of their fabrics from Simon. It's a very ethical and ecologically friendly way of buying fabric. The fabric might not be eco friendly in its production process, it might contain chemicals or dyes that are harmful to the environment, but the fact that this fabric has been rescued from a landfill makes it sort of ethical. He also stocks a lot of greige fabric (fabric that has not been dyed yet, ivory colour). You can find someone to dye them for you like The Small Batch Dye Company. Or buy trims at UK company Berisfords.
How to finance and budget for your collections?
You need to budget, you need to know how much money you need to develop your collections; designing, writing you specs, knowing your fabric consumption, knowing how much time will be consumed making the collection, producing the fabric, producing the packaging. This is another reason why you need to start designing your collections 2 years in advance.
Made by Niki is 100% owned by Niki and her husband Scott Parker. They would finance their collections by taking advance orders from their customers, taking a 25% deposit upfront when placing their orders (9 months before collections hit the shops), paying their final balance upon delivery. But keep in mind that you've already spent 15 months of developing the collection by that time. You have to finance that gap. Niki and Scott financed that gap themselves and used bank loans and crowd funding loans.
"Find an investor upfront"
Niki recommends finding an investor upfront if you want to have a viable business. First, an investor is going to give you a wake-up call when you're emotionally attached to your business and make decisions based on those emotions. Secondly, if you choose the right investor they are going to have contacts to get you into the right factories and stores. So choose an investor within your work field.
For more info about managing cashflow in a fashion business, watch this short and informative clip from The Business of Fashion.
Why is Made by Niki closing down?
The reason is both personal and business related. There's been a sequence of events. Made by Niki had a period of 3 years with no competition in the sexy, glamorous shapewear segment. After 3 years she should have sold the business, then it would have been worth quite a bit. But she was emotionally attached to the business and wanted to keep it going. She thought it was a legacy business that she would keep for her family.
In the recessions things started to get difficult and rise of Internet shopping changed the whole business model of retail. From that moment onwards, from 2009, nothing has ever been stable again; trade shows aren't worth exhibiting at, even the biggest Buyers might not be able to receive your order a year later, it's a cutthroat business and small brands can't always bare all of those situations.
The birth of her two kids changed her entire perspective, she didn't want the same things as she did when she started the brand. All of a sudden it became very apparent that Made by Niki wasn't stable enough to provide for a family of four. Her priorities weren't about making a creative statement and running a luxury brand anymore. She decided to get a job. Now Nikki works in the luxury car business. So think carefully about starting a business based on coolness. Coolness can wear off, the novelty of being independent can wear off. Within 10 years your life can change to an extent that the values you had when you started aren't there anymore. But she wouldn't have missed it for the world and enjoyed every minute of it.
|Made by Niki "Classics" sheer shapewear skirt |
Will you sell the business to keep the brand alive?
She's not ruling out selling Made by Niki, she's open to options and suggestions. Bare in mind that Niki won't come with the brand. Usually when people buy a brand they want the director of the brand to come with it for a year in order to keep it going.
This would perhaps be an opportunity for someone who is looking to set up his of her lingerie business with similar design sensibilities. It could be a good idea to take on the reigns of a legacy business that already has thousands of fans, contacts with factories, a fully functioning responsive website, basically taking all the pain out of setting up a brand.
When will you close down?
As soon as the stock is gone for the most part, which will probably be around Christmas.
|Made by Niki "Almost Famous" shoelace bra|
Made by Niki have a huge closing down sale at their website, where you can pick up some of the last items with huge discounts. I for example just bought the wonderful Shoelace bra from the Almost Famous collection, the last one in my size. This bra was made mostly by hand in their own production office in the UK. The shoelace was especially developed for Made by Niki. The detailing and design is just gorgeous. I never thought I would own a designer bra of € 230, but I guess now I do.
There's also an even bigger sale in their Ebay store, we're you find samples and leftover fabrics, accessories and trimmings.
"Love Your Body - Dare to be Different"
Thank you Niki for a decade of incredible, high fashion lingerie. And thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world!
For enquiries about (buying) the brand: firstname.lastname@example.org