During my 4 ½ years here, I moved up to an associate designer position and the first change that became apparent to me was the challenge to keep our domestic production alive.
As overseas production became more accessible and overseas labor costs were much lower, domestic production began to have a tough time competing at the same level. The 2 owners of my company argued about the profitability of maintaining domestic production, and decided to part ways with only the one taking the business forward.
We downsized and moved our offices to Queens to be able to work with the knitting and finishing factories on a daily basis and quickly get our samples prepared for our customers. We still maintained a showroom in the city as our company’s headquarters for market appointments. Because we had downsized our staff so dramatically, I was entrusted with many additional responsibilities that our merchandiser had previously been accountable for.
At 27 years old, I was now preparing our presentations for buyers, conducting meetings, and making my first trend shopping trips to Europe—it was definitely trial by fire.
We managed to sustain our business for another year, but domestic sweater production continued its decline with factories as well as domestic yarn mills having an increasingly tough time competing head to head with off-shore mills and factories. It wasn’t just my company but many of my company’s direct competitors who were all feeling the same squeeze. Within a year, I received a heads up from my company owner that he planned to close up soon, so we should all be prepared to look for employment elsewhere.
A competing domestic sweater production company quickly offered me the position of missy sweater designer and even though I knew domestic sweater production was not the place to grow my career, I immediately took the job unsure of how difficult it would be for me to find another job so quickly.
This company had strong ties to more domestic factories
This company had strong ties to more domestic factories as well as their own small NJ based factory and sample room which made it much easier to support sample making and small run production.
Instead of having to always beg outside factories to push to get our samples made which was no easy challenge when factories were struggling to stay in business, we could work with our own technicians and control our own small production runs as well as schedule in sampling time.
My big take-away from this company was understanding the huge value of owning your own factory and having your own production team to work with.
Although I knew I could stay at this position for a while, I wasn’t in love with the company culture and could also see the writing on the wall as more domestic factories continued to close and yarn suppliers who once had healthy businesses producing gorgeous novelty yarns could not maintain their prices with overseas competition.
How would I work with people overseas that I couldn’t see every day?
And one day a previous co-worker asked me to come interview at her company which is now the company I’m at today—they were interviewing for a missy designer.
She felt that she had made a smart solid move to come to what she called a domestic based sweater company with a design and sales staff located in NY, but with the strength of owning an overseas factory based in China and a production team in Hong Kong. After having been in the domestic business for over 7 years,
I was extremely nervous to be a sweater designer for what I would call an import company. How would I work with people overseas that I couldn’t see every day? How would I choose yarns and create designs here and get someone to execute them properly in an overseas factory?
I was so used to working one on one with the domestic factory technicians, seeing knit-downs come right off the machines, cutting, sewing, steaming, and seeing my final garments the same day. It really made me nervous to take this big leap into a totally different way of designing.
On the flip side, I knew this would be the way of business going forward and if I was ever going to make the change, I should do it right now while I was in a position of strength
Hired me in 2001
They hired me in 2001 as a missy sweater designer at KBL Group Intl. and I started the new process of working with a Hong Kong team to advise instruction on creating a missy line of sweaters. Initially I did find things challenging working with different yarn sizes, different knitting machines, full fashioned finishes, using yarn dyed yarns as opposed to the piece dye cotton that is dominant in domestic production, and getting used to different duty rates for yarn contents as they are imported from China.
I definitely had some growing pains and felt a loss of confidence about my own knowledge of sweater design and production from what my domestic experience had provided me with. As time went by, I developed a great rapport with my Hong Kong team, learned a lot about our factory and the import business and easily grew into my job.
The one constant that had served me well from all of my previous domestic positions was that not only was I a designer, I was so hands on with the factories and technicians that it really became my “style” of working to be well informed and able to speak comfortably about technical points in a way that could be easily understood by other designers and buyers.
I liked the process of engineering and creating—my job wasn’t just to draw or CAD the most beautiful sketch of a design. It was starting from scratch with a yarn and building it into something and building it at a price that our accounts could afford.
It became a way of working that would become part of my DNA today. It’s why I love product development and enjoy the process from beginning to end and truly love to collaborate with our clients.
Working with the chairman of our company, KBL Group Intl. in China and going through new yarn concepts with our Jr./Girls Senior Designer, Sun.
About 2 years into my position, we decided to layer on to our strong sweater business. Sweaters were typically purchased from “back to school”—July/August through “holiday”—November/December. These were the healthiest quarters of business for a sweater manufacturer. From December onward through summer, we would be fortunate if a retailer would buy a couple of light-weight open stitch sweaters.
It was impossible to create that same kind of revenue stream through those spring and summer months with only sweaters. We added on a line of cut & sew novelty t-shirts and this was the next new classification of product that I would start to become familiar with.
A whole new experience getting familiar with yard goods, fabric weights, machine sewing techniques—this was a fun new challenge for me. We kept our t-shirt bodies quite simple.
They were primarily crew necks and v-necks, but this was a period of time when hand embellishment was still quite affordable in China and for 7RMB, you could get an amazing amount of detail. Sequins, bugle beads, seed beads, wood beads, hand embroidery—beautiful hand sewn work that we take for granted became a way to turn a t-shirt into a specialized piece of clothing that held a lot of visual value to the customer.
Creating embellishment layouts became a big part of my job. We quickly picked up some great business from Mervyn’s, Kohl’s, Catherine’s, Beall’s, Belk, Sear’s and Kmart. We also added on a higher price point line of ladies novelty sweaters.
With all of this growth, I was given the title of missy design director. I was still quite hands on at the design level but was also beginning to take on more of a management role.
In part two I'll cover International Shopping, HSN and more experiences and growth.
About the author
Tina Trevino is the Senior Design Director of KBL Group Intl. Ltd. in NYC and manages their large creative design team. Partner and Director Community Relations for Latin Business Today. She shares all of her insight on upcoming fashion trends for the season with her team to start the collaborative design process. The company specializes in sweaters, knits and wovens. It provides product for ladies, men, contemporary, jr, and children. Tina specializes in coordinating directly with large US retailers to design exactly into their targeted customer needs. With many years under her belt in the industry, she has also gained the ability to go beyond the fashion component and help to work through sourcing, fitting, production and merchandising issues as well.