Industry Insights with Factory45's Shannon Whitehead

At Pioneer Mode, we dig into the core of the fashion industry by collecting perspectives, identifying the key issues, and uncovering potential solutions. In our Industry Insights series, we interview key stakeholders to consider their day-to-day challenges, and reveal their contributions towards a stronger, healthier community of fashion enterprise.

Factory45, founded by Shannon Whitehead, is an online accelerator program that takes sustainable apparel companies from idea to launch

Shannon Whitehead started out in 2010 co-founding a sustainable clothing company called {r}evolution apparel. They launched their signature piece, the Versalette, with a Kickstarter campaign that became the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history at the time.

Five years later, she now runs an online accelerator program that helps aspiring entrepreneurs start clothing companies that are sustainably and ethically made in the USA. Factory45 that takes sustainable apparel companies from idea to launch. Entrepreneurs are given the tools to source fabric, find a manufacturer & raise money to fund production in four months.

If you’re a designer or entrepreneur who wants to launch a sustainably and ethically made clothing company this year, applications to join Factory45 are now open until 9/30!

Shannon-Whitehead-Factory45

Shannon Whitehead, founder of Factory45

IMPETUS TO BE A FASHION PIONEER: CAREER & COMMUNITY

We asked Shannon what prompted her to start Factory45, and she said the idea came about for two reasons:

  1. After {r}evolution apparel, I was running my own consulting company and I wasn’t happy. As most freelancers will tell you, consulting can be a cycle of feast or famine. I didn’t like not knowing when my next project was going to come in. I also realized that I preferred working with startups over established brands, but the startups couldn’t afford traditional consulting fees. I started brainstorming ways that I could work with the “newbies” of the industry in a way that was affordable for them but also financially viable for me.

  2. I saw a need in the market. I knew from the experience of starting my own brand how difficult it was to get going. It took my co-founder and I a year and a half to find a supplier who would work with us and a production partner willing to take on two industry novices. From the connections I built over that time period, the lessons I learned and the resources I acquired, I knew that I could make it easier for new entrepreneurs to manufacture in the U.S.

“This industry is like no other. It has its own set of rules, its own way of doing things and new designers need to learn to adapt rather than resist it. Relationships are everything in this industry and cultivating them takes time and effort.”

Factory45-Community

SUSTAINABILITY IN PRACTICE: DO AS LITTLE HARM AS POSSIBLE

Shannon: Be clear that if you’re making something new, there is no such thing as “perfectly sustainable.” I remember coming into the industry as an absolute “purist.” The sustainability guidelines for {r}evolution apparel were rigid, and because of that, it took a really long time for us to get to market.

I have a more realistic approach to sustainability now, and I have to remind some of my entrepreneurs that everything we make requires energy and has an environmental impact.

The goal is to ultimately create products that do as little harm as possible. The product has to sell first -- I don’t believe that sustainability should ever be used as a primary marketing tactic -- so when it comes to fabric and manufacturing, you do the best you can.

That can mean different things for different businesses: maybe your entire supply chain is within a 50 mile radius, maybe you only use recycled fabric, maybe you have a “zero” waste design philosophy. Choose the sustainability practices that make the most sense for your product and for your business model, and as you grow, aim to improve your company’s footprint with each decision you make.

 

THE DAILY PAIN POINTS: NAVIGATING SUPPLY CHAIN THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS

Shannon: As much as I prepare my “Factory45’ers” for the hiccups that are bound to come up in their supply chains, it’s a constant balancing act of managing their expectations and helping them past the hurdles.

I think it’s easy for all of us on the other side of production to forget that the sewers making our garments are actual humans, using their hands. Most clothing in the U.S. is still handmade and it doesn’t matter how experienced the cut and sew facility is -- if they’re taking on a project they’ve never sewn before, then it’s going to take time to get it perfect.

This industry is like no other. It has its own set of rules, its own way of doing things and new designers need to learn to adapt rather than resist it. Relationships are everything in this industry and cultivating them takes time and effort.

“This is the crux of my business philosophy and it’s what I work on with all of the entrepreneurs who come through Factory45: bootstrap, stay lean, test the market and acquire customers to finance your first production run.”


NEW BUSINESS MODELS: TEST THE MARKET

Shannon: The biggest challenge, by far, is money. While I understand how frustrating it can be to believe you have a great idea but lack the funds to go into production, I actually think a lack of funding is a good thing.

It forces the entrepreneur to test the market first, either with a Kickstarter or pre-sales campaign, and make sure there is a customer response and market need for the product. This keeps new entrepreneurs from investing all of this time and money into a product that no one will buy.

This is the crux of my business philosophy and it’s what I work on with all of the entrepreneurs who come through Factory45: bootstrap, stay lean, test the market and acquire customers to finance your first production run.

So far, 100% of the entrepreneurs who have come through Factory45 and launched with Kickstarters have been successfully funded.

The pre-sales model goes hand-in-hand with selling direct-to-consumer, which is another business model I’m a big proponent of. It has been awesome to see big, established brands, like Everlane, adopt it as well.

“The fashion industry rakes in trillions of dollars a year, the founder of Zara is the fourth richest man in the world, and yet the people making the clothing for these brands see mere pennies of the profit.”


MISSING CONVERSATIONS: TABOO WITHIN THE FASHION INDUSTRY

Shannon: Going back to the CEO’s and shareholders of the major fast fashion brands, I’d like to see them addressing the human rights, labor and safety issues that they seem to be washing their hands of.

The problem with these companies is that they see factory fires, building collapses and worker strikes as “someone else’s problem.” Because they’re working with subcontractors, they don’t feel responsible for the working conditions and safety standards of the factories they work with.

The fashion industry rakes in trillions of dollars a year, the founder of Zara is the fourth richest man in the world, and yet the people making the clothing for these brands see mere pennies of the profit.

I would like to see the giant fast fashion companies (Inditex - Zara, Forever21, H&M, Primark, Uniqlo) step up and become a part of the solution. H&M has probably made the biggest effort but it’s feeble when you put it into perspective.

These companies are each churning out hundreds of millions of garments every year, and that’s the root of the environmental issue. They’re responsible for creating a consumer mentality that says it’s okay to wear something once and throw it away because it costs 7 dollars.

Throw in the human rights issues that accompany their labor force, and we’re looking at a catastrophic flaw in how the majority of our clothing is produced.

Factory45-Community

THE FUTURE OF FASHION : INNOVATION IN TEXTILES

Shannon: I’m really excited about fabric recycling technologies, such as Evrnu, RecoverTex and The New Denim Project. It’s no secret that we have a massive landfill issue with the average American throwing away 82 pounds of textiles every year.

These companies are focusing on ways to break down fabrics into upcycled yarns that can then be knit or woven into new fabrics. As the innovation evolves to include petroleum-based fabrics, I think this could be one of the answers to cutting down textile waste and building a closed-loop, holistic approach to clothing manufacturing.
 

LEADERS OF THE PACK: INDUSTRIES TO REFERENCE

Shannon: I’d like to see the fashion industry become a bigger part of the sharing economy. If we look at the models behind Airbnb and Uber, I think there is a lot of opportunity for fashion. There are already companies doing it successfully (Rent the Runway, for one), but I envision a more mainstream reach. For example, fashion “libraries” where people sign up for a monthly membership and can borrow, return and donate gently-worn clothing. It’s hard to imagine our current society getting to a point where this could go mainstream… but a girl can dream : )