I spent this past weekend at the Fabric & Fashion Fest hosted by the STL Fashion Alliance. It was a “pop-up garment district” event with factories, fabric and trim suppliers, service providers, and fashion organizations exhibiting. One of the things that stood out to me from all the conversations with designers, attendees, and other vendors exhibiting at the show was the power and prevalence of referrals. The fashion industry gets stereotyped as being secretive, exclusive, and competitive about their resources. But, I think the benefits of collaborating and sharing resources far outweigh any downsides – and you could see it at this show. Referrals are a win-win. Asking for referrals benefits your brand, benefits the person giving the referral, and benefits the person or company being referred.
The benefits of referrals to your brand
The benefits of getting a supplier, vendor, or factory referral probably seems obvious for your brand. When you get a referral, you are on the fast-track to finding the resource you need and get to skip a lot of the google searching, review reading, and hours spent making phone calls. By asking other people for a referral for a particular material or service, you get the benefit of their knowledge and network.
Getting a referral can be even more powerful for your brand if the mutual connection can make an introduction. Like in any industry, the best connections in fashion are built from relationships. It may be hard to get your foot in the door with the best resources and factories. When there is a mutual connection that can introduce you, though, you go from random stranger to friend of a friend with a certain amount of credibility already built in. There is an automatic level of trust when there is that mutual connection that ties you two together. It is still important to vet referrals and do your due diligence to see if you are a good fit to work together, but a referral makes that initial process quicker with a direct connection.
With a referral, you might also get additional insight about how the other company works or what they look for in brands they work with that you wouldn’t get otherwise. This type of information can make starting with a new vendor easier and faster as you’ll have a better idea of how to prepare and what to ask in initial conversations.
The benefits of referrals to the person giving the referral
Asking for referrals isn’t all one-sided in benefit of your brand, though. When you ask for referrals, it benefits the person giving the referral as well! Vendors and service providers are there to support your brand – your success is our success. Whether factory, patternmaker, fabric mill, label supplier, etc. it is in our interest to help your brand grow and hopefully continue to do business with us long term. The chances of your brand’s success are greater when you find the resources that are the best fit for your business, so giving a referral that could be a good fit for your brand helps everyone.
Referring people to each other – whether they are similar businesses or whether they might be considered “competitors” – builds a good reputation in the industry. The person giving the referral becomes known as someone who is friendly to work with. It is like being the one who brings cookies to the office to share. People like that person. It is a nice feeling to be able to help someone and asking for a referral gives the person that opportunity.
If the person you are asking for referrals from is someone you work with, the benefits are even greater. Let’s say, for example, that you are asking your factory for a recommendation for a fabric supplier. The factory may have worked with a similar fabric before and knows just the place. If it turns out to be a good fit for what you’re looking for, the factory might enjoy a smoother process. Because the two vendors have prior experience working together, little details like how shipments should be packaged and received, what the fabric cuttable width actually is, or how the fabric is rolled are already known and can be planned ahead for. (The factory might even have a closer relationship with the supplier than you do and can get priority on how fast the order is delivered.) When you work with multiple vendors who have worked together before, it makes it easier for everyone.
The benefits of referrals to the company being referred
Like the benefits to your brand, the benefits to the company being referred are fairly straightforward. They get new business sent to them without having to go out and find the work. They also get that credibility that comes from having a mutual connection make the introduction. Ideally, the person who referred you to them knows what projects are the best fit for the company and sends them brands that are the ideal fit. This makes the initial conversations smooth and effective.
The company being referred also enjoys the benefits of having worked with the other party previously as well if that applies. They already know the best way to communicate and what each company’s process is. They have the experience and have already worked out the bumps.
How to ask for referrals
Though asking for referrals does benefit all sides, there are times when it is not appropriate or where someone may not be able to or want to give you a referral. In general, people are happy to refer you if they know of a good place, but don’t expect them to do the research to find resources for you. They may not know of a fit for what you’re looking for or might be bound by confidentiality with an employer. If they can give you a referral, make sure to thank them as they’ve gone above and beyond to be generous with their knowledge and network! If you do end up working with the company they referred you to, it is always nice to circle back and let them know how it went.
Be aware that you won’t always get referrals for free. Some companies and agencies build their business on creating a network of suppliers and factories and offer sourcing services to help find the things you need and connect you to people to make your product. There is extensive research and relationships that go into this, so if you need this type of sourcing and logistics help, it won’t be for free.
The key to good referrals is building a positive reputation. No one will want to refer you if you are difficult to work with. If you are, the person you are asking for a referral from may choose to protect their network from you rather than help you connect to their network. Make sure that you are honest and trustworthy and look for opportunities to be generous and nice to people as well. This industry is smaller than you think.
Being surrounded by other designers, factories, service providers, and fabric vendors at the show this weekend who were all eager to support each other was so fun. I’m excited to see where the connections and referrals made will go – and where you’ll go with the next referral you get or give as well!