How Far Can the Model of “Buy Designs and Trace Patterns to Produce and Sell” Go? How Should Designers Respond to This Model?

Christine Tsui Fashion Community

How Far Can the Model of “Buy Designs and Trace Patterns to Produce and Sell” Go? How Should Designers Respond to This Model?

Nancy- Shanghai- Designer, etc.

Nancy studied naval architect and marine engineering for her undergraduate degree. She started her career in the apparel industry as a junior. Currently, she works as a designer assistant in a foreign trade company and contributes styles to domestic and foreign brands. With the intern experience at independent designer brand POLLYANNA KEONG, Nancy has a thorough understanding about the style production of independent designers. After graduation, she was engaged in clothing (foreign trade) business. Therefore, she also understands the style production patterns of American and Australian designer brands. After serving at HLA, she also learned about the design production models and current status of large domestic brand companies.


The industrial chain in the apparel industry (design-production-sales) is often biased towards the back end, which means that the main industrial model and profit point lie in clothing production and processing, as well as distribution and export. In the initial stage of the clothing industry, low labor costs often make it easier for the clothing industry to benefit from manufacturing and sales. At the same time, however, design research and development, which should have become the core competitiveness of the industry, has not received enough attention, and the role of designers is even more difficult to highlight. Therefore, although China is a big exporter of the world’s clothing industry, it is not strong one. For many years, “low profit and low value” has been looming the industry. Practitioners have worked hard to find a way out, especially for designers.

European and American fashion circles have always been coveting Chinese culture. Met Ball (Charity Ball of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) announced the theme of “China: Flowers in the mirror and the moon’s reflection in the water ” in 2015, which explored the influence of Chinese culture on artistic creation in terms of fashion, clothing, painting, porcelain, art, and movies. This manifests its extreme desire for Chinese culture. But Anna Wintour (the editor-in-chief of “VOGUE” magazine) believes that China has never had its own fashion and real designers. Given that we have been in the stage of plagiarism and imitation, we were never able to cross this threshold.

The entire clothing industry may yet to be sorted out. Some Chinese citizens blindly follow first-tier international brands and pay no attention to domestic brands; some excellent businessmen switch to designers while excellent designers switch to sales, because it is difficult for the brand to survive if there is no profit; there are also some entrepreneurs with designer visions who purchase fashionable and stylistic samples in batches from abroad to trace their patterns for production and sales– low prices with avant-garde styles have won the favor of more consumers. As a result, the position of pattern cutters who have strong ability to trace patterns has far surpassed that of designers in the industry. So, how far can this model of ” buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell ” go in the future? To know the answer, let’s start with the current status and model of pattern production of domestic womenswear companies.

With the enhancement of national strength, the consumption power of the Chinese people has been improving, so more and more big foreign brands are trying to attract Chinese consumers with the hope of further stimulating this market. While foreign brands are seizing the opportunity to attract this huge consumer market of China, how can domestic brands seize the opportunity? In recent years, more and more domestic designer brands have begun to use the concept of “Guochao” to position themselves with the rise of domestic trends. But at present, most domestic designers and brands have not sufficiently refined the elements of Chinese culture. This is because firstly, fashion in China has only gradually risen since the reform and opening up, developing much later than other European and American countries. Secondly, there are also some consumer factors. In addition, many “Guochaos” are designed by some independent designers. Although the design style is aimed at the niche, the target group is the general public. The design style and target customer group have not been matched up from the beginning, which leads to the fact that it isn’t doing as well as some big foreign brands.

But on the whole, the domestic apparel industry has now entered a period of adjustments. From the general trend of the clothing industry, womenswear is currently developing better than menswear, and at the same time, gender-neutral clothing has become popular. In addition, with the development of Internet technology, the clothing industry is also expanding and transforming to e-commerce networks.

Under the influence of this trend, domestic womenswear brands’ method of style production also indicates the following characteristics:

  1. Design and development stages are not valued;
  2. Domestic designers cannot dig into their culture well and intently;
  3. Methods such as buying designs can directly lead to higher benefits, making it difficult to highlight the value of designs.

The three reasons above directly affect the design production method of domestic womenswear brands.

What is the Design Production Model of Domestic Womenswear Brand Companies?

In the general environment, the model of ” buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell” has made more and more medium and large brand companies eager to seize the psychology of the mass consumers to gain a place in the market. Here is just an example of the company I worked at, HLA. The company’s womenswear brands include Aiju Rabbit (20-25 years old), OVV (25-35 years old, light luxury), and EXOM, which was previously announced to be dissolved. Each brand has its own team: design director, designer, pattern cutter and assistant designer. However, given the company’s large scale, there are hundreds of suppliers for a single brand, and each supplier has broken their minds to make supply designs for the brand. And this kind of design supply method is, based on the company’s design plan, the supplier travels with the design director or designer to Japan and South Korea, buys sample clothings and traces their patterns directly to profit. Most of the time, the designs are copied exactly from the original fabrics, trimmings, patterns and floral designs. In this case, the brand designer only needs to produce 20% of the patterns– the remaining 80% is assigned by the design director.

In this regard, my biggest doubt is that since the company has paid a lot of money for foreign planning teams to make a detailed trend analysis, why is the entire brand still applying this mode of operation? At that time, my company usually developed summer styles in August to October for May-July next year, autumn styles in November to January for August- October next year, winter styles in February to May for November-January next year, and spring styles in June to July for February – April next year. Of course, some supplements will be adjusted in due course. This development time is reasonable enough for designers to design independently, but due to the brand’s need for better market acceptance, that is, a good sales rate, design directors would still choose to ” buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell.” And the pattern production mode of other domestic large and medium-sized clothing brand companies is also basically looking at the market for trends, and then choosing images that match the theme based on plans. After all, it is still copying from the market. In this model, how to increase the hit rate of style production and boost the brand’s sales rate?

First and foremost, the control of design time. The main control lies in the design director, followed by the designer, and finally the assistant designer. Every week /month, produce styles according to the assigned task of “color system, profile, printing and embroidery”, and report in time to the superior. This requires designers to improve the hit rate of their styles, that is, “how to quickly and accurately grasp the core of each quarter.” Secondly, the source of new designs. Most companies choose to copy mainly because the design director does not trust the designer, or the styles the designer produces is unable to adapt to the market. The fundamental reason is that the designer lacks an understanding to the complex structure of the industry. This also requires that the designer pays attention to accumulating styles. When seeing a good style (overall or structure of some parts), he or she can communicate with the pattern maker. Through this long-term discussion mode, designers cultivate a strong ability of structure association, and lay a solid foundation for producing styles on their own in the future.

Taking EXOM as an Example

EXOM is a light luxury brand established by HLA in July 2017. Taking “post-80s” as the dominant market, the brand anchors consumer psychology as ” the taste of CELINE with a budget of COS”, that is, “practical + selective “.

The following image is an overview of the womenswear market:

屏幕快照 2020-03-02 下午11.28.40(Source:  EXOM brand forerunner)

From the picture above, we know that the brand’s positioning in the early stage is very accurate, but in the process of fashion development, the brand designer failed to bring personal style or blend it with other styles, therefore, the ” buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell” model has been followed, making the look of final products too similar to the overall style of Aiju Rabbit—this deviates it from the original brand positioning, so it was eventually dissolved (certainly, this also involves internal decision-making).

From this we can conclude that “buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell” can quickly gain a group of consumers in a certain period of time, but the long-term plagiarism will make it impossible for the original brand story to keep a foothold, and consumers will not be able to form enough loyalty /reliance.

If a company only wants to profit without good products, with the increasing of homogenization of clothing, indistinctive products will inevitably be eliminated by the market. This brand positioning layout and style production model may be able to develop well in the beginning, but the vitality is not long enough. This situation is becoming increasingly conspicuous in the women’s clothing industry. Not only EXOM, but also well-known brands such as SANDRO and MAJE are becoming more pupularized.

The Impact of E-commerce (Internet Celebrity) Brands

The e-commerce (Internet celebrity) brand was also the first to get a response from consumers through the ” buy designs and trace patterns to produce and sell” model. For example, independent e-commerce brands with a sense of design, such as ROSE LING LING and FANO STUDIO are generally based on Japanese and Korean niche brands (RECTO, PAUL & ALICE, SOONSU, etc.). They copy the patterns directly or make slight adjustments. They release new products very fast — usually once the referenced brand releases new styles, they are able to produce copies within 7-10 days, and many medium and large branded companies will take these as styles for the next year, which makes them obviously lag behind these e-commerce brands and lose a number of trend followers to a large extent.

In this regard, how can brands provide more novel designs? How do designers change designs? In terms of my personal habits, first of all, designers should classify materials in their daily life:

  1. Save them based on the categories of collar, shoulders, sleeves, waist, and hem, so that you can use these elements when you see the appropriate shape in the future.
  2. The daily aesthetic accumulation cannot be missed–“What kind of silhouette can be used for what elements, whether the overall style is coherent”– these are the long-term accumulation process.

In the Internet era, the speed of information dissemination is fast, which makes all online celebrity stores look the same—it doesn’t make much difference between visiting a few stores and visiting only one. Previously, an Internet celebrity copied the designs of Chictopia, and there were even a lot of people applauding for it under Weibo. It can be seen that the domestic awareness of copyright in clothing design is still weak. Focusing on operation instead of design, they only take clothing as an item to profit without idea input. Big brands are also just copying competitive products to avoid mistakes. There are a number of small brands that engage in pre-sale models, ordering products based on market response. Consumers also only pay attention to the appearance rather than the feelings of the actual fabric and wearing experience. All these factors further catalyze the severe plagirism of the market, and a large number of brands distribute products to occupy the market, leading to the following characteristics in the majority of e-commerce online brands:

  1. The product is invalid, and the quality of the fabric of the garment does not meet the standard;
  2. The design is not flattering;
  3. Poor intellectual property protection and brands copy each other;
  4. Limited publicity and promotion are overly dependent on the fan base.

Clothing has to firstly be flattering and comfortable, and it is also important to reflect the taste, interest, identity, status and other people’s sense of recognition, but the most important factor is the quality.

Survival Situation of Independent Designers

“The real situation of domestic independent designers is that they are not able to find good fabric, factories and stable customers.” Young designers tend to operate personal brands, but the establishment of a new brand is not easy: funding for designs, establishing a studio, hiring employees, promotion and sales all need to be done by hand.

In addition, there is often a huge gap in aesthetics between independent designers and ordinary consumers. Designers’ creativity pays so little attention to the market that it is hardly accepted. Certainly, in the past two years, the impact of the Internet (the promotion of clothing e-commerce platforms, the recording of designer competitions and the brand effect of celebrities) has pushed more independent designer brands to the forward position. More post-90s generations are willing to pay for these distinctive styles.

In 2015, I have interned at POLLYANNA KEONG, which was famous for its color schemes and floral designs. The sales channels back then include D2C, Shangpin, Netease and other e-commerce platforms, which were similar to Taobao; following these were the artist’s brand effect. At that time, the brand had cooperated with YIGUE (Shanghai Yigue Clothing Co., Ltd.). In terms of the given color scheme from large companies, independent designers were not able to submit works that were satisfactory to each other: Independent designers had to reduce many avant-garde elements of their brands to cater to the market and constantly adjust trends and elements into something easily acceptable– this kind of running-in is a severe torment for many young independent designer brands. Although the runway shows were glorious, the sales rate later became a concern for designers and companies.

Some people think that independent designer brands can ensure the coordination to a great extent. Designers can easily master the personal brand and do not need to cater to the mass market all the time, which is why a lot of recent graduates are more willing to open a personal studio. In this regard, I will still take POLLYANNA KEONG as an example. One thing I admire about POLLYANNA KEONG is that designers never buy patterns or copy deesigns. Many independent designer brands basically give designers their heads without limiting the way designers think. This includes AWAYLEE, with which we had a cooperation–their team will not buy patterns and copy designs, and will give designers a sufficient development cycle (6-7 months), consistently communicate with the pattern makers to produce the appropriate version. I remember when I was producing styles for POLLYANNA KEONG three years ago, whenever I told the design director which pictures I referenced for my styles, she could get my points quickly, and I would also give her design drawings as soon as possible. But then when I went to other companies to produce styles, I had to find pictures fully approved by the design director. She accepted neither my description, nor my design or effect drawings. She will only allow us to develop them when the pictures we found suited the styles she wanted.

Nevertheless, from 2015 to 2017, POLLYANNA KEONG also needed to continuously update the styles of each quarter and invest in several artists at the same time. If it weren’t for Wang Ziwen who wore a few outfits from the brand in the TV series Ode to Joy, it would be difficult for the brand to usher in its renaissance. But the cost for designers to invest in artists is still huge.

Therefore, for young designers who have just graduated, I recommend working in companies for a while. Only start considering operating your own brand after you have gained control over the brand and market and known the techniques of fabrics and trimmings. While designers are mostly sentimental, profiting means to be able to sell good products and designs. But original designers and independent designers often lack marketing awareness, as well as elements for sales and business. To achieve a combination of sensibility and rationality, designers still lack teams, funds, channels, packaging, rational business thinking, a fully coordinated supply chain, etc., which is why they need business partners. For example, in Mukzin model, the husband is responsible for business and the wife takes care of design and supply chain. However, the reason why most independent designers or design directors are reluctant to find partners is that only few people can resonate with their styles and ideals. Certainly, some independent designer brands have design teams, so all the design director needs to do is control the overall style of the brand. But in any case, what we need to understand is that from the perspective of brand development, the key does not lie the temporary design, but rather the continuity and change; and in terms of current management, the requirements of funding background and the founder’s social connection to establish a brand are too high; it is not easy to found a brand. Many original designers evolve into brands by starting from wholesale OEM for profits, such as NGAN LOK International. Its products have developed from wholesale OEM to brand, and then returned to the market for wholesale business based the development of the brand. In its zenith, it has even developed a team of foreign designers with a scale of hundreds of entities.

What Should Designers Do if They Don’t Start Their Own Brands?

New graduates to the company always complain about the tedious design work in terms of the choice of fabrics, decision of styles, printing and embroidery, techniques, patterns and modification, etc. In fact, these are basically the same as graduation designs, and it is not that complicated. The daily accumulated experience during work is a valuable asset in the future. What we should do is categorize and summarize. So how do we overcome this impetuous mentality?

When I was doing translation for customers’ design reviews in clothing business, I often thought about issues of patterns. This was also the foundations for being able to give accurate opinions on some basic patterns when I went to HLA.  Carrying it onto the current design works, I can analyze the accurate structures better and give them to pattern makers, which facilitates the entire operation.

In the industry, design is not just a process of drawing–there is a lot more to know. Many domestic design graduates find it difficult when they start working for companies. This is also because they focus on the study of theoretical knowledge while they have too little practical experience. For example, fabric selection is a big issue. Many designers who just entered society don’t know much about features of fabrics. The main cause is that they did not go to fabric markets frequently, and neither did they design a lot. In addition, they did not do sufficient summary, which directly affects the speed of style production, leveling up difficulties.

As designers, when we are designing, not only do we need to have knowledge about fabric, but also comprehensively consider factors such as technique and pattern.  Stop pattern designers from saying “What’s good with designers? Aren’t they just copying designs/ how can you miss the core when all you do is copy” over and over again, which make both parties embarrassed. In fact, as long as you set your mind on it, whether you are sorting orders, fabrics, techniques, designs or other relevant work, you will be able to summarize a lot of design-related experience. Working in a brand company is still very helpful for the future profession or career development of most people. It is completely different from factories and wholesale industries, and the improvement you obtained is also multi-dimensional. For example, there will be technical directors in brand companies, from whom you can learn a lot in terms of batch and silhouette patterns. For companies and brands, designs are good only when they sell well and have reasonably flattering and new elements. It is not sufficient for designers to only understand aesthetics; what’s more important is to keep up with the market and try to go ahead of it. Work hard on basics during school education, and attentively accumulate knowledge in society. Learning is a lifelong matter, and you will always be rewarded through slow accumulations.

Certainly, some people feel that it is difficult to fulfill their great aspirations, and that the brand concept is inconsistent with their own design concepts. The expectations of producing clothes based on their own wills as an independent designer means that they are yet to understand the reality of the market. Many times, when the garments they developed themselves are negated by the design director, they should have known that the denials from consumer will be even more cruel. What we should do is to find out the market needs, consumers’ psychology and consumption habits, and then integrate fashion elements into designs to instill them in consumers. It is only appropriate to say that “ It’s a more robust step into an independent designer” when you have the ability to produce a collection, know what designs sell well and how to add novel elements. Only when I was working at HLA did I learn what a market is and realize that design itself isn’t a wild card. When I was able to face the sales rate of each season with composure, I knew that I can adapt to the design environment. But if you are determined to be an independent designer, you need to go to companies for practice, which, on the other hand, shouldn’t take too long, so as to avoid stylization and deterioration of personal style.

Some designers who haven’t graduated for a long time find it difficult to take the road of design, so they would say “I’m going to be a buyer.” However, if they can’t even do basic designer works, to a large extent, they are not professional enough to be a buyer.

Although buyer has been very popular these years and many domestic womenswear brands have set up this position, do you really meet the professional requirements of a buyer? Can you grasp the overall style of the brand and properly guide the designer to the trends that suit your brand? The company’s budget is also limited. If you buy 100 styles and only 10 are selected, it will definitely doubt your vision and aesthetics. Designers will also question your decisions when they fail to produce in required quality and time. What are the main job responsibilities of a buyer?

  1. Pay attention to fashion trends, major fashion shows and magazines. Collect fashion information and pictures, have a keen sense on trends, and able to quickly and accurately find hotspots; make annual seasonal purchase plans based on sales plans; Formulate the Power Point for next quarter’s fashion trend, including popular elements, colors, silhouettes, structures, fabrics, patterns, etc., as a reference for designers’ storyboards.
  2. Analyze slow-moving inventory. Analyze the data of best-selling and slow-selling products, understand the consumption and economic levels of different regions; Analyze sales data in previous years and predict future markets;
  3. Visit wholesale markets, department stores, foreign trade markets to collect information and market news; Visit stores regularly to learn about consumer trends and after-sale responses; Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the brand and familiarize with the product status of neighboring brands.
  4. Communicate with designers regularly, provide fashion trend apps, transmit market trends and fashion news and provide designers with reference opinions; Assist designers to modify the look of sample clothing — silhouette, color, fabric, pattern, technique, etc.
  5. Communicate with the product manager and select competitive products; decide the proportion, quantity, quality requirements, price, cost, production cycle and products on posters. Follow up the production progress, supervise the delivery period of the finished product and ensure that the products are listed on time and wave band; Assist the production department with quality inspection and acceptance, and ensure the quality of the listed products.
  6. Master the positioning, characteristics, selling points, precautions, display, product allocation and distribution of new products on the market. Convey sales skills and brand value to retail staff in the marketing department through training and store manager meetings.
  7. The Operational buyer needs to be responsible for the adjustment, merge, and return of the goods in assigned or other areas; assist the district chief in the management of the products and display of single stores; independently complete ordering for the single store.

At the same time, as a buyer, you also need to be responsible for the suppliers from which you purchase, so that they will not be pitted by your company; in addition, encourage them to produce better products while facilitating their development under certain conditions. A buyer is also responsible to consumers in terms of avoiding misleading their consumption and aesthetic concepts; Be responsible for the impression of your own brand– leaders may not always be right, so have the courage to question them and provide reasonable advices and reserved suggestions for the products you prefer. Bravely put forward your views based on your own trend analysis without justifying fake data and finding excuses for the data; Meanwhile, calmly analyze the truth behind the data. At the same time, buyer also has to coordinate various departments and play a pivotal role that is not biased towards anyone which will affect correct decisions.

Based on the points above, I think that only if you have laid a solid foundation–familiarity with the characteristics of fabrics and trimmings, techniques and patterns, as well as an accurate grasp of the overall style of the brand and the trend of each quarter, together with a consistent effort to improve your aesthetics, will you be able to achieve qualitative mutations.

For young designers who have just graduated or only graduated a short time, they should start with themselves. It is feasible to learn from the big names; learn to find the benchmarks of the brand, grasp the brand style, and learn to assemble products first—draw analogy between designs with similar styles, and add in creative elements to form a harmonious and unified series style. It is only in this way of adding in personal elements gradually that a personal style can take its form in the in the long-term development of designs.  This also prevents the dilemma of “no one pays for the products” when the personal brand is established in the future.

In addition, personally, I also recommend that graduates work for companies. It is true that they can accumulate more experience during work, whether it is fabric and trimming or pattern and technique, they are all beneficial for future designs. The most important thing is to cultivate your own design ability, learn to follow the plan and extract the elements, silhouettes and colors that are suitable for your brand from each season’s fashion trends, and gain better understandings of the entire market (each large company has a corresponding sales rate analysis, which designers can view on a weekly or monthly basis; it is also suggested to see which styles are more popular in stores). Only when you have the ability to think independently can you claim that you can integrate ideas into your work and present them to the public, which entails years of experience.

Certainly, as natives who understand and are able to do design, should we dig more into our own culture? Incorporate it into personal design and bring Chinese cultural heritage to influence the world. After all, so many designers in the fashion industry attempt to dig into Chinese culture without any results. Therefore, in the future, we can also focus on the “display of Chinese cultural heritage”. The fastest and most concise way is to do more research on brands that display traditional cultural concepts, such as: Icicle, Shangxia, and Muzkin, etc., and understand how the brands’ new seasons are closely related to the conceptions of the brands.

At the same time, I also hope that design directors with certain experience will truly respect design and guide new generations designers to find their own potential, instead of simply serving the company, only considering profit, which deteriorates the basic sense of beauty and original intention.

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