Saturday, July 25, 2009

Something's not right with your shorts

If you aren't in the apparel business, it is one of those categories you sort of take for granted.

Meaning, you don't really think about how the stuff you wear is made. Or who makes it. Or where it's made. Or who decides how it fits. And so on.

Funny things happen in the making of apparel. There is no machine that can put a shirt, a pant, a dress, or a jacket together. It takes lots of humans working together to make it happen. And where there are humans, especially humans on different sides of the world working on the same product, things can happen.

One of the worst phone calls I ever received was from a very large customer. A retailer you know well. The company I was working for had sold them a very large order of shorts several years ago.

The shorts were manufactured in China. The manufacturing process goes something like this.

You pick out fabric, buttons, zippers, thread, a pattern and you have it all shipped to a factory in China (or some other faraway outpost) and have them do the cutting and sewing.

The factory sends a first production sample for approval before they make the entire order. You review the sample, point out any necessary changes, communicate those to the factory, and tell the factory to proceed.

When the production sample for the shorts in this story came in for approval, we were very pleased. Fabric was correct, fit was good, sewing was excellent. A green light to go ahead.

The Chinese manufacturers are very literal folks. They do exactly what you ask them to do. Nothing more, nothing less.

One thing we didn't notice on the production sample was that the back pockets were sewn shut. Even though there was a pocket bag sewn in as well, for some reason, the factory sewed the pockets shut. For all the experts looking at it on our side, it never occurred to any of us that the factory somehow thought that was the correct way to make the short.

But they did, cause we didn't tell them any different. We assumed, and that's a bad thing.

So, we shipped 500,000 shorts with back pockets sewn shut to one of our largest customers.

"Alan, there's something not right with your shorts", began the phone call.

"Is my panty line showing?", I replied just before I fell into the abyss of reality.

"No, dumass. You just shipped me 500,000 shorts with back pockets sewn shut."


"I have 20 samples here in my office."

"Let me check on this and I will get right back to you. This just can't be true."

But, it was.

By the time we took the return, paid for the freight, sold the shorts off for pennies, it would have made us qualified for TARP money had such a thing existed then.

They aren't funny when they happen. But in retrospect, they are classic. And they happen everyday.

A buddy told me a story about selling 50,000 women's blazers to a retailer. They arrived with the sleeves sewn on backward. Meaning the right sleeve had been sewn into the left sleeve hole, and vice versa. So the sleeves pointed behind you.

A really handy item for the double-jointed.

He can laugh now, but he had tears in his eyes when he got THAT phone call.

So the next time you go to buy a new clothing item (which looking at sales figures sounds like it might not be anytime soon), don't take it for granted.

If it fits, if the zipper goes in the right direction, if the sleeves are the same length, it is a minor miracle.

Somewhere in this world, a man is wearing a beautiful silk tie handmade in Italy with upside down palm trees all over it. And he paid a buck for it.

I know. I made those, too.

We pondered shipping them to Australia to see if crossing the equator might make the palm trees right side up. But the freight was too much.

So we sold them for pennies to jobbers all over the world.

And right now, that lucky man is getting compliments on his unusual, beautiful tie.

1 comment:

  1. You should write a memoir about your time in the biz. It would be funny and would reveal a ton of stuff about the industry the lay person would be surprised to know. I'm sure you have a zillion anecdotes just like this.