Designed in Bangladesh
Millions of European and US consumers are used to finding the Made in Bangladesh label inside their shirts and skirts, but few realise that the branded fashion garments they buy may also have been designed here.
From the chic stores of Spain's Zara to the huge bargain retail parks of the US, some of the clothes on the hangers have not only been put together in the garment factories of Ashulia or Chittagong, but conceived and sketched at the very same facilities.
In an industry where the big international buyers are pressing down prices and where competition is cutthroat, design is an area where some Bangladeshi manufactures are trying to add some value and separate themselves from the pack.
It is a development that challenges the traditional view of the country's ready made garment sector as simply a 'cut and paste' industry, where designs are sent by the buyers to be copied and manufactured at low cost factories.
“If you want to start producing value added goods that bring you a premium, you need to move towards design,” explains Bharat Pratap Singh, manager of the Design Studio at Beximco Textiles.
At his studio near one of Beximco's factories at Kashimpur of Gazipur district, rows of locally designed products hang on rails ready for visiting international buyers to look at. At present Beximco counts among its clients Wal-Mart, JC Penny, Zara, Bershka, Springfield, and Mother Care and now these groups are picking some of their collections direct from Bharat's rails.
The process has taken sometime to evolve as Bharat's design studio has developed its skills and experience over several years and getting to know what international buyers are looking for.
“If we are doing a men's shirt for example, we look at the colours that are coming into fashion, what are the current trends. For example, now we are looking at spring 2009 and it's about soft, light colours and muted shades,” Bharat said.
When the buyers come, they can then pick an example directly or suggest changes that make it more in line with the style they are looking for. As Beximco has long standing relationships with some groups it makes it easier to hit the right note.
“Doing a women's blouse that Zara will like is easier because we know what they are looking out for,” Bharat added.
But it is not just the big names that are branching into design. TAC, a relatively small producer, based in Dhaka, has also come to realise that this is the way forward.
“Margins are very small if you are a straight forward supplier,” said David Mayor, a Spaniard and managing director of TAC.
“It is very easy to set up a factory if you have a bit of money, and there is always someone who is willing to charge less than you,” he said, adding: “You have to do something to add value, something to make a difference.”
Yet, how do companies based in Bangladesh know what will sell to fashion conscious customers thousands of miles away in Europe or North America? Surely, it is the close understanding of exactly what a customer wants, and will want, which makes a retailer or clothes brand a success.
Bharat does not see this as a problem. “We look at the European and American markets, at what is happening in retailing. We subscribe to websites and design think tanks that give us a lot of information about the next season. In many ways we are looking at the same things as the designers in Europe.”
"On top of the designs travel back and forth to Europe and North America, picking up ideas and influence. Moreover, some trends are global such as the present move towards cotton," said Bharat, a post-graduate in design from the National Institute of Fashion and Technology of India. His team of designers are a mix of international staff and Bangladeshis.
TAC, which is focused on the Spanish market, has taken another route by bringing in a Spanish designer. And while David admits that the distance from the market can be a problem, he sees advantages of being in Bangladesh.
Being a manufacturer, as well as, a designer means the lead times from conception to production are very short. Added to this, there is a much greater degree of flexibility. “We can launch a new design in a week, and change design in the middle of production,” he said.
A belief that design will become an increasingly important part of the garment industry has spurred the development of educational programmes to groom a future generation of local designer. Already talented young designers from the Bangladesh Garment Manufactures and Exporters Association Institute of Fashion and Technology (BIFT) and other fashion institutes are entering the market.
Selim Al-Din, a third year student of Fashion and Design Technology at BIFT, said students are looking forward to good future, making careers as fashion designers at renowned factories.
Selim said at present at least 75 percent of production was carried out according to the buyers' designs. “I hope it will decline to 50 percent very soon as the local talented fashion designers have been coming forward with innovative ideas,” he said.
But to reach such a level could take many years, and Beximco and TAC remain exceptions rather than the rule.
MA Baset, the Managing Director of Southern Knitwear Limited, said the transformation from basic products to value added items is a slow process.
“We are moving up towards value addition gradually, as this is the demand of the present market,” he said.
“But it is very difficult to supply products to buyers using local fashion and design. Western buyers are very choosy,” he added.