As the demand for business opportunities rises and the interest in understanding how to leverage those opportunities with or within China continues, our October theme shares experiences of entrepreneurs working in or with China.
By Dagny Zenovia
“It’s not only about the clothing, it’s about the clothing being a vehicle that’s using ambition…like a mindset movement,” said Fola Lawson, founder and creative director of Southern Gents, a Houston, Texas-based menswear online store and lifestyle brand. In the new normal of social distancing, Fola shared with me via video call the story behind his brand, his experience working with manufacturers in China, and the deeper importance of buying Black.
The brand Southern Gents began as an idea of wanting to feel progressive. It started as a blog and social networking platform where he and his team would host young professional meet-and-greets in Houston. The ambiance they created paid homage to the 1950s and 60s Black culture, where conversations held substance. “We started this social networking hour,” said Fola, “and it was awesome. People came out dressed nice and it facilitated a different school of thought, like men having conversations with men, which is something that doesn’t really take place in our culture, at least in this social setting.” A large part of their goal and mission was also to normalize the image of Black Excellence at a time before such representation became more widely shared on social media. The social events expanded to collaborating with local charities and speaking with students at local high schools.
Southern Gents opened for business in 2012. At the time, it was difficult to access quality clothing at an affordable price in Houston. Even H&M had yet to open in the area. “We didn’t have any expertise in fashion or merchandising,” explained Fola, “we were just coming into this blindly. We just knew we wanted to see what was not available in the market. I think that’s how most businesses start, out of necessity.”
To start, Fola did research and found a few Chinese manufacturers on Alibaba.com to work with. He noted this experience was “self education through the manufacturing and sourcing process.” Elaborating on working with Chinese manufacturers on Alibaba.com, Fola thinks it does make the process accessible and attainable. Sampling different manufacturers and finding a reliable source was a tricky endeavor. He found that a lot of the manufacturers on Alibaba.com were not always the most professional. Actually, a lot of them were startup manufacturers, which he was open to as a startup himself, but this led to a lot of risk when the final production of a project was not delivered in the expected quality or style.
For entrepreneurs on the platform, he advises to ask for an invitation to visit the manufacturer’s factory. “In my sourcing experience, the relationship is what is most important,” explained Fola. “Yes, the quality of the manufacturing is important, but nothing matters if you don’t have trust. The better you know the manufacturer the better for their business and your product.”
Another thing to remember about manufacturing in China is the global demand it carries. Fola visited China a few years ago to build relationships with the manufacturers working on Southern Gents products. He was really impressed by the country and the advanced infrastructure and equipment. “It’s really tough to beat Chinese manufacturing right now,” said Fola. “Everybody wants to work with the best manufacturer. So, now you have brands across the globe trying to work with the same 20 to 50 factories. They get overwhelmed. The price of fabric and raw materials goes up. The cost of labor goes up. Lead time gets longer. Essentially, everyone outsourced to China to save costs, but now that is eroding.”
The need to diversify manufacturing and sourcing of all products has been a global issue this year due to lockdowns and travel bans during the height of the pandemic. Southern Gents also experienced that challenge this year. Back in November of 2019, frustration started to rise as Fola received updates that their Spring/Summer pieces had yet to start production and may not be done before the Chinese New Year. Fast forward to March 2019, their Chinese manufacturers were about to start production, but at that time America went on lockdown and seemed to shut down its economy. Thus, Southern Gents had to cancel their entire Spring/Summer release.
“Our shelves were largely empty for the first half of 2020. It was pretty rough,” said Fola. “The pandemic for us was a time to really focus on empathy and think about how to survive as a business without trying to just focus on generating cash. Today’s customer is extremely aware and sensitive. They know when you just don’t care. When you are having sales when the world is falling apart. It’s been an interesting time.”
Out of curiosity, due to this diversified sourcing dilemma, I asked Fola if he would consider sourcing from Africa. “I would definitely consider sourcing from Africa,” he said. “The same way China has become a powerhouse, if Africa wants to get into manufacturing, it can’t only be because Black people want to manufacture. We have to be able to attract European audiences, American audiences, and brands all over the world.” Fola continued, “It would be a dream come true because it’s our people. It’s home. Why wouldn’t you want to fly to Ghana or South Africa or Nigeria and be able to check on production.”
When it comes to the cultural nuances of working with Chinese manufacturers, Fola notes that it is not much different from any other location, but the undertones a Black business owner experiences cannot be ignored. Fola explained, “it’s tough being a Black business owner because I try not to always default to race when things don’t go according to plan.”
“I think sadly Black businesses just aren’t as respected,” said Fola. “I also think that a lot of times, I try to remind myself that you are the only Black person a lot of these manufacturers have ever worked with. So, you almost have to prove them right or prove them wrong to take a chance on your production. It’s a relationship, but at the same time, this is where you get these sentiments that the factory doesn’t believe in your business.” Fola continued, “it is so important to find manufacturers that believe in your brand and business. You also need to be humble enough to grow with them. Not everything is about money.”
This lack of respect for Black businesses, he feels, also ties with the Black community. The demand to support Black businesses has been around for a long time, but the reminder was extra loud this year with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. Fola advises entrepreneurs to add a deeper layer to that.
“Support is not sustainable,” said Fola. “I know we want to buy Black, but going to buy from ourselves and not viewing ourselves as inferior is not the same thing as saying we need to be supported. We have to make sure we are putting out products that are comparable and competitive to other brands on the market in terms of quality. In terms of price, we have a tendency to get into luxury markets when a large part of our communities can’t afford these prices. We have to create affordable services and products. Then, it is on our consumers to not support, but indulge in our services and products because there is no drop in quality. If there is no drop in quality on the supply side, this should even the playing field and see now whether there is discrimination in the marektplace.”
For the entrepreneur starting out, Fola recommends, “not viewing your business as a charity is going to help you in the long run. It’s going to make manufacturers who don’t look like us be more inclined to take our orders and do business with us.” “It’s nothing to complain about,” said Fola. “It’s just another hurdle and we are going to get over it.”
Of course, what is an interview if you don’t ask your guest what advice they would give to their former selves?
“Just believe in yourself,” said Fola. For example, he shared that when they started shooting images for the brand, they were trying to appeal to everyone, which made it tough to gain traction and business. Eventually, they starting shooting photos of themselves and their friends in settings they were familiar with, like bars, coffee shops, and local streets. Once they started doing this, their images started going viral. “Just tell your story,” said Fola. “Never try to be like or emulate another brand because your story is what makes you unique.”
If you are starting a business, Fola recommends to focus on your why. “Why should people buy our hats?,” asked Fola. “If someone asked me that question, I would tell them first: we make good quality products. Second: it’s not just about the clothes. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about what you make with what you have. Our goal is to make people feel powerful. We want to tell a story about what it means to get that first career job or what it means to start a business.” Fola continued, “ we are living in a time where people are more thoughtful and aware than ever. I think that the people and brands who are able to relate and make the customers feel most welcome will continue to succeed.”
What do you think? Did you find these tips helpful? Share with us in the comments.
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