How can I launch a vintage repro line?
August 6, 2012 6:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in getting reproductions of vintage clothing made. Am I better off finding a local seamstress, or should I scale up?

I have a small business selling vintage clothes at a local shop. I have a number of dresses that are beautifully made, but too worn/fragile to wear or sell. I'm interested in getting copies of them made to sell at the shop.

I'd love to find someone who can make them in a range of sizes, so that people who aren't itty-bitty can fit them (finding larger sizes is a persistent problem in the vintage business). Local seamstresses seem to be pretty expensive on a per-item basis, though, and while I've done a little research into overseas factories I'm nervous about the risks and costs entailed in larger runs. There are also IP concerns, as I'm not sure what the copyright status of sixty-year-old fashion designs might be.

Is this worth doing? Is there anyone you know of who's been down this path before, and might be able to offer advice? I've spoken briefly with the blogger behind American Duchess, who has reproduction shoes made in an overseas factory, but she didn't have any particularly specific advice to offer.

I'd also love it if you know of anyone who might be qualified to make these clothes-- I'd be particularly interested in nonprofit women's co-ops.
posted by nonasuch to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As this book says, in the U.S. at the moment
Garment styles are not protected by copyright laws. However, any original textile prints and graphics you create for your designs are protected.
Though of course that might not be true in an overseas location.
posted by XMLicious at 6:49 PM on August 6, 2012

This is totally not advice from a person who knows anything, but you might check with a local college theater department or (if you are somewhere larger) a theater itself. I had my wedding dress repro-ed by our college's theater department wardrobe shop. They are usually busy during season, but in the summer, it might be a way for the students to learn some skills and for you to help them financially. Being in academia, I realize that there are lots of obstacles to having this go through the "proper" channels, so you may have to potentially hire them as interns.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:23 PM on August 6, 2012

Best answer: reproducing for a production run is four different jobs:
1. making the pattern
2. grading the pattern to various sizes
3. sample creation and fit testing
4. sewing finished pieces

1 & 2 can often be done by the same person - if you have a local fashion design school or, even better, an old-style 'dressmakers school' locally, you might try calling them and asking if the department head or main teacher can recommend a student in the graduating class who could do the work for you. Ask them (the designer/patternmaker) to quote you a price for the work - you want to be able to keep the pattern(s) - this is not an internship-level thing. If you want to find a local professional to do the work for you, the book you are looking to read is K Fasanella's The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing. Her site is also a great resource for what you are getting into. I think she even has some posts on vintage repros; definitely do some searching over there.

3 can be done by a local seamstress, but you want one that specializes in sample creation (meaning, they use industrial machines and processes). This is because you are going to have a run of them created in a factory, and the samples need to reflect that. Home machines and 'couture-style' techniques, like bridal wear, use completely different processes than garments made for sale and you will have nothing but problems if you try to mix them. The link above has a LOT of information about that.

You can also have 3 & 4 created after you find the manufacturer who will create the entire run. If you go with an overseas factory, this is probably the way to go. You'l provide them with copies of your patterns and have them create samples for you. After you've approved the samples, you can order your runs depending on the manufacturer's requirements (most if not all have minimums; they are not always in massive quantities, but you need to find one that is sized appropriately for your business before you begin the sample making process).

4 is going to be the hardest part. I cannot recommend the site and book above enough for this; the woman is an expert and Knows Her Shit. She can be blunt but it is worth it!

(I am going to strongly recommend that you NOT use a theater company for making your garments. It will not be profitable and you will have qc issues. Nothing against costuming but they are in a different class - like bridal wear - it's just not what you're looking for.)
posted by par court at 7:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [14 favorites]

also, let me clarify my comment re: 1 above -

you do not want to seek out a designer, in all honesty. you want a patternmaker. these are usually not the same person though very rarely they are. I suggested 'old school dressmaker's school' because those places tend to teach patternmaking to their designers, whereas fashion design schools do not. a 'technical designer' is not the same as a patternmaker. this is all covered in excruciating depth in the book/site i linked above, but in case you decide to ad hoc a solution for yourself, that is a really, really important distinction to understand to save yourself a lot of hassle and money down the line.
posted by par court at 8:07 PM on August 6, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, par court, thank you-- that is really, really helpful.
posted by nonasuch at 8:38 PM on August 6, 2012

If you're interested in authenticity, a dressmakers' atelier may be your best option, as it's possible their antecedents would have been the source of the original garments. Don't forget that mass-produced clothing is a fairly recent development, so the prices your local seamstress is quoting could reflect what their original owners paid for them.

You probably already know this, but the very best vintage pieces around nowadays (60's and earlier) are usually made to a much higher standard than contemporary RTW, often using techniques rarely found outside couture apparel these days. I've sewn a number vintage patterns, restored a few originals too, and the difference in materials, technique and build quality can be quite striking. It's very unlikely that you'll achieve this same finish with contemporary production, no offense or contradiction intended to par court's excellent comment above, just that construction methods have changed enormously over the last 60 years or so.

Without seeing the dresses, it's hard to know what details might be difficult to reproduce in a modern factory setting. It may be worth consulting with a seamstress experienced in couture sewing about how to get some of the period features right in production, and/or learn about what industrial techniques can be substituted.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 6:35 AM on August 7, 2012

Response by poster: That's a good point, Elizabeth. These are day dresses, not couture, but the do have lovely details: pintucks, scallops, smocking, and interesting seaming. They might be challenging to produce in a factory.
posted by nonasuch at 6:43 AM on August 7, 2012

vintage-quality details can be done in a factory, but the issue is always going to be price. when you get to the point where you are defining the quality of your finished goods - 'who you want to hang with on the rack' - you can specify any or all of that. but your per-piece cost will reflect it, which means your sale price will reflect it, and your primary goal as a businessperson is to sell your goods and turn a profit on your endeavor.

a very basic rule to start with is the per-piece cost of the garment should be no more than 1/4 of the per-piece retail cost. that means: your wholesale price is double your cost of production, and your retail sale is double the wholesale cost. this allows you to recoup your production outlay, and provides a buffer for any merchandise that has to be sold at a markdown, while still giving you a profit. right now you only sell at one business, right? but if you are generating enough product to sell to five more, it makes sense to have an allotment of goods sold at wholesale price so those businesses can in turn sell the garments at retail and make a profit of their own (and hopefully continue buying more from you!).

pricing sounds insane at first, I know, and at the beginning you always want to make the best product you possibly can. but underpricing goods and overpaying for production is how people go out of business ultra-rapidly in this game. there is a reason why 'couture' is supposed to be synonymous with ultra-fine quality and there is another, different reason for why clothing used to be much, much more expensive (adjusted for inflation) than it is today. clothing factories are run on highly engineered processes - seriously, no different from building cars or planes or anything else that gets more 'respect' - and the scaling factor is your ultimate price point, not ability.

I'm not dissing dressmakers (surprise, I know all this stuff because I trained as one at one of those old-style schools I mentioned above!), and as a business owner you need to do your due diligence when figuring all this stuff out before you begin. you will find that this argument - 'couture' quality vs. 'manufactured' quality - is a very serious topic in the biz and is a realistic separator between businesses that scale past a certain size and those who don't. so that should be a factor as you think about all this stuff, too. it is a topic K Fasanella speaks about extensively in the book I linked above, so definitely check out her writings to get her take on it.
posted by par court at 8:07 AM on August 7, 2012

just wanted to add, because for some reason i keep forgetting this in my lengthy comments -

a very basic rule to start with is the per-piece cost of the garment and the fabric, trim, and notions should be no more than 1/4 of the per-piece retail cost.

you typically source all that stuff and provide to the factory with your patterns when you get to the sampling stage (if they are doing the samples). i get wrapped up in the technical side because that is my specialty but sourcing the actual raw components is a huge factor in your end cost as well.

if you want to scale up to the point that you sell to larger wholesalers or retailers you are going to have to think about labeling your goods and providing bills of material when you ship; this is important to think about when you are choosing your fabric. i know it seems far away when you start this but, just as an example, say you want to sell to someone that has a 'no child labor' policy (jc penney is an example). you will have to prove on your bill of material that your fabric was not made with uzbeki-origin cotton. if you buy from a supplier who can't tell you where they sourced it, then you can't prove that, and the retailer can cancel their contract with you.

(i swear i'm not trying to scare you, this stuff is part of my professional life and i think about it a lot, and i get sad when business owners don't plan ahead and get burned enough to drop the business entirely.)
posted by par court at 8:19 AM on August 7, 2012

Response by poster: Hm. Would it make sense to use a Kickstarter-type model for this? Or actual Kickstarter? Offer a dress in standard sizing at the $100 donation level, say, and custom sizing at $150? Having poked through the Kickstarter fashion section, it seems doable-- it's just that nobody seems to have tried it with vintage reproduction before.
posted by nonasuch at 8:45 AM on August 7, 2012

I don't really know; my instinct is to start with a smaller, cheaper to manufacture product (non-bra lingerie repros maybe? there is a great book of patterns on the market with vintage patterns, you could start with those and modify them until they are your own product) that's the sort of thing you could reasonably do with a seamstress or on your own with a small equipment investment (maybe ~2500$?), purely to build up capital and get some experience with less outlay.

With the experience and cashflow from that, I'd start my own factory. I'd do small production runs for other designers to build up a larger cash base and get a good collection of employees. and then I'd do my own designs.

but that is me! it's slightly less scary because i went to school for some of this, but as i am sure you know there is so much you have to learn as you go, regardless of your grades. (confession: i'm actually part way through this process. this is a five-year plan, and I still make more money at the day job, so the tipping point hasn't happened yet.)

the custom sizing thing you are describing is called 'cut to measure' and is actually a great idea that could be hugely profitable with the right web front and access to means of production ( is a good example). again, because of my training and experience kickstarter wouldn't really work for me, but maybe it would for you. but the same stuff about planning i said above will still apply; and you're still going to have to resolve the 'how will it get made?' question, and even with a ready pool of cash and a list of customers you might end up having to go to a dressmaker and not turn a profit if you don't have a well-researched plan. so, you know, do your research, stick to the plan, and memail me if you need a sanity check now and then. :)
posted by par court at 9:04 AM on August 7, 2012

There is a company in London that started out doing something similar - Vivien of Holloway - and I believe Heyday Vintage worked from vintage patterns in the beginning. (I don't know any small companies in the US who are similar, maybe Whirling Turban but they are more to the couture/bridal end.) Perhaps if you send them a very nice e-mail they can tell you how they started off in the process. I wonder if you could go into partnership with an existing small repro business in terms of you providing the 'pattern' and they the production muscle? They've done all this stuff before. Vivien of Holloway go up to vintage size 24, which is I think a UK20.

a very basic rule to start with is the per-piece cost of the garment and the fabric, trim, and notions should be no more than 1/4 of the per-piece retail cost.

This makes sense to me as a non-manufacturer - the VoH dresses retail for £70 each at the moment, but some of the fabrics I have seen in Fabricland (think like Joanns) for £4 per metre retail. Doesn't mean they're crap fabrics, just that they are not necessarily made from costly materials.
posted by mippy at 9:06 AM on August 7, 2012

Response by poster: Okay, some googling has turned up Mata Traders, who work with fair-trade women's cooperatives in India to produce what looks to be reasonably priced and decent quality clothing. They even have some vintage-inspired styles. I've emailed them to ask if they'd be willing to share the names of some of the coops they work with. Hopefully a step in the right direction. I think if I could get 50-100 preorders from Kickstarter I could do a production run at Mata's level of quality.
posted by nonasuch at 9:23 AM on August 7, 2012

posting for my friend:

Hi. You have a great question and a somewhat common dilemma—preserving older fashion. You got some great responses as well. You should in fact have patterns made for your garments, then advertise the garments and sell them as needed. Did you need to sell these en masse? If so, that’s when you should go overseas to have them made. But if they are not being sold in bulk, get the patterns made, then take orders. You will pay a pretty penny for pattern-making—it’s a highly complicated and highly paid skill for a good pattern-maker. Good ones are not that easy to find. I was in a fashion design program that taught pattern-making, and its one of my favorite things to do. The patterns can be easier to make if the garments can be taken apart. If they cannot be, the patterns can still be made. As per individual seamstresses, that might be your least expensive solution if you only need a few garments. If you go to a fashion school, you might find cheaper labor but you might also not find the type of skill you need for some older garments which are much more complicated. I am interested to see what you decide.

memail me if you'd like to speak to my friend directly.
posted by elle.jeezy at 4:14 PM on August 7, 2012

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