Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

In part two of our podcast with Sue Marshall and Meg DeCubellis from illumiNITE reflective athletic wear we continue our conversation about running a woman-owned manufacturing company and what it RELLY takes to get something made and out into the world.  Hint: It’s hard, but there’s hope. If you have a dream of making the next great handbag or t-shirt, this episode is for you.

We asked Sue and Meg A LOT of questions. Here are a few highlights from the show.

Q: Are consumer concerned about who manufactures their clothing? Are they willing to pay more for good quality and ethically made clothes, or does the almighty dollar still rule?

A:  For the most part, the almighty dollar still rules. There are pockets of people who care and think it’s cool to buy ethically made, etc., but do they really want to pay an extra $50 a jacket? Our products are made in Fall River, MA and a lot of people appreciate that story.

Q: What happens if someone’s “great idea” isn’t that hot?

A: People approach us with all sorts of ideas, and we try to approach every idea as if it’s a great one.  Whether we believe the idea is great or not is insignificant, as long as we believe we can help. We don’t try to discourage anyone, but if it’s not a great idea and it’s not going well, we take a pause and ask them to think it through. We ask tough questions like, who is the competition, and how will they market the product?  How will they make money? People dream of Shark Tank without recognizing all the work that came before Shark Tank. Remember, just because everyone wears clothes doesn’t mean everyone is able to design clothes.

A lot of times people come to us at the beginning with the initial idea. Most people don’t realize the next part is the real hard work. The next part is sticking with it through manufacturing and selling the product. You’ve got to be good at sales because you have to sell the hell out of this thing, sometimes they fall or they falter a bit there.

Q: How do you to judge if an idea will work?

A:  We try to give people good advice along the way. Sometimes a person gets all the way through the process, through manufacturing, and then it goes nowhere because the commitment isn’t there. When we help, we touch the product it in every step of the process, and we’re committed to it.

But, the bottom line, if we see a bad idea and it’s on the back of a cocktail napkin, which happens all the time, before someone dumps a ton of money into something, we encourage them to reconsider. We ask the customer to be sure. Are they sure this cat t-shirt is going to start a cat t-shirt craze? The hardest thing to do is discourage someone if they have a real passion for their cat t-shirt. That said, experience is the best teacher.

Q: What do you see as the future for the apparel industry?

A. Everyone likes to buy things made in the USA, but the reality is something different. It’s great to manufacture here, but we can’t find enough trained stitchers, factory workers, or people who want to do this type of work. It sounds great. I want to make it in the USA. The problem is where are the people to work in the factory, and who is training them to do this work?

And it’s a huge problem. It’s not just here, it’s all over the country. It’s great to want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, but there has to be an investment in education and training to keep this business going. On our factory floor, the average age of our workers is 65. More than half of them collect Social Security because they’re eligible to collect Social Security. So these women come into work because they like working. They like coming in and making things with their friends.

The increased minimum wage is also something to think about. Everybody’s got to make $15 an hour, which I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but you give $15 an hour to an unskilled worker, so that means at least $20 an hour for a skilled factory worker. Suddenly making apparel in this country is impossible, because everyone wants cheap clothes. No one is interested in these kinds of jobs because for my company to be competitive, we can’t pay $25 an hour for people to make clothes.

Another problem is technology. A lot of manufacturing left this country, so no one invested money into improving technology. It’s like we’re stuck in the forties and fifties and the sixties.

New technology was developed and sent overseas, so we’re in a weird generation gap of manufacturing. Other countries aren’t investing in their people as much as they should, so the money goes to technology to make everything more efficient and faster and more competitive in general.

Q: What makes illumiNITE different?

A. Our customers are important to us. When you call, one of us picks up the phone. Quality and integrity are important and if you have a problem with our product, whether you bought the jacket yesterday or 10 years ago, we’ll make it right.

People who like us believe in our product and appreciate that we manufacture in Fall River with a little bit of love. Everything we sell is reflective. It’s considered retroreflective. So what does that mean? It means when the light hits it, it directs light back to the source, and it’s like you plugged in the item.  We genuinely believe in our product, and when we show our customers what the difference between our product the product sitting next to it they see a big difference.

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