What does it take to set up a factory in China? Serial fashion brand builder Tania Hanna reveals how she navigated this in the late 1980s, and how she maintains relationships in the market today. Hanna is the founder, designer and CEO of Dref by D, DYZNA and Urban Tech Apparel.
I arrived in Hong Kong at the age of 22 without any knowledge of the Cantonese language, local cuisine, or traditions. It was a significant culture shock, making it difficult to understand the people and communicate effectively, as I only encountered one person who spoke English.
Navigating Hong Kong and Cheung Sha Wan on Castle Peak Road was challenging since I couldn't ask for directions or have my questions answered. However, this unfamiliar and challenging environment became my new home and, unbeknownst to me at the time, marked the beginning of something very special.
Cheung Sha Wan was the epicentre of fashion production in Hong Kong, and manufacturing was thriving. Hong Kong, at the time, was highly industrial, with various production activities clustered in one area, creating a bustling atmosphere.
All suppliers of raw materials were concentrated in the same vicinity, which meant we had to walk to these places and carry everything back to our locations. Physically carrying fabrics and trims through the cold climate was demanding, but where there's a will, there's a way. However, the area's high level of industrial activity also led to significant waste and unpleasant odours, which I found challenging and hard to adapt to.
All apparel production took place in Kowloon, in one building there were 15 levels of production taking place - the vibe was so busy and had very long days.
In this period the team made the decision to open a factory in China, being one of the first. I travelled to China via train to discover a sea of people wearing only brown and green on push bikes, hardly any cars in sight - this was quite frightening as a young person not only embarking on a new venture but in a new country with different rules. It was a hard to comprehend but I took one step at a time and didn’t allow the factors to overwhelm me.
One of my earliest memories from my time in the factories was having a single room with a few pieces of machinery and a small team of individuals who became my 'team.' I spent several days with the one person who could speak English, giving her instructions to communicate with the rest of the team.
She became my very close friend and today I call her my sister.
Achieving our initial goals was a slow process. Once the team was in place, and all the planning was completed, we began putting together a collection. Because there was no separate sample room, I had to work with the same team for both the collection and samples, which increased our costs, making it difficult to manage.
After launching our first range and starting production, I fell ill with food poisoning and was bedridden for a week. This setback slowed down our production as the team was still relatively new and couldn't proceed without my guidance. However, we eventually overcame this hurdle and completed our first order successfully. This was a huge achievement and one I am so fond of.
The collection was brought back to Australia and sold both in retail and wholesale channels in the 1980s, achieving great success. As word spread about our capabilities, we began producing for other brands, expanding the factory to two levels within the building. This marked our entry into China as one of the first factories in the country.
Today, China has become highly professional and sophisticated in how it manages production, a significant departure from the relatively primitive state of the industry in the 1980s.
Building relationships on trust has been key. I've been able to establish trust with my on-ground team in China because I've consistently followed through on my commitments.
When working with factories, I take into account not only the costs but also how requested changes or requests might affect them. I always strive for a win-win situation.
Our processes with the factories are meticulously planned to minimize risks and reduce wastage, benefiting both the factories and our end goals.
I've invested time in understanding and respecting Chinese culture and traditions. This respect has been reciprocated, with many suppliers considering me like family. In our interactions, there's mutual respect, even during disagreements, and we often exchange gifts as a sign of goodwill.
For example, a beautiful Chinese tradition is gifting before a wedding. One of my suppliers flew to Melbourne to present a gift in person, leaving the next day as they respected my privacy and boundaries, showcasing a heartfelt sentiment.