After a much needed full nights sleep, we began our first full day in China refreshed and energized! We were treated to a delicious breakfast, and then we met with the CEO of the Chenfeng Group, who walked us through the history, the current operations, and the future plans for this large apparel production company. Their motto, "striving to be the most competitive textile and apparel ecological chain in China" clearly states their mission, which they plan to accomplish by 2020. The Chenfeng Group is currently one of the largest apparel producers in China and they are known for their high quality products.
The company began with just 6 employees, but in 2002 they shifted their focus towards growth and transformed into the company they are today. They were previously focused only on silk fabrics, and they controlled the entire process of producing their silk. They used to provide silk to European and American luxury brands, for example Gucci and Max Mara. They still have a silk division of the company, but they have shifted their focus to other kinds of textiles in order to diversify what they can offer clothing companies. Their ultimate goal is to control every step of the apparel production process, from sourcing fibers and creating fabrics, to designing and constructing garments, and finally to developing brand image and marketing plans.
In total, the Chenfeng Group currently operates nine clothing factories across China. Together these factories produce 6.5 million garments per month, but by 2018 they hope to increase that number to 10 million garments per month.
In addition to apparel production, the Chenfeng Group works closely with young fashion designers from all around the world. They've established an internship program for college juniors and seniors that allows them to gain practical industry experience. They also help create job opportunities for recent college graduates, and if they are particularly confident in a student designer, they will financially support them and assist in having their garments made. They've helped young designers show their collections in Shanghai and Beijing Fashion Weeks.
Just to give an idea of how recognized and competitive their program is, the CEO told us a story about a student from England who sent his design portfolio to apply and was rejected by their program. He wanted to get into the program so badly that he flew all the way to China and showed up at their offices with some of his samples. When we asked the CEO if his designs were better in person, he replied with "no comment."
In America, it often feels like there are too many designers and not enough opportunities to rise to the top of the fashion industry. But in China, it's quite the opposite. Recently there has been a decline in the number of people pursuing design careers, so the Chenfeng Group began working with young designers to help revitalize the industry.
They produce clothing for a number of brands, but some of their biggest clients, including Uniqlo, Theory, and J Brand, are listed in the image above. Some of the brands they produce clothing for are their own brands (for example Comme Moi, a high end Chinese brand) while others are contracted (like Patagonia).
The location we toured today is their largest campus, and it includes a number of factories, showrooms, and research and inspection facilities, as well as housing for employees (40% of employees at this particular facility live in factory-provided housing.) All of their factories utilize solar energy, and their smallest factories have about 4,000 employees while their largest factories employ about 8,000 people each.
Most importantly, the Chenfeng Group is a part of the Fair Labor Association, and they are the first Chinese factory to have joined this internationally recognized group that ensures fair working conditions for laborers.
Typically, when an international company works with a factory, they will send specifications for a garment (silhouette, color, etc) and the factory will produce a sample. Usually it takes two samples to be approved before a garment is put into mass production, and the process of sampling is often long and expensive. The Chenfeng Group has minimized the cost of this process by inviting the brands they work with to fly to China and do the sampling process in person. So for example, a team of designers from J Brand will come to the factory, see their samples, give feedback, and finish their entire seasonal collection in just four days. It's a really innovative way to go about this often arduous part of apparel production. We shared with the Chenfeng Group employees a little information about our FSAD program at Cornell, and then we began our factory tour!
First, we visited the sampling facility. In the fabric room, they have a library of over 30,000 fabrics, which their designers can use for free. Next, we visited the pattern making room, where fabrics are cut into patterns and sewn together. We then toured a sample showroom, where completed samples are displayed to be approved by designers. We also toured a fabric show room, where designers can be inspired by a huge selection of fabrics and can customize them to create new unique fabrics as well! Finally, we saw the inspection center, where the physical and chemical aspects of their garments are tested to ensure they meet Chinese, American, or European fabric standards, depending on their market.
The second factory we visited was a full-scale garment production facility. This is where garments go to be produced after they have been approved as samples. Compared to other factories I've toured, this factory was incredibly spacious, clean, and well-ventilated. The CEO explained that workers typically work between 8 and 10 hours a day, but they are allowed to work up to 12 hours if they would like. They are paid minimum wage but can receive bonuses for exceptional work.
After a quick lunch break, we toured another one of their factories which focuses primarily on shirt production. This factory alone makes 1.2 million garments a month and it is considered the number one shirt factory in the world based on quality and efficiency. At most shirt factories, a worker can produce between 18 and 25 garments each day. But at Chenfeng's factory, a worker produces an average of 43 garments per day. In this particular factory, we saw a lot of products being made for Uniqlo and Theory.
The Chenfeng Group factories set the bar very high, so I am interested to see if the other factories we visit are as efficient and clean. It is comforting to see that there are some factories that not only provide their workers with safe conditions, but go above and beyond to ensure that their products are of the highest quality.
Tomorrow we will be visiting two more factories, so stay tuned for that!