Well, that was one hell of a trip! It started with an early morning departure from Heathrow, travelling with three of my colleagues, first destination Bangalore, India, where none of them had ever been before. This was going to be something of a baptism of fire – India is always a bit of a culture shock to the uninitiated, and we needed to hit the ground running! Having spent all day travelling, via a short stop in Dubai, suddenly it was the next morning (courtesy of a five and a half hour time difference), and we had a brief couple of hours in bed before our first pick up.
The boyswear team head off to meet one supplier, whilst I meet up with the babywear team (already on the second leg of their trip, having started out a few days earlier in Delhi, and worked through the bank holiday weekend!) to visit our largest babywear manufacturer, weaving our way through the relentlessly speeding, honking and swerving traffic. We are visiting a new unit, the supplier in question having brought together all their centralised operations under one, purpose built, roof – fabric checking and storage, cutting, printing, embroidery, testing lab, offices and showrooms – it is vast, and extremely impressive. The only part of the garment making process that is now carried out in their original buildings is the sewing itself. We embark on our tour, which takes the best part of the morning, and takes in all of these stages, stopping along the way to visit the company crèche, where we meet the children and hand out pencils and drawing equipment, which the team have brought as gifts. We also give each child a jelly baby, but they all look a little bemused and wary of it, until we show them that they are supposed to eat it!
FABRIC STORAGE (the fabric stored here will generate two weeks worth of garment production)
CUTTING YARN DYED STRIPES BY HAND (note the chainmail gloves to protect the operators hands from the lethally sharp vertical knife!)
PANEL PRINTING (as demonstrated by one of the team!)
Whilst making our way around the factory, we are also honoured to each be asked to plant a tree to celebrate the opening of this new facility, and there follows a very windy interlude where we each put a tree in the ground, with a name plaque to commemorate our support. It makes me very proud, to be associated with a business that holds the welfare of its employees in the same, incredibly high esteem as it does product quality and safety standards. It also feels somewhat weird to know that there is a little tree with my name on it growing in Bangalore!
We spend the rest of the day working on new developments in the showroom, discussing longer term business plans, production bookings and opportunities/special buys for our international stores, before heading out for dinner at a beautiful courtyard restaurant with our hosts. At this point, however, some of us have had just a couple of hours sleep in the last 36 hours, and are feeling somewhat jaded. After yet another hair raising wacky races car journey back to the hotel, it is a huge relief to crawl into a giant comfy bed for a full eight hours!
Next morning and I’m up and out with the boys and menswear teams, dragging all our baggage with us, to meet up with another supplier – we’re in their showroom to put new developments into work, working with fabric swatches, bought samples and design sketches to create some really exciting new styles for SS2015. Although we are doing a considerable amount of business with them on kidswear, it is early days on menswear, and we spend an entire day working through the detail of each style, trying to minimise any possibility for misinterpretation. Hopefully, our instructions are detailed enough, and clear enough, to be carried out effectively, to generate the best possible buying samples – only time will tell!
By the end of the day, we are heading back to the airport, and our evening flight to Chennai. Due to the volume of samples, files, paperwork, laptops and other buying/designing paraphernalia we are all carrying, every single one of us ends up being charged for excess baggage. Having finally sorted out payment for the baggage, we then battle our way through security, and the inevitable stepping into the box for frisking, before going in search of dinner. Now, this in itself is a challenge; we have two vegetarians amongst our number, which is not a problem in India, however, we also have one who is allergic to chilli, which is a significant problem! The majority of us settle for a dosa, a kind of pancake with various dipping sauces – actually quite tasty, despite appearances, whilst our poor chilli allergic colleague had to make do with a chocolate doughnut. Total cost? Around £9.00 for six “meals”! Glamorous this journey is not!
As we board the flight, it becomes apparent that we have a comedy air steward on the crew – first he tells one of my colleagues she is on the wrong plane (how to cause instant panic!), then he proceeds to get an uncontrollable fit of the giggles during the “safety” demonstration. Somehow, I suddenly do not feel all that safe! Thankfully, it is only a 45 minute flight, and we land in Chennai without further incident.
We eventually manage to find the right cars, and wearily climb in, heading for our next hotel, and a quick nightcap in the very surreal, deserted, “nightclub” style bar. Next morning and we are up and out, scattering again in different directions. I spend a very enjoyable day, first with the menswear team at one of our shirt suppliers, before moving on (another wild car journey, weaving in and out, and occasionally, actually bumping into, other cars!) to join the boyswear team for a very enjoyable afternoon – there is so much exciting development going on here that we are spoilt for choice, and I leave very optimistic that we have the makings of a great spring range under way. We head straight from the office, to the suppliers’ beach house for a truly fabulous evening. I have said it before, and I am sure this won’t be the last time, but the generosity of our hosts on these visits never fails to amaze me – they have laid on a wonderful meal in the garden, but we begin with a few drinks at the garden bar, where the barman seems very keen to practise his cocktail making skills! There are, however, still a couple of people missing, our design manager and menswear assistant buyer! Held hostage, it would appear, by the supplier they had been visiting, who seemed loathe to let them go (so yet again, I seem to be developing a reputation for losing members of my team in strange circumstances, albeit briefly!). Having finally escaped, there followed a complicated scenario (nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems in India!), where the car they were in was supposed to drop them off at a particular location, to then be transported on to meet us for dinner. The first driver got lost (everyone here always says they know exactly where they are going, but experience has taught me that they rarely ever do!), and having driven around the same block three times, stops to get out and ask, disappearing into a nearby building, at which point the other driver appears from nowhere – disaster averted! It is by this time, however, almost 9pm, and whilst politely waiting for our colleagues to arrive, we appear to have eaten our way through a never ending supply of delicious Indian canapes, washed down with a considerable amount of wine, vodka tonic and beer. Finally, I am starting to feel like my body has caught up with the time zone and we can all relax and enjoy the rest of the evening.
Saturday morning dawns, after a very late night, and I have repacked, dragging my baggage out to the next appointment, back at the supplier we visited yesterday, this time spending all day working on mens shirts, trousers, and shorts. It is my last day in Chennai, and I leave my colleagues here, heading off to the airport for a solo flight to Colombo. I have minimal time to spare and, having made it through check in and security, I head straight to the gate to board, at which point the unheard of happens! The plane leaves 30 minutes early! Yes, early! Nothing ever happens early in India! Good job I was on it before they shut the doors! As luck would have it, this means I am in the baggage hall in Colombo waiting for my luggage, when the babywear team arrive from Bangalore – we could not have planned it better if we had tried! We jump in the hotel car for a very smooth ride into town along the brand new highway, which cuts the journey time in half, leaving us just enough time for a very late drink at the pool bar, before heading for bed, shattered!
Sunday means a day off, and we are determined to make the most of it! After a rare couple of hours relaxing by the pool, we head off to explore the refurbished “Old Dutch Hospital” which has been turned into a complex of shops and restaurants, part of the major redevelopment that seems to be going on in and around Colombo – it has changed a great deal since my last visit. We settle on a late lunch at the “Ministry of Crab”, before heading back to the hotel to catch up on correspondence with the office back home.
Monday morning and we are off to see a key supplier at their “product development centre”, putting in new sample development, discussing production plans, critical paths, business potential, prices, volumes, delivery dates and sign off requirements. I am always reminded during these meetings, of the amount of time, effort and careful planning required to get a garment from concept to store – it really isn’t as simple as you might think, when we are designing the majority of product from scratch, and selecting all the components, from the fabric quality to every button, trim, embellishment, thread colours, as well as the details of any print, applique, embroidery and wash techniques.
Our second and last day in Colombo finds us heading off to see another potential new factory before making our way back to the product development centre to tie up loose ends and recap to ensure that everyone is clear about what samples we need and when. It is the eve of a major festival in Sri Lanka, celebrating Buddha’s birthday, and by the time we leave, late into the evening, a highly revered local monk is seated on the steps of the centre, giving a speech to all of the staff. We have to leave via a side door, but still stepping over many of those seated cross legged on the ground in front of the centre, in order to make our way out to the waiting car. Despite the team telling us it is not a problem, it stills feels very disrespectful to be departing during what is a highly religious and culturally important celebration for the local people. As we drive back to the hotel, through the even more chaotic traffic than usual, and along streets festooned with celebratory lanterns, the evening takes on a “Christmas Eve” type feeling, everyone coming out of their homes to begin the celebrations, give thanks to Buddha, and enjoy a few days holiday. It is clearly a very special occasion and I feel privileged to have witnessed a little of the culture in a place that I love to visit. Yet again it strikes me how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the opportunity to experience all this – highly demanding it may be, but what a joy!
Since I started writing this post, after our last long haul trip in May, the time has just run away with me in a frenzy of activity, several weeks of planning and delivering strategy to our buying teams and directors, another very exciting trip to Turkey, and a number of sign offs and meetings, culminating in a conference for some of our key kidswear and menswear suppliers yesterday. It has been a long time in the planning, and took a great deal of effort from all the teams to create an inspiring environment in our basement, utilising all our latest product and graphics to showcase our business strategy and share our plans for the future. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it makes me very proud to be working with such a fantastic team of visionary, enthusiastic and committed people, both within the business and our supply base.