The label "Made in Bangladesh" in the tags of international apparel brands in the US, Europe, or even Singapore brings a wide smile to the faces of Bangladeshis. Our hearts leap with joy and pride.
But if you walk through an international high fashion brand store in New York or Rome, you will hardly find any "Made in Bangladesh" line. Even if you find one, you will see it in the last row.
India, China, Vietnam, and even Turkey have turned into hubs for manufacturing high-end apparels. Bangladesh, on the other hand, despite having the highest number of factories compliant with international standards, cannot secure orders for the high value-added or high-end brands.
Fashion trends are changing fast. On the one hand, the demand for basic items is declining and, on the other, the demand for high fashion - unique, embellished designs with detailing - is on the rise.
The RMG industry has suffered much since 2019, which became worse because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Experts have urged diversifying the export basket. However, the shift to high-end apparel production is happening very slowly, and on a small scale, in Bangladesh.
Experts typically categorise the apparel market into seven segments: Ultra luxury, exclusive luxury, premium luxury, affordable luxury, upper-mass market, lower-mass market, and value/discount retail.
High-end usually refers to the top three segments and the average Bangladeshi apparel makers are still stuck with the bottom three of the pyramid, said Fahim H. Rahman, former executive director of New Asia Group and Managing Partner of Noksha Capital, a global private equity firm which invests (among other sectors) into the RMG sector.
Simply put, high-end apparels are associated with high price because of materials, fits, detailing, intriguing designs, embellishments, washes, and so on.
According to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Rubana Huq, the share of high-priced apparel is still as low as 20% (It is calculated based on price of apparels per kg). In FY2018-19, 14% to 15% of exported goods were within the $15-20 per kg range and only 6% could qualify for prices above $35.
Bangladesh currently manufactures premium or upper-middle jackets, suits, denim, sweaters, etc. There are quite a few brands considered upper middle ones e.g. Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, and Marks & Spencer that source products from Bangladesh.
There are several reasons why Bangladesh is far away from capturing the high-end market.
Workers are not skilled enough to handle complex designs
The more high-end a product is, the more complex design it has. Complex designs require certain skills among workers. Bangladeshi factories have been manufacturing low-end or upper-middle garments for decades. The workers are used to and are comfortable with manufacturing basic products and often do not look forward to upgrading skills or get out of their comfort zone. They need to be trained to handle complex designs.
Tajrina Mannan, president of Sunman Group, has a brand shop in New York. She is manufacturing apparels for her high-end brand in Bangladesh. It took time to reach the high-end quality from Bangladesh and she shared some of her struggles.
Initially, she used to make samples in New York and have them tested for viability in factories in China and Bangladesh. She could not fully rely on Bangladeshi production and was developing samples in China. The patterns and proto samples were always coming out better in China at first go.
She realised Bangladesh was good at creating second samples and needed a lot more instructions. Bangladesh still lagged in product development and design. It took her two seasons to train up sample room workers in Bangladesh so that they become at par with the New York sample room standards and requirements.
Fahim thinks with 35 years of experience in consistently producing basic products, the Bangladeshi apparel labour force can adapt to further complexities in designs.
Copycat trend and post-colonial mindset
Bangladesh has been producing basic products for 35 years, but it mostly copies samples given by buyers. We do not have our own designs. To produce high-end products, we need to offer our own designs.
Bangladesh has been grooming designers for quite a long time. Hundreds of designers are graduating from the BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology and a few other private institutions. But we are not manufacturing designer outfits at a significant level. Designers are recruited for local products and have not entered the manufacturing industry for the global market yet.
We are less valued as we still do business in the traditional method. We expect buyers to give tech packs instead of offering original designs. Adding 'in-house design' is a big value addition that many factories could consider
"We are less valued as we still do business in the traditional method. We expect buyers to give tech packs instead of offering original designs. Adding 'in-house design' is a big value addition that many factories could consider," said Tajrina.
"There are also social and cultural barriers in communication. For example, our team members often address a buyer as Sir or Madam, even though the latter is not superior," she said.
She also said, "We have this mindset. However, the perception that we are obliged to take their command has changed over time. This post-colonial era mindset needs to change. The good news is that these are all easy fixes."
Factories not ready
In the aftermath of Rana Plaza tragedy, Bangladeshi factories increased their capacity and became compliant with Accord and Alliance. High-end requires lower number of product lines, whereas our factories have a higher number of that.
"The product lines in Vietnam and even in China are lower than that of Bangladesh. Even if we compare ourselves with these countries, we have five-star standard state-of-the-art factories that are mostly compliant. Where we went wrong is that we focused on quantity instead of quality. So, we increased production lines to make more products," said Syed M Sajjad, chief operating officer of Majumder Garments.
The product lines in Vietnam and even in China are lower than that of Bangladesh. Even if we compare ourselves with these countries, we have five-star standard state-of-the-art factories that are mostly compliant. Where we went wrong is that we focused on quantity instead of quality.
Covid-19 has hit the basic product market severely. Vietnam has surpassed Bangladesh not in volume, but in export value. Between July 2019 and June 2020, Vietnamese apparels earned $30.94 billion, whereas Bangladesh raked in $28.82 billion, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam and the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) of Bangladesh.
Vietnam highly emphasises making quality products rather than quantity. So, they focus on skill development instead of capacity building.
To make high-end happen in the country, we need to make our factories ready for low volume production ensuring high quality.
Unavailability of raw materials
The price and quality of apparels are determined based on the materials used. One of the major issues Bangladeshi RMG has been facing is the overdependence on sourcing raw materials from China or India in a few cases. The lack of local availability of raw materials, hence, hinders the production of premium or high value-added products.
"Apparel suppliers for the low-end market can realistically gain a market share in the premium market. However, it will depend heavily on their skill levels in developing specific product lines and in sourcing raw materials at competitive prices, as 60% of the prices tend to be determined based on the materials used.
Unfortunately, there is virtually no chance for our suppliers (as per their current setup) to gain market share of brands operating in the high-end luxury market
"Those with strong supply chain planning teams will be able to make this transition quickly. Unfortunately, there is virtually no chance for our suppliers (as per their current setup) to gain market share of brands operating in the high-end luxury market," Fahim pointed out.
Long lead time, infrastructure problem
For basic products, Bangladesh usually gets a four-month lead time. But premium products get a maximum of 60 days. It takes 90 days to source yarn, fabric, and cotton.
"I am saying this again: Bangladeshi factories are not ready to produce in short volume. High-end requires short volume and short lead time. First, our workers need skill development training. We need professional designers to make high-end products. We do not have that. Then, shipment is another issue. Compared to Bangladesh, Vietnam is nearer in proximity to Europe and the US," Sajjad said.
Bangladeshi factories are not ready to produce in short volume. High-end requires short volume and short lead time.
Another issue is traffic jam and the absence of five-star hotels near the airport. If buyers plan to visit two factories, they end up visiting only one due to severe traffic congestion.
"Buyers always look for comfort. If they pay you the same and have to go through hassles, why would they come to you? What are you giving them? They would prefer going to Vietnam. Our policymakers should think about this issue and resolve it," Sajjad added.
Inefficiency in communication skills, and R&D
The communication part is mostly dealt by merchandisers. Their communication and persuasion skills are mostly weak. Professionalism in communication skills is a key to attracting high-end buyers. There is no alternative to studying the market, and research and development.
"When you email a Chinese or Vietnamese company, you see how promptly they reply. They give you a comprehensive plan and detailed information about a certain query. They keep asking you questions and they offer a competitive price whereas our communication officers often leave it to buyers and provide unrealistic prices open to negotiation," said an industry insider seeking anonymity.
We have to develop our R&D department and improve communication skills to get orders from the premium brands. There is no alternative to professional development. If we want to compete with Vietnam in high-end, we need to know their strengths.
DC Saman Indika, chief operating officer of DRID Group who has years of experience in Vietnam, said the Southeast Asian country is a popular destination for high-end brands because of many reasons i.e. short lead time, high quality fabrics, availability of accessories, and skilled labour force. "They are also advanced technologically."
Sparrow Group has been producing high-end women's wear for quite a long time. There is a potentiality for Bangladesh to tap into men, women, and children's high value-added wear, reported Textile Today.
Bangladesh has gained a name in denim. It can also look into active wear e.g. sweat-proof t-shirts, yoga pants, leggings, running shorts, etc. These can be high value-added and be produced in bulk, thinks Fahim.
Meanwhile, the BGMEA is in talks with the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM) in Paris and with the Ministry of Commerce to take up projects on developing fashion wear by using our indigenous textile materials e.g. Jamdani, Taant, etc. to make a name for Bangladesh in the global market.
"We are also exploring the prospect of a virtual marketplace through which we can attempt to sell our own designs and products at original design manufacturer (ODM) price," Rubana Huq said.