Thanks to globalization, a small, family-run, jersey garment factory in a tiny civil parish in the north of Portugal is affected not only by domestic circumstances but also by foreign events, from regulations designed by law-makers in fancy offices overlooking Brussels, to the actions of powerful, Asian mega-players and the whims of the global stock market.

Our company, Pedrosa & Rodrigues, is truly a product of the 1980s. Like most of our peers and suppliers, our story begins with a self-taught team of a handful of people in their early twenties, working Monday to Sunday in a garage in the least Silicon Valley start-up way imaginable. At that time, Portugal’s doors had finally opened up to Europe after enduring a long-standing authoritarian regime, which coincided with the strongest economies in the Old Continent becoming set on de-industrialization. For anyone outside Portugal, the impact this had is hard to overstate: an abundance of opportunities trickled down to weaker European economies, allowing companies like ours to exist with astounding implications on local communities. A fast-moving train was passing through Portugal and we jumped in, clueless as to where it was headed.

While we were busy churning out huge quantities of basic cotton t-shirts for big-name sports brands, the world around us kept spinning. Ten years into the textile gold rush, our eyes lifted up from the sewing machines to a radically new set of circumstances.

By the mid-90s the Eastern enlargement of the EU had introduced competitors offering lower labor costs. In 1992 the Portuguese escudo joined theExchange Rate Mechanism, then the Euro in 1999 – a farewell in two acts to what had been a highly advantageous currency flexibility (not to mention it made exporter companies feel like a weak, indebted regional team competing in the Premier League). China, of course, joined the WTO in 2001, to the great benefit of consumers worldwide and large corporation share-holders, and radically reconfiguring the global manufacturing landscape.

In the lifespan of our company, we’ve seen the playing field pitched to our advantage and, later, to our disadvantage. This shift brought about a difficult process of natural selection for Portuguese manufacturers, while in the Far East the garment manufacturing industry thrived with such resounding success that centuries-old global power structures shifted.

Albeit a tiny speck of dust in the global fashion universe, the Portuguese textile industry’s story carries a humbling lesson in sailing through rough seas. Each blow has taught companies to stay lean and flexible, to become customer-centric and to be uneasy with comfort. By the end of the 1990’s, Portuguese companies could no longer compete on price, so we focused on quality instead. We updated our factories and braved into crafting complex, risky products for highly-regarded fashion brands and realized some of their reputation rubbed onto ours. Once our quality was validated, it was time for service to take center. People began to be recognized as every organization’s most valuable asset, rather than machinery or technology. Self-made business owners began to see the value of training and formal education to keep teams in tune with the times. After decades of selling workmanship minutes, it was time for service, sustainability and innovation to finally become synonyms for ‘Made in Portugal’.

Each of these aforementioned events represented a painful break with the past for Portuguese companies. For jersey garment factories like Pedrosa, our peers and our vast pool of local suppliers (knitters, dyeing houses, printers, embroidery mills, sewing units) this has sparked bouts of experimentation, restructuring, trial-and-error, numerous trips with over-weight luggage bursting with samples to brand offices in all corners of Europe and the US. Both the successful and unsuccessful meetings taught us valuable lessons about the market and the new generations of consumers. After some contemplation, we began to correlate these experiences with resources contained within our factories, resulting in highly valuable insight that would help turn change into opportunity.

As garment manufacturers, becoming accustomed to change has evolved into the a defense strategy against uncertainty. After all, ‘everything must change for everything to remain the same’ (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in ‘Il Gattopardo’).

Historically, fashion has always been one of the greatest, rawest expressions of social change. However, in the course of a decade it has been shaken to its core by the digital age, fashion blogs and consumer-led change; e-commerce, omni-channel strategies, social media business platforms, fashion and political activism, Tik Tok, Brexit and a global pandemic no less. Some of the most established fashion names have fallen in the face of these forces, clearing the way for digital-native, direct-to-consumer brands and those agile enough to react quickly.

The usual recipe for a healthy balance sheet (off-shoring production to buy cheap and then retail at a higher profit margin) no longer seems to work in such a disruptive environment. We believe this to be the reason we’ve seen brands reach out to their closest suppliers, and in a way that reinvented and expanded the role of the factory in relation to the brands we serve.

The move from producer to partner

Portuguese factories have long been pitching the advantages of near-shoring to US, European and UK fashion brands in light of the retail crisis, offering flexible MOQs to prevent overstocking and especially swift lead-times on repeats, should the brand need to react quickly in case their product becomes a commercial success.

Soon after, we (a collective we including both Pedrosa & Rodrigues as well as our local peers) started looking inwards and found ourselves surrounded by decades-worth of patterns, sample archives and tried-and-tested solutions, only to realize we were sitting on a wealth of knowledge and resources that our customer brands desperately needed in order to stand up to their competitors and offer something fresh and exciting to the consumer.

Portuguese garment factories have been state-of-the-art development centers for a very long time, yet not under the brands’ view. It wasn’t until the retail crisis hit that we realized we were attracting teams of designers and buyers from all over the world, who would sit in our showrooms to go through carefully curated presentations – beautiful samples, trims, innovative techniques and fabrics, all of which produced within a 50km radius –  actually consisting of valuable business intelligence.

Then, a most serendipitous string of events unfolds on our product specialty. In the past 10 years, jerseys went from being treated by brands as a seasonal afterthought to becoming a central category in a contemporary wardrobe, partially fueled by the factories’ contribution to sourcing and development, but mostly by the following phenomena:

Firstly, the resounding popularity of luxury streetwear turned t-shirts, sweatshirts, joggers and tracksuits into the ultimate entry-level product. This category is the least costly to make out of the whole range, but generates impressive turnaround. Iconic luxury names such as Helmut Lang, Givenchy and Balenciaga began to cater to a wider, millennial public aspiring to carry their iconic names in a product category that makes sense to this generation’s life-style and with a price tag that is not entirely unattainable but still suggests some degree of exclusivity.

This generational aspect leads us to the second factor: Instagram has made logos infinitely reproducible and turned its users into walking advertisements. The high quantity of logo t-shirts and hoodies we’ve been crafting at Pedrosa feels like a conscious reaction to this phenomenon on our customers’ part.

One-stop online shopping came next: once a fashion brand grabs the consumer’s attention, it’s in their interest to not only carry the impeccably tailored jumpsuit but also the casual lyocell polo-neck to wear underneath (‘why not consolidate and save on shipping?’). If brands do not carry the simpler, jersey pieces that look great with their most elaborate styles, a competitor brand will. Bonus points for jersey for offering some of the lowest return rates for online retailers.

Finally, the emergence of crossover categories like Athleisure has seen us in the factory execute tailoring details on fleece track suits and applying elegant lace cuffs on otherwise basic jersey pieces. We now manufacture clothing for busy individuals pursuing professional as well as personal goals, with no time, budget or interest in changing their appearance while transitioning between one and the other.

When the covid-19 pandemic engulfed our lives in 2020, we at Pedrosa & Rodrigues had no idea that our experience as a second-generation jersey garment manufacturer would save our business from the most severe wave of disruption the world had ever seen. How can we – if not by pure, cosmic luck – interpret the fact that the impeccably crafted comfortable garments we offer continue to make sense to consumers stuck at home, working and socializing in front of their screens?

A shared case study in uncertainty

The history of garment manufacturing in Portugal has been shaped by responses to uncertainty and disruption.  This is something the fashion industry as a whole is now coming to terms with; brands have seen a retail apocalypse, with changes in consumer spending patterns challenging the brick-and-mortar business model, and turning once-bustling high streets into deserts.

To cope, brands have had to rapidly integrate omni-channel strategies, and invest heavily in eCommerce to secure business continuity – a task that’s been easier for digital-native brands that older, more-established ones. It was out with seasonal trends, and in with real-time data as brands targeted shoppers who want newness and variety on ever-accelerating timeline.

Then, of course, the global pandemic hit, locking people in their homes for more than a year, and sparking a real existential crisis in physical retail.

In a way, this shared sense of hardship has brought us closer than ever to our brand customers, and has made our partnerships tighter.  In the last year, communication between fashion brands, garment factories, and the supply chain has become more efficient, and everyone’s objectives have been better-aligned.  (With important national nuances, as the COVID-19 situation and response varies from country to country.)

Brands now share more data with us on how the market responds to a particular product, at the same time as welcoming the factory’s input, insights, proposals and solutions – all of which help to ensure that no opportunities are missed.  We also work more closely than ever with our local pool of expert suppliers: innovative fabric mills, state-of-the-art printers, embroiderers, industrial washing facilities and more, all certified to the highest global ethical and environmental standards.  This is creating a pipeline of potential – one that taps into the brand’s market insight, our suppliers’ expertise, and our own services, so that the final product is finely-calibrated for both the brand’s specific needs and the consumer’s expectations.

In our experience, people and relationships really do play a central role in business – especially at times of generalized uncertainty.  With 360-degree interdependency now evident at every stage of the supply chain, a solid, trust-based relationship between brand and supplier can become a key tool for future-proofing fashion against disruption and uncertainty.

In the past year, we have seen the results of this closer cooperation first-hand. Not only have several of our customer brands survived the pandemic, but some have capitalized on the opportunities it has created, and achieved record-breaking success. And having weathered so much uncertainty of our own, for so long, we and other manufacturers are ready to support the industry whatever the future has in store.