A JOURNEY TO CHINA: A VISIT TO PRG FACTORIES
The life of a Pierre Robert garment starts long before it hits the shelves of your local supermarket. It starts with a design sketch. This one design sketch is then translated into an entire collection and sent to a factory many miles away, where a concept is made into reality.
When clothing is produced outside the Pierre Robert Group's main office, it is important to know that our suppliers comply with PRG guidelines for responsible and sustainable business operations, while maintaining a high quality standard. That's why, every year, our buyers get on a plane to go interview new suppliers and ensure that everything is as it should be at the PRG factories.
So what exactly does such a visit involve? PRG buyers Hege and Martine give us a peek behind the scenes.
China and Hong Kong. March 2016
After close to 12 hours in the air and a brief layover in Copenhagen, we land in Shanghai at Pudong Airport. Surprising enough, there is no "‘Pierre Robert limousine" waiting for us. We settle for public transport together with the throngs of Chinese travellers who squeeze themselves into shuttle buses going from Pudong to Hongqiao Airport, where we have booked a hotel.
The Chinese travellers sneak in ahead of us and we are the last ones to board. The bus is completely packed and it looks like we'll be standing for an hour, but the driver is courteous and folds down a seat beside him. Voila! Martine has a VIP seat. It must be karma.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we try to buy tickets for the subway to take us into town. The man behind us in the queue clearly thinks we're dilly-dallying too much because he suddenly takes over the ticket machine, flips quickly through the menu and then pays for us — 5 crowns per ticket! Wow.
Dinner is finally served. We eat fried and steamed dumplings with different fillings before we both flop down into a chair at a little nail salon. Our dry Norwegian winter hands are made soft and fresh again.
The first factory visit is by train to Wuxi, southwest of Shanghai. At the very last moment, we get on board the very punctual express train, which reaches speeds of up to 330 km per hour. The factory manager meets us at the station. It turns out he has quite a hard time talking and driving at the same time.
As we pull out of the car park, Martine asks if the weather's hot today. Two car windows opening is the answer. Hege had already experienced this sudden braking and off-road driving when being too chatty at the last visit, so Martine is told in no uncertain terms to save the small talk for the factory.
There's not a cloud in the sky, but the sun still doesn't shine because of a layer of light brown smog in the air, tangible proof of industrial development in China.
This is a low-cost supplier and everything shows signs of effective spending. The doors to the offices are wide open. This allows for a continuous draught of cold Chinese spring air. We're freezing and try to make this clear by not removing our scarves and jackets. People are working with down jackets on. But the facilities are clean, tidy and well organised, so we feel confident about good deliveries!
Lunch turns out to be a sandwich from Starbucks at almost 4:30 in the afternoon. The day ends well, when we're met at the train station by the supplier for our factory visit the following day and taken to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We make it an early night since we've ordered a taxi for 06:40 the next morning. We fall asleep to the sounds of elevator music playing in the hallway outside our hotel room.
Today, Martine is going to visit a sock factory and Hege a sports factory, so each has a different schedule. I, Hege, am up at the crack of dawn to take an express train to Yiwu, three hours from Shanghai. The supplier ordered a business class seat at the very front of the train, so I get to enjoy a snack pack of Chinese biscuits and a large cup of instant coffee to keep warm on this cold morning.
My trip takes me to a large and attractive factory PRG has been working with for some time, where I see how they produce melange yarn. I have lunch at a local restaurant where all dishes are presented on a large table and you point at what you want to order. Fish and sea critters are flopping around in a fish tank. It doesn't get any fresher than that!
After my factory visit, my Chinese driver and I spend two hours together in the car. I trust him to drive safely so that I can rest my eyes for a little while. When we reach Hangzhou Airport, I meet up with Martine and have a cup of Starbucks coffee before we meet a somewhat stressed agent waiting for us at the gate. Fortunately, we two Westerners are easy to spot in the swarm of Chinese travellers. Martine is satisfied with her day and even managed to do a bit of sightseeing in the old part of Haining before being driven to the airport.
We check into the Langham Hotel recommended by the agent. Five-star luxury and Facebook access for the first time in China! It was confirmed later on by the supplier that the Facebook access was illegal and the hotel had probably hotwired a connection to a foreign VPN.
The unquestionably longest day of the trip starts with breakfast at the hotel together with a new agent who doesn't let food or the time of day put a stop to the conversation.
At the factory, we meet with a young factory manager and his mother – a cool lady with pink hair and a tattoo. Her son graduated with a degree in International Business from the Philippines. Mother and son have a network of family members in the textile industry who work in printing, weaving, and so on.
The factory is run down, dusty and cramped, but the workers seem to enjoy their work. The family has even received a local award for low turnover in their workforce. The average number of years of employment is no less than 16 years. And that can easily be seen in the aging sewing and packing team.
We're shown a dorm room for an older couple who have just made lunch. As we step into the hallway, our noses are met with a strong smell of frying. They smile and invite us in – right in the middle of their noodle lunch. The couple has a bed, kitchen corner, shower, toilet and sink. Their clothes are hung to dry outside the window. The building is new, so the standard is high.
After our factory visit and a meeting about the new collection, we're invited to dinner – seafood prepared in the local style. The factory owners don't usually take foreigners to this restaurant, but maybe we made a good impression with our chopstick skills at lunch?
The Chinese eat with their hands, smack their lips, slurp and spit out bones. Everyone's in good spirits. The factory manager explains the difference between Western and Chinese culture with the saying that "Westerners show their best side in public, while the Chinese are more polite in a private setting and among those closest to them".
On the way back to the hotel, we discuss how this factory is a good match for PRG. The day's not over until we meet with the agent in the hotel bar. There are lots of price and delivery details that need to be clarified. I seng kl. 01:00.
Vi blir hentet på hotellet kl. 08:45 av en agent vi har jobbet med før. Today, we're going to visit two new factories. The first one is big and impressive and, during the meeting, we're served a huge amount of fresh fruit and endless cups of hot green tea. Factory management is well prepared and we discuss samples and possible deliveries before hearing a presentation on the factory's CSR programme. We had planned to visit a textile mill and dye works where they produce melange yarn, but because of a trade fair and visit from local government authorities, we cannot be received today. Instead, we're given a good old-fashioned blackboard presentation in which they enthusiastically draw and explain production processes.
We continue on to the next inspection at a factory located close by. The factory has few orders right now and few workers in the various production units. It is clear that few resources are devoted to keeping things in order, since it's messy and dusty everywhere. In the sewing department, however, there's a lot more activity and the factory has a good system for inspecting the garments being sewn.
After an hour and a half in the car, we arrive back at the hotel and get ready for dinner with the agent. A variety of spectacularly steaming soups and fish served in a fish skin bowl look very fancy and taste delicious. The agent points out how important it is for the Chinese to eat at a round table and in round bowls. These symbolise unity and that we are all one big family.
We enjoy an early breakfast once more. Today, we're heading for Hong Kong, the last stop on our trip. We're going to visit the textile laboratory that conducts quality tests of many PRG garments. After a very turbulent flight and acute food poisoning, we have to cancel our tour of the laboratory. We throw ourselves in a taxi and flop down on our hotel beds. After a few hours of sleep and a little bit of work, we're fortunately able to end the day at an outdoor terrace with lovely views of Hong Kong's skyscrapers.
It's Saturday morning. A final meeting is scheduled with a supplier who has an office in Hong Kong. The supplier has worked with PRG for a long time and knows how strongly we feel about sustainability. They talk enthusiastically about various types of environmental impact due to the use of different dyeing methods and we discuss new designs and prices.
After a marathon week, it's time for the Easter holiday. We're now going our own separate ways: Hege stays in Hong Kong, while Martine gets on a plane to Tokyo. Before parting, we sum up the week: We agree that it's important to physically visit factories to establish a good relationships with our suppliers. Email cannot replace a practical demonstration and understanding of production. China, we'll be back!