Since 1907, the year when the word "brassiere" was first used in America's popular fashion magazine Vogue, the lingerie industry has developed into a massive business.
Besides the leading specialty retailers, many fashion brands have launched their own lingerie lines to get their share of this enormous market. Despite the glitz and glamour of the international advertising campaigns that help drive this industry, a considerable part of the manufacturing side of the industry is done by Hong Kong-based producers of intimate apparel.
More than 70 per cent of the lingerie items on the market are manufactured in developing countries where labour costs are significantly lower than in the West. "Without such low-cost manufacturing support, the lingerie market could never have become so sizzling," says Angie Lau, CEO of world-renowned lingerie manufacturer Clover Group International Limited.
Clover has been a player in the industry for more than 50 years. It began production in Hong Kong in 1956 and moved over the border to Dongguan in the early 1980s when China started to open its doors to foreign investment, offering cheap land and labour costs. Following in the footsteps of other enterprises constantly seeking to cut production costs to maintain their competitive edge, Clover opened an additional plant in Cambodia in 2000, and this now has a workforce of 1,100.
The Clover group's combined monthly capacity makes it a leading producer in the international lingerie field. Its Dongguan facilities are ISO 9001 QMS certified and can produce 2.3 million pieces of apparel monthly. The factory in Cambodia has a monthly output of around 500,000 garments, helping consolidate Clover's leading position.
"We employ more than 6,000 workers at our production plant in Dongguan," Ms Lau adds. "Clover has grown and is still growing with Hong Kong," adds Ms Lau.
Second China factory
Despite the success of its operation in Cambodia, the group now intends to open a second factory in China to specialise in the production of panties. "Although wages in Cambodia are considerably lower than that in China, we will be opening this second plant in China in the near future," Ms Lau notes.
There are about 200 administrative and other staff in Clover's Hong Kong headquarters, including merchandisers and researchers and designers in its R&D section. "R&D is a central part of the group's customer-focused business philosophy," says Ms Lau. "It is our policy to invest heavily in new concepts and technologies so we can create value for our customers."
To illustrate the extent to which it goes to meet customers' wishes, Clover maintains a sizable database of quality materials including detailed evaluation of over 30,000 fabric types. Once a customer has identified the material for their next season collection, Clover's procurement team can quickly source it using the database to minimise lead-time.
Although an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) which does not brand its own products, Clover sees itself as a trustworthy business partner of its customers, anticipating and quickly responding to changing trends to help them stay ahead of the market.
As Ms Lau points out, the value of lingerie lies in its functionality as well as its integration with fashion. For example, the brassiere has now "stepped out of the closet", a situation very different from when Clover was founded in 1956. "In those days, the brassiere was simply seen as a long-lasting functional necessity. Now it is a fashion item with a much shorter life cycle," she explains. "In succeeding decades, the brassiere has evolved into much more. Whereas in the past it used to have 'multi-purpose' usage, with women wearing the same type of brassiere on different occasions, we now have a multitude of brassiere types and styles." Today's consumers have developed the concept that different lingerie items should be worn for different occasions, so with such an idea helping promote additional sales, the industry continues to boom and should have a rosy future.
"Promotion from within" is an important management philosophy. One of the reasons behind this is Clover's aim to retain loyalty by providing a promising career path for its employees. Another reason is more practical — lingerie production is a highly technical process which an outsider would find difficult to cope with.
Illustrating just one example of the complexity of lingerie manufacture, Ms Lau says, "Although a brassiere is quite a small garment, it involves a number of small components and there are more than 20 steps involved in its production."
In addition, the sewing skills required in lingerie manufacturing are highly sophisticated. As a result, Clover provides in-house training for seamstresses joining its production lines. At the other end of the scale, recruits joining as merchandisers get a thorough grounding about the production of various items of lingerie, acquiring all-round specialised knowledge to smoothly handle customer inquiries. "There are still good opportunities for new recruits," Ms Lau concludes. "The whole industry is craving for new blood to sustain its growth."