Designing fashion is one thing, but having the expertise and equipment to create is something else entirely, and with technology evolving at such a rapid pace, it can be a great challenge for fashion labels to keep up in the global market. Natalia Fashion Limited is an original design manufacturing company located in Hong Kong which specialises in innovative knitwear, crafting pieces for some of the world’s most-loved brands. We took time to speak with Natalia Fashion Limited’s chief executive Arkin Ng and designer Cat Lam about the intricacies of knitwear production.
Can you tell us about what Natalia Fashion Limited does?
Arkin Ng [AN]: We are primarily an ODM [Original Design Manufacturing] company. However, I also have my own definition of what we do – we are not just an Original Design Manufacturing company, we are an Original Design and Development company. The difference is that because we serve numerous brands, many of which have their own designs already, what we can offer in addition to that is in terms of craftsmanship and innovative techniques, such as how they can realise their designs. I would say most of the time we do more development and manufacturing than design; this is our core expertise as many designers are not sure how to interpret their designs into a reality. An example is one designer came to us asking if they could create a “woven look” with a knitted garment, and so that’s what we did – we helped them to create that look with our software and machinery.
What is techno design? And how does digital knitting work?
AN: Techno design means we will take the steps to innovate a common technique or design further through our technology. For example the popular check pattern, which is common and easy to produce, we decided to bring a value-added layer to it by making changes and developments on the stitches, creating a reversible tartan fabric that has a different coloured tartan on both sides. Not only that, but even with the seams, you cannot tell that the other side is a completely different coloured tartan. Not many mills or factories can afford the resources or know how to do so. Another example is creating a 3D knitted garment; we are able to create a fully-fashioned garment with a single seam that drapes and moulds to the body beautifully, which matches on all “sides”.
Digital knitting is using computer software to create a complex pattern that can be programmed into a computerised knitting machine, that won’t require anything to be made by hand. We have a system called “Smart Knitter” that will produce the knitting statement which calculates when and where there needs to be widening or narrowing of the garment; all our apparel are knit-to-shape. We also have a “Smart Designer” system, which we used extensively for Jenny Kee’s designs to create knitting patterns digitally out of the artwork she shared with us. She would give us an artwork, or an image, and we would scan it into the system to process into a graphic pattern, which would then be digitalised into a stitch pattern. We then have to work how to program all the different colours into the machine, so that it can knit the garments according to the design we input.
What other benefits can digital knitting offer?
AN: Digital knitting can also allow us to scale up or down much more efficiently and accurately with its system. With a computer system you can easily identify the right file, quickly make edits to produce the different range of sizes for one type of garment and know that the proportions will remain the same. Digital knitting is highly commendable.
How do you like to work with fashion designers?
Cat Lam [CL]: Back in the days of university, we would start designing by thinking of a theme, something we like, and the whole collection would basically revolve around it. Now, of course, with quite a few years of professional experience, I know that something you create must also be marketable, that’s what makes your collection meaningful; it is a business after all. You have to consider your clients, your customers, and your target market. This is key - it’s not about simply doing something you like and not being interested in what others think. Natalia Fashion is a part of that learning process for many designers. It’s very fulfilling for me, particularly since I also manage the merchandising here; I have an opportunity to also apply what I learned in a business context.
AN: It’s also important for us to fully understand a client, its brand framework and market before we proceed. Some clients may come to us wanting to follow a certain trend or colour palette, which completely doesn’t make sense for their brand or target market, and we have to guide them in the right direction so that we create and develop designs that work within their identity and brand signature. In the end, items have to be saleable. Sometimes we even go so far as to approach our long-term clients with new ideas, show them samples of what we can do, of what we have thought up for them, and when it makes them go “wow,” we take it from there to develop something further.
You recently collaborated with Jenny Kee on her collection ‘A New Beginning’. How did you go about translating her original designs?
CL: The whole process from beginning to end took almost a year from the moment Jenny Kee approached us. When we first received her artwork, we were gobsmacked! The reason was because she used an incredible amount of colour in her archive pieces; they were all knitted by hand so a multi-coloured effect could be easily achieved. However, the process of converting her designs into digital was quite arduous – we scanned her artwork using our design program to transform it into a working pattern, and we then had to “colour in” this pattern according to her design, stitch by stitch. Because her designs are so colour intensive, it required a lot of communication between us – Jenny had to approve of each colour first before we could go ahead. In terms of production, the greatest challenge came in the fact that with machine knitting, you are limited by the number of colours you can input – a maximum of 8 - so the way we handled this was programming several colours into one. Again, this relied heavily on constant communication between us to be able to achieve the effect that Jenny Kee desired.
AN: Back in the ’70s, her designs as you can see were very colourful, bold and full of detail. The key point is that back in those days she created each piece by hand. Hand knitting and machine knitting are vastly different, as you may know; hand-knitted stitches are coarser than machine knitted ones. So from the outset, according to her graphics and patterns, our machines are not really catered to her designs – she didn’t need many stitches to achieve her looks before but machines, with its fine-knit stitches, would require a lot more.
So we had to digitalise her artwork to create a pattern, and then play with the stitch density, calculate the proportions and ratios, to achieve the same scale of Jenny’s hand-knit designs. We had to let Jenny know the colour constraints we had as well, and the steps we had to take to solve it, which was by altering the colour layout of each row of stitching, so that in the end we could still achieve the same multi-coloured effect. It was about letting her know that we will get the result she was looking for, but also to understand the technical precision and craftsmanship-intensive techniques behind production. Another bonus was that with machine knitting we could achieve accuracy and consistency in quality that hand-knitted garments could never achieve – I believe Jenny was very happy with the final result.
It’s also essential to make sure the final products and brand are marketable – the production cost and the retail price, are these reasonable? In addition, delivery – can we make sure the items are produced, delivered and distributed in time? The workmanship involved, the final result, the quality, it all must speak to the signature of the brand. It’s also important to note that the collection is only a small batch production – what sets us apart is that larger mills will not accept this kind of order. We are still a business at the end of the day so of course we need to return a profit while staying true to our belief that we are creating exciting and innovative garments that helps designers turn their concept into a reality. It’s not easy for designers to source a quality supplier that can help them develop their design and moreover, consider batch production.
How important is it to your business to work with high quality ingredients to the finished product?
AN: Our products are from the middle-to-high price range; our operations are about serving top clients with world-class techno design and digital knitting. What we do does not involve lots of industry competition right now in the Greater China market, the reason being most companies have two ways of approaching a business: through a merchandising angle, where you calculate the cash flow in, stock out and the profit earned, or through product marketing, whereby you try to figure out how you place and position a product on the market that is unique, that interests consumers. In order to achieve this at the luxury level in small batches, it requires a lot of professionalism and craftsmanship excellence, and as a mill/factory, our best way to survive and maintain the business is to have value-added services, which means having the technological and aesthetical resources to complement the design of our clients. Our ODM positioning gives us stability and a value in the market, and all this is to say, we must have high quality ingredients in order to satisfy this demand in the market segment.
What are the benefits of working with superfine Australian Merino wool?
AN: As a business that mostly services the luxury industry, Australian Merino wool is crucial, to answer to the quality-driven demands of our clients. And as a natural fibre, not many other fabrics can come close to the many different benefits of wool, from comfort and warmth, to environmental care, luxurious outlook, temperature control, and others. With superfine Australian Merino wool, it results in even more exquisite products with an extra soft handle that feels very supple on the skin. For many of our double knits, we use superfine Merino wool only, not as fine as 14 micron, but something close – between 19 and 21. There is an increasing demand in the market now for superfine wool garments, particularly in China, we are witnessing the slow but steady transition from coarse to superfine fibre demand. The finer we go, the more comfortable and beautiful it gets – you don’t see many bulky, “solid” wool garments nowadays.
What are the key quality signifiers of a beautifully knitted garment?
AN: There are two key signifiers – aesthetics and quality. Aesthetics refers to being able to create a beautiful colour or shades of it, and how you bring that colour to life on the garment. Jenny Kee’s collection is a great example of how appealing it is when a designer uses colour and tone well – how it is mixed, matched, complemented. It also includes the way a garment is stitched and how it fits on the body. Italian mills are very good at that – understanding what is a beautiful fit, to give a visual appeal that is current and classic at once. Quality is related to good materials; clients prefer to use premium materials and of course that includes wool, cashmere, and on top of that the craftsmanship that goes into working with luxury fabrics. Durability is also another signifier of quality and beauty; it isn’t necessarily about the longevity of the garment, but also about the garment retaining its shape after washing, no pilling effect and no buttons, zips, beads or studs falling off after a few wears.