A visit to C&A's flagship factory in the heart of Europe
C&A is producing clothes in Germany again. The fashion giant sees its jeans factory in Mönchengladbach as a blueprint for the future of production in the heart of Europe. Are they setting a trend for the apparel industry? FashionUnited took a multimedia exploration into the factory.
There is an atmosphere of new beginnings at C&A's new denim factory at Monforts Quartier in the German city of Mönchengladbach. The sewing machines are humming in the high factory hall, where more than 1000 pairs of pants are produced every day. Before production began last autumn, it had been more than two years since C&A decided to make garments in Germany again. Half a year later, the manufacturing processes in the factory are still being continuously optimised.
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The cutter can cut even more layers of fabric at once in order to process larger orders, said Uwe Gansfort, the plant’s managing director, as he walked through the factory hall at the end of April. The factory has 90 employees working diligently on the sewing machines, ironing stations and the spreading machine.
Not yet complete
"We are still not complete in terms of machine equipment," Gansfort told FashionUnited. C&A, like the rest of the industry, is suffering from faltering global supply chains since the coronavirus pandemic. Containers for sea freight are in short supply, and there is also a shortage of microchips for machines.
In his long career, the manager has witnessed numerous shifts in the fashion industry. Most recently, Gansfort was managing director of Canda International, a subsidiary responsible for the international sourcing of formal wear at C&A. The unit is now being dissolved because the pandemic has reduced demand for the category.
Closer to demand
Another trend that experts have been predicting for years is re-shoring - the repatriation of textile production from countries in the Far East, such as Bangladesh and China. Except for model projects like the Adidas Speedfactory in Ansbach, Germany, which the sporting goods manufacturer has shut down again, the fashion industry is holding back. However, the supply problems during the pandemic have once again highlighted how beneficial it would be to produce clothing right where it will be purchased.
At C&A, it wasn't that long ago that the group made clothes in Germany. In the 2000s, the Mettingen factory, which initially made suits and was located at the ancestral home of the brand’s founding family, Brenninkmeijer, ultimately closed, and production was relocated. But the expertise in garment production remained with employees like Uwe Gansfort, who had worked for the factory.
But how can C&A compete with low-wage countries in the Far East with its factory in Mönchengladbach? One pillar is automation and digitised manufacturing processes, which are supposed to make production in Europe profitable.
‘Anything that exists in terms of automation is employed…’
"We are among the most modern factories in the world. Anything that exists in terms of automation in the apparel sector is employed," said Gansfort. It starts with the warehouse robot that takes rolls of denim fabric from the warehouse, which are then automatically laid out and cut. There are machines for steps like sewing on pockets and attaching buttons and zippers. But the majority of the sewing process, which includes sewing the legs of the pants together - or in other words, everything that still happens at the sewing machine - is still done by hand.
"60 to 70 percent is still manual," Gansfort estimated. The level of automation in the sector is not as high as in the automotive industry, he noted, because soft materials cannot be gripped as well by robots. However, Gansfort hopes that the global labour shortage will increase the pressure for automation. "We hope that will unleash innovation, that at some point you will be able to close side seams automatically and work more with robots and gripper arms, but that will certainly take a few years," said the head of the factory, which is officially called ‘C&A Factory for Innovation in Textiles’ (C&A FIT).
The apparel group has invested a total of almost five million euros into the factory. Experts calculated for C&A that the factory will achieve the best possible productivity with 90 employees – given the factory size of 4,300 square metres, the existing number of machines and the investment.
"We absolutely want to be profitable with this factory and not just stage a showcase," Gansfort insisted. "We're a mass producer, and we've designed this factory for quantity, which means high volumes." Currently, more than 1000 pairs of jeans are produced per day. That quantity needs to increase to 2,000 to reach the annual production volume of 420,000 pairs. This is the target C&A has set for the first year, and later this number could rise to 800,000. When the factory reaches full capacity, it should produce about three percent of the total denim for C&A Europe.
Since the end of March, the denim produced in Mönchengladbach has been sold in the online store, and started to sell in physical stores in August. "We are already satisfied with the sales so far," said C&A's head of communications Betty Kieß during a video call at the end of April,even given current consumer sentiment, which is suffering due to the war in Ukraine. She did not give exact sales figures.
More sustainable fashion for everyone
C&A increased its online offer from three to six styles of jeans for women and men. From the returned items, the company can see how the pants need to be improved in terms of style and fit. "While we are producing, we also want to continue learning," Kieß explained. Since August, four models each for men and women have been offered in 50 stores. From mid-November, 90 stores will sell the jeans.
At 59.99 euros, the pants produced in Mönchengladbach cost about twice as much as other jeans from C&A, placing them among the most expensive products in the assortment. With the promise of fair production in the European Union and denim fabric made from organic cotton, the group hopes to convince people to spend more. The higher price also helps make manufacturing in Germany profitable. However, the margin on these jeans is slightly lower than on the other denim in the range, said Gansfort.
However, C&A’s pants are still cheap in comparison to those from other manufacturers that also produce in the EU and source denim fabric made of organic cotton from the Italian weaving mill Candiani.
"C&A always stood for democratising fashion, and now we want to take the next step and democratise sustainable fashion," said Kieß. With its modern factory in Mönchengladbach, C&A aims to recapture the pioneering role it once played when the retailer made ready-to-wear fashion - the latest trends like bikinis and miniskirts - accessible to everybody.
To regain this role, a number of transformations have been applied since CEO Giny Boer took the helm. C&A, which used to be rather secretive, has become more open and transparent in its communications. Numerous media outlets have visited and reported on the showcase plant in Mönchengladbach, for example. This openness is unusual for the fashion industry - as seen in Adidas' Speedfactory, which was a well-kept secret until the end. C&A is also changing internal structures, cutting jobs and focusing on private labels.
The assortment is currently being revised to offer "more modern fashion" for women, which goes hand-in-hand with a change in the product range. "We want to have a cleaner line, and make our signature recognisable to customers in the stores and in the webshop. That's why we are reducing the number of product variants by around 30 percent," said Kieß. During this process, the company also looks at which customer needs there are and how they are best served.
"Where is the best place to manufacture and create the products considering the entire supply chain?" That's an important question, Kieß said. That's because merchandise, product range and manufacturing are very closely related. This is where the factory in Mönchengladbach comes in again. With its own production, C&A can respond quickly to demand and trends.
"If the materials are on site, we are certainly able to restock pants within two to three weeks and get them into the stores," said Gansfort. With an order of 20,000 pieces, he added, quickly re-producing certain sizes that sell faster than expected might be considered. But he also stressed that the plant is designed for large volumes and entirely for the production of pants. "Single pieces on demand, three to four pairs of jeans that you put together yourself, may come in the future, but that's not the case for now," Gansfort said.
C&A wanted to start with a familiar product like jeans but other products are not out of the question, added Kieß. A spot next to the factory hall where the jeans are made in Mönchengladbach is still available - in case there is a need to expand one day. A second shift could still be introduced and more people could be hired, said Ganfort.
But that would depend on how the pants sell, then the hall and machines could be used to greater capacity. A lot is still possible, but how much time is C&A prepared to give to the project? The lease for the hall in the Monforts Quarter runs for at least ten years.
What the group learns here will also be transferred to other production sites or to Asia. "Ultimately, it's important for us to include the theme of production in Europe in our portfolio again," said Kieß. "It's something that can be a blueprint for us. We don't rule out producing more in Europe."
This translated and edited story was previously published on FashionUnited.DE.