Importing Textiles: Going Global Before the Internet Age
The Case of the Disappearing Teletype
You probably do not remember the teletype machine. The clumsy 75-pound oversized typewriter would sit quietly in the corner until it came suddenly to life, loudly hammering out words on a roll of paper. Having belched out its message, it would again go silent. This miraculous contraption was the gold standard for sleek corporate communications back when Invisible World started in 1984, only owned by banks, hotels and large businesses.
How We Went Global
When I founded Invisible World, the teletype was all we had. Fax machines were rare and expensive, telephone calls to South America were $3-4/minute. Communications were stilted, expensive and filled with errors and misunderstandings. Once an order was placed, it was difficult to follow up on it or to answer questions, and many an order arrived with the wrong sizing, color or even the wrong style. On the plus side, the angry email had not yet been invented.
Making Our First Connections
My first supplier was a man in Peru that spoke to me in English while I was waiting for a bus in Lima, Peru. A down-on-his luck former jazz musician who had lived in the United States, he asked me to buy him food and a drink; I asked him if he knew any exporters. It was dubious, but I followed him down a series of alleys in downtown Lima to meet his “friend,” and with that, I was in business.
My second supplier was an indigenous Otavaleño man who was selling hand-woven wool blankets in Quito. He didn’t export, he said, but his son could. I did business with his son and son-in-law for the next 30 years. (I was happy: with these two suppliers I could meet my goal of making enough money to come back to South America.)
When I began with cashmere in 1992, I contacted the Chinese Embassy and asked for a cashmere contact. After numerous requests, they sent me one in Inner Mongolia that had a non-functional phone number, so boarded a train in Beijing in January and arrived in Hohhote, the capital of Inner Mongolia. The smell of coal smoke was constant and strangely pleasant. It was ten below zero and blocks of frozen urine were piled up around the public latrines in the ancient Old City. I had a company name and address, and I spoke no Chinese at all (but that’s a story for another blog post).
That was how it was done back then. Everything was hands-on, person to person.
A Communication Revolution
Next came widespread fax machines. With our fax machine, orders could be sent instantly from my own desk, and problems could be clarified, questions answered, quantities increased on the fly. With computers and email came the ability to send photos and to communicate multiple times per day. Business began to move much faster. One woman bragged to me that she could snap a photo in a New York boutique, send it back to China and have a countersample made in two hours.
Now Invisible World is selling in 8 countries using 6 languages, and conducting nearly all business is in real time via Internet tele-conference. We use at least a dozen online tools and software platforms, and work with 7 contractors scattered around the world for translation, marketing help, listing optimization, photo correction and many other tasks, and that doesn’t even include our suppliers distributed in 7 countries.
When I needed a new supplier of cashmere in 2001, I went on the internet, queried about twenty cashmere suppliers, set up six interviews in Beijing and Shanghai, all of them in English, and then chose the supplier who fit best.
Some Things Never Change
One thing has not changed: we still go to South America and Asia each year to meet with our suppliers. It’s irreplaceable. This is where we see the new spins of yarn, hear the gossip, get shown the new season’s samples or else work with designers to develop new styles. It’s a whirlwind of factories, workshops, swatches, drawings and samples.
We wouldn't have it any other way, no matter what future technologies might pop up.
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