Recently, I celebrated my 59th birthday (or the commencement of my 60th journey around the sun). When I visited China in 2010, before moving production to LA, I learned that the Chinese don’t count birthdays the way we do. Here, we turn one when we complete a year. In China, we are one during the course of our first year. I think it says a lot about our cultures. We are more results-oriented; they are more process-oriented. Neither is right or wrong; both are true and valid. In a year filled with joy and sorrow, I find it vital to recognize the process. Something ends; something new begins.
When I dressed for my birthday, I had lots of choices: vital hemp t-shirts, long sleeves and hoodies of every color we’ve ever made. I chose a red tee, because I rarely wear red, and I had been happy the way the red turned out during that production run, that happened here in LA, with the eco-friendly dye house where Vital Hemp had found its home. As it was cold outside, I chose a long sleeve to wear over it. This particular shirt had been a sample that I had received from China, from the factory that produced goods for Patagonia, a new factory for me that promised to produce a new line of even better-fitting goods for my retail and wholesale customers.
The long sleeve was a sample--the neck too deep and wide. I worked with a patternmaker here in LA, and sent it back to the factory with notes on the adjustments to make for this and every other style in the line. Months passed as I waited for the revised samples. “Yes, we are working on it, but our pattern room is so busy….” Meanwhile, I had opened new accounts during a sales trip in New England, exploring small towns from Boston to Maine, meeting hemp lovers along the way.
By October, I was worried. My customers were supposed to receive their goods in time for the Winter season. I called the factory and spoke with a small-voiced woman.
“Look,” I said, “Please tell me what’s going on—whatever it is--because my customers are expecting their goods, and I need to know what to tell them.”
“Can you just accept the styles we sent to you?”
“I’m sorry. I cannot.”
“Well, we received an 80,000 piece order from Oakley, and another from a German company, so we won’t be able to produce your goods until late December…or maybe April.” She said this last part in a kind of singsong way that told me she had no idea what impact her words had on my business and my life.
My knees got weak and I sank to the grass in our backyard in Venice.“ Thanks for putting me out of business,” I said, and hung up the phone.
My life seems to include a series of lessons. Idiomatic expressions that I’ve heard all my life and never quite understood suddenly become real: weak in the knees; I fell to my knees and prayed, or more recently, I “lost my appetite.” These sayings feel figurative until they actually happen to you.
So on the grass, I asked the universe, “What do I do now?” And as it often does, the universe responded: Ask for help.
I wondered, “Who can help me?” and remembered a man I had met six years earlier, when I was just starting the business, peddling hemp on the Venice boardwalk. Something about the way he touched the fabric, describing the “soft hand,” made me think he was in the industry. I said as much. “Oh, about twenty-five years,” he said.
“Hey, do you think I could have your number, and give you a call sometime if I ever need some advice?”
“Sure,” he said, writing his name and number on our email list sheet.
I found an envelope with old email sheets and looked through more than a hundred pages of scrawled names and emails, some with various notes— “Purple! Wrap dress, please. Bigger sizes! Kids clothes…etc., until I finally found his name: Mitch Glazer and a number.
It rang, it was a miracle. A man answered. I introduced myself again, reminding him of our meeting years before. “Of course, I remember you, Ron! How are you doing?” I told him the story and he consoled me, saying, “It’s a common story. And it happens to companies much bigger than yours. You’re just not big enough for them.”
“What should I do now?”
“The most important thing is your customers. I would speak with the owner of the factory. Ask him if he’ll sell you all the raw materials, including patterns and trims. Bring it home, and find a way to manufacture it in LA. Then tell your customers their orders will be made but will be late. Hopefully, some of them will stick with you.”
I had always wanted to bring it home, but thought I would do so in a planned, deliberate way, testing vendors with samples before moving all production here. I negotiated with the boss (who charged me about .35 less per garment than finished goods—which shows you how little they paid for production), received the goods in LA, and became a curious mouse in the garment maze of LA, looking for the best cheese.
The goods cost me more than twice the total of what I was going to pay, but I decided to honor the prices I quoted to my customers, so about 70% of them kept their orders with us. I hadn’t gone out of business after all; I had transitioned under duress…evolving the business to survive (and later thrive).
All this came back to me as I put on the big-neck sample (that I had later dyed midnight blue at our local dye house). I thought: how fitting that I’ll be wearing something that turned out better than expected (the red) and something that signified a disaster, that later became a blessing (big-necked midnight).
Long ago, I learned that the Chinese character for crisis includes a character that means “opportunity.” I just checked and learned that this is incorrect. Rather than opportunity, it means something closer to a “change point.” From this perspective, we’re less likely to get stuck in a crisis. We realize life itself is a series of change points, for better or worse, or worse and then better. From day to night, to midnight, and then into day again.
And so we come to this last month of the year, a time of welcome rain (and the most beautiful clouds!) here in LA, and innumerable reasons to be grateful. And also many sorrows—here and around the world. Perhaps at some level, we’re always at change points. One never really knows how a chance encounter can change your life years later. We navigate as best we can.
And so, I wish you all a happy holiday season—through the New Year and into the next. May this time bring health, vital goodness, and happiness to all who live and love this life we share.
Thanks for being vital,
~Let Us Hemp You Out!~