How I Manage: Un-Available's Paul Norriss On Producing Garments For Streetwear Brands
Un-Available is a garment manufacturer in Saigon’s District 12. The business has grown from a bedroom studio in 2002 into a 1,000,000 item per year business. But Un-Available doesn’t deliver fast fashion. Their standards-driven approach to making clothes has attracted premium streetwear clients like Palace, Daily Paper, and Patta. And leading the 500-staff company’s growth is director Paul Norriss.
“Un-Available’s mission is very simple: we are here to produce world-class garments in the most ethically sound way that we possibly can,” Paul Norriss begins as we sit down in the Un-Available office to talk to him about the challenges he’s faced building an ethical garment manufacturers in Vietnam, and how he manages a team of 500 effectively.
“We are here to produce world-class garments in the most ethically sound way that we possibly can,” says Paul Norriss, director of Un-Available.
What are three adjectives that would describe your management style?
Straight-forward, democratic, and ethical.
What do you think sets your company apart from the rest of the industry?
Our team and our equipment. Our team includes highly-skilled experts in their respective divisions. And they use the best machinery—for example we use JUKI, we use Tas, and we use Lectra hardware and software systems. Also, our knowledge sets us apart from other manufacturers. Because we’ve owned our own brands before, we understand production from a client’s perspective too.
“We started in a bedroom and grew from there. We knew we wanted to make cool streetwear—but we didn’t know how to make it.”
Is there a mentor, author, or book that has shaped your approach to business?
We started in a bedroom and grew from there. We knew we wanted to make cool streetwear—but we didn’t know how to make it. So, we basically learnt as we went along, studying and taking various courses that made a big impact on us. My business partner, Darren Chew, who you know from District Eight, has also taught me alot. And there’s Matt Lourey too. He’s another one of my mentors who, for a while, was acting as the chairman of our board.
Describe your ideal hire. And tell us what an applicant should know about your hiring process at Un-Available?
We look for character first and foremost. That means someone who is well-mannered and who has a positive outlook will stand out. I don’t think you can teach those skills. Of course, technical skills are important, but we can develop those—and upskilling our staff through training programs is a big focus for us. But it’s character that opens the door to Un-Available.
A staff member at Un-Available displays both technical and interpersonal skills.
At Un-Available, we also look to empower people, and encourage responsibility and accountability. That’s something we pride ourselves in doing. And we want to make sure that we are doing as much as we can in an ethical way—both environmentally and with the people we employ.
How about management positions at Un-Available? What advice do you give to someone starting out in those roles?
I remind them not to be scared if they don’t know everything. It’s important that they listen to the people around them and to make informed decisions that they can articulate to their teams to get buy-in.
Do you prefer power to be distributed equally or hierarchically in business?
In the industry I am in, it’s imperative to have a hierarchy. Without that we’d fail. We need well-defined leaders making decisions…and accountability from them.
The finishing team applying the final touches to the garments.
How do you run team meetings? What information do you share with your team about your company’s progress?
Every team meeting has a clear objective so we all know why we’re there and what we’re looking to achieve with our discussions. Everyone is allowed a voice and we ask that egos are left at the door. And the information we share is plentiful—the more the team knows about the state of play, the more they understand our direction.
“How do we address problems within the company? Understanding the problem is the first step.”
What is the first step to addressing any problem that arises between different parties?
Understanding the problem is the first step. That means listening and understanding the issue from both sides and then asking them to propose their own solutions. Often, they know what needs to be done but they aren’t in the frame of mind to proactively make it happen. So, I feel I must create the opportunity for them to solve it together. If this doesn’t work, or if it does but only for the short term, then as the senior you need to step in and offer some mediation…but this is rare.
“The more the team knows about the state of play, the more they understand our direction,” Paul Norriss says about his transparent management style.
And what are major challenges you experience producing for the brands you work with? And how do you overcome them?
Because we produce for “hype” brands—like Palace, Daily Paper, and Patta—preserving intellectual property and preventing information about upcoming releases from being shared is critical. With the proliferation of smartphones things can be leaked very easily on the internet. Garments have even been known to disappear. We’ve spent a lot of time and money making sure we’ve got that security. Supporting that is the fact that we make everything in-house. That means nothing leaves these four walls.
How often do you think about long-term goals?
Daily. This is a requirement of my role and it boils down to two things—strategy and people.