Valerie Heck soldering for Michelle Pajak-Reynolds

Fashion Industry Tips for Building Partnerships and Working with Sub-contractors

In Fashion Design, Fashion Marketing Tips by Michelle Pajak-Reynolds

As your fashion business grows, your two hands will not be enough to get the job done, and searching for the right subcontractor can feel like a daunting task.

My subcontractor and fellow jeweler Valerie A. Heck and I provide tips for finding the right subcontractor for custom, one-of-a-kind jewelry designs in this first installation of a 2-part series.  We also provide tips for hiring subcontractors for mass production in the latter portion of this article.

Valerie and I have been friends for almost a decade and we’ve spent many studio hours working together and bouncing jewelry ideas off of each other.  In 2012, I changed my business model to focus solely on my couture collections and custom orders, so hiring Valerie as my subcontractor was a natural fit to help me improve my production and quality levels.  As my subcontractor, Valerie works on a variety of projects for me as piecework. As my business grows she’ll take on some small-scale mass production pieces as well.

Michelle Pajak-Reynolds Hypatia Collection

1: Know Your Strengths and What Kind of Work You Need Done

Ask yourself, “What skills are uniquely mine?” and evaluate what you are best at and really want to do, versus what tasks that could and should be done by someone else.  Your subcontractor should complement your skills, not duplicate them.  Hiring a subcontractor buys you time to focus on your strengths, passion, and growing your business, rather than getting bogged down and burnt out on tasks you don’t enjoy.

MPR: Several of my custom design and couture pieces require stone setting skills beyond my capabilities.  Rather than scale down a design to my skill level, hiring Valerie enables me to produce designs that live up to my ambitions. She has a lot of complex stone setting experience and sets stones in a fraction of the time it would take me to master and complete the same task.   Having Valerie’s help enables me to produce a higher quality and more unique product for my clients.

VAH: Having skills that complement Michelle’s allows us to work together really well and explore design ideas without restrictions.  You’ll have many more options for your designs and collections if you seek and build a team of subcontractors who have skills that supplement your weaknesses so you can focus on your strengths.

2: Know Your Numbers

Tracking your sales and expenses is necessary to determine if you really can afford to hire a subcontractor.  When meeting with your subcontractor discuss if they charge a set rate or hourly rate for the work you need completed.  Having a set rate per piece will make budgeting easier for you, but some tasks are best done on an hourly rate.  Be sure to ask for an estimate for any hourly work you need, so you’ll avoid surprises once the work is completed.

MPR: Since I know exactly how much money is needed to run my business I know I can afford to pay Valerie for work I can’t do myself.  Each project is unique and we alternate between a set fee and an hourly rate based on the complexity of the work I need done.

VAH: Knowing what you can truly afford is key in any business.  I worked at a variety of jewelry stores prior to starting my business.  Some of the stores ran up large invoices with their subcontractors and then be several months behind with payment, or not pay at all.  In order to get paid the subcontractors would then hold the store’s jewelry they were working on as collateral until all the outstanding invoices were paid.

3: Clearly Communicate Your Needs and Expectations

A subcontractor should be someone who does work at the same, or better quality level than you would accept from yourself and can meet your production schedule deadlines.  If you’re working with a subcontractor for the very first time, provide examples of the quality level you expect including examples of what is unacceptable to you.  This will keep everyone on the same page and avoid misunderstandings and wasting time and money on fixing errors or total do-overs. Put everything in a detailed contract/agreement including any restrictions on protecting your intellectual property.  If you’re not comfortable writing your own contract or Non-Disclosure Agreement, consult a lawyer.

MPR: Since Valerie and I know each other’s work ethic and quality standards so well, I can provide her with a detailed sketch and a deadline and be completely confident that everything will turn out beautifully. And that it will meet my budget, and remain top secret.

VAH: When working on a project I would rather have too much information in the contract/agreement than be surprised later on.  Be specific about the type of work that needs to be done, the quality level, materials to be used, or already in the piece/design, and who pays for those materials.You should also discuss if supplies need to be ordered, and a delivery date.  It’s also a good idea to specify the delivery/pick-up method, and whether you or your subcontractor will be assuming responsibility for insurance on your inventory while it’s in your subcontractor’s studio.

4: Start Small and Build A Good Working Relationship

It takes time to build a good working relationship with any colleague. Your relationship with a subcontractor is a special one because their hands are an extension of your hands.  Start off with smaller projects and build to larger, more complex one of a kind work.  Keep the lines of communication open and regularly evaluate if it’s a good business fit for both of you.  If it’s not working, or no longer a good fit because your business needs have changed, don’t take it personally.

MPR: Valerie and I have a lot of fun working together and hiring her was a smart business decision.  We talk about everything and always know what each of us requires in our professional partnership so it’s easy for us to make adjustments as needed.

VAH:  Hire the best person for the jobs you need done. Working on custom and one-of-a-kind designs requires a different mindset than working on mass production pieces.  I’ve worked for jewelers who had subcontractors for a long time, then the store’s business needs shifted and the subcontractor really wasn’t the right fit anymore, but they were kept on out of a sense of obligation.  While it’s unfortunate and difficult to “let someone go” you have to make the best decision for your business.

Keeping these tips in mind when searching for subcontractors will help you avoid many common pitfalls.  Stay tuned for our next article featuring tips for working with subcontractors for mass production.

About the authors:

Michelle Pajak-Reynolds is based in Akron, Ohio and creates “extraordinary jewelry for extraordinary women.”  Michelle’s designs have been featured in numerous publications and dazzled fashionistas on the red carpet and the runways of New York Fashion Week.  Visit to view Michelle’s couture collections, press features and upcoming events.

Valerie A. Heck is based in Cleveland, Ohio and specializes in designs for “women who make history.”  Valerie’s work has been featured in “Wrap, Stitch, Fold and Rivet” by Lark Books, Niche Magazine, American Style Magazine, Art Jewelry Magazine, and JQ Magazine. Check out her collections and jewelry design blog at

About Michelle Pajak-Reynolds

Michelle Pajak Reynold's couture jewelry collection has been exhibited internationally and worn by celebrities including Sophia Bush, Jillian Barberie, Nona Gaye, Dina Manzo, and Miss Brazil 2010, Debora Lyra. Michelle's designs have also been featured on the cover of Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, LA Brides, and Created Woman magazines and the runways of New York Fashion Week.

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