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A visit to C&A's flagship factory in the heart of Europe

By Weixin Zha


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Business |Background

Picture: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.

Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
A pair of jeans can shrink 15 to 20 percent. These shrinkage values must be measured before cutting so that the correct sizes are produced. There are also different colour groups - each pair of jeans comes out a little lighter or darker, this must be coordinated and checked. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
A sample of each fabric will be taken and washed, the shrinkage values and how the colors turned out will be measured and noted. These values are recorded with the roll of fabric in the fully automated "Robby" storage system. The warehouse robot automatically transfers the rolls required to the lay-up table.Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
Uwe Gansfort, Managing Director of C&A's flagship denim factory in Mönchengladbach, explaining how the warehouse works. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.

The fabric are pulled from the warehouse and then automatically laid and cut. The Setec machine also has a ride-on device for the personnel. In cooperation with the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, C&A is trying to reduce the waste from cutting the fabric and to recycle it in the future. Yarns could be made from the fabric scraps, for example.Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
The Gerber Atria cutting machine is one of the newest digital cutters on the market. Digital cutting is intuitive and facilitated by algorithms. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.

The machine from manufacturer SIP Italy automatically folds the pre-cut parts for pockets before they are then sewn onto the trouser legs. The application of buttons and zippers is also automated at C&A FIT. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
The sewing on of the pockets is highly automated at C&A FIT, such as the decoration of the trouser pockets. In the picture, the cut trouser legs and pockets are ready for the next step. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
Yarns in different colours are stored between the cutter and the automated sewing units for pockets. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.

Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
So far, 11 machines at neuralgic points are connected with each other, such as the pocketsetter or bundle sewing machine. This allows the flow of goods to be monitored closely. The current status of an order can be displayed on a tablet at each working station - in other words, how many parts of an order have been produced and where. The aim is to balance the flow of goods, and all machines are expected to be linked up by the end of the year.Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
The pocket lining of the jeans contains advice on how customers can save energy when washing and drying the jeans. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
"In the future, we want to connect all the machines. We need to have control and an overview of how the flow of goods is going, where it's slowing down, where we need help. We also have to make sure that we deploy employees according to their skills," said factory manager Uwe Gansfort.Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

"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.

Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
Some work processes, such as sewing the legs of the pants together, are not yet automated. "60 to 70 percent is still manual. The level of automation in our industry is not that high because we are dealing with soft materials," explained factory manager Uwe Gansfort. For the jobs where there is still a lot of manual work on the sewing machine, C&A uses skilled workers with experience in sewing. For the automated steps, the employees don't need as much prior experience. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
The backgrounds of the employees are diverse: former cleaners and long-term unemployed people have found work in the C&A factory, but also skilled workers. Some had their own textile factories in Afghanistan, others worked for textile factories in Syria or Turkey. There are currently 83 employees working in Mönchengladbach, and this number is expected to rise to 90 in the future if capacity is fully utilised. Training for employees is provided by the Textilakademie NRW at the C&A FIT. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

‘Absolutely profitable’

"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.

Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.

Credits: C&A
Credits: C&A

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.

Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger.
Qualitätskontrolle. After washing, the jeans are also ironed and checked. Soon there will also be a prototype scanner that automatically records the width and lengths of the pants and automatically transmits them to quality control. The machines will then save on the need for manual measuring. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger.

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.

The C&A FIT covers 4,300 square meters including loading zones, office space, canteen and laundry.

The Textile Technology Center is also located on the grounds of the Monforts Quarter. The museum looks back on the history of Mönchengladbach as an important textile center in Germany. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger
The incoming supplies are delivered to this hall. Credits: C&A FIT ©2022 C. Niehlinger

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.