The fashion industry, in general, is intimidating. This makes the idea of how to start start a clothing line scary for any aspiring designer or entrepreneur. Thoughts of a steep learning curve, constant all-nighters and failure can be discouraging for those considering entry into the business. But the truth is, starting a fashion brand doesn’t have to be scary if you know how to take the right steps to begin.
Technically, you don’t need a degree from fashion school or business school to start your clothing line, you don’t need to be a creative genius and you don’t need a large capital (for the early stages of a small label), which makes the barrier to entry relatively low.
But as with anything and especially with starting a business, making an informed decision before you take the plunge is necessary. I hope that this long blog post will be able to help people who were like me when I first started my clothing line.
In the post, we outlined what are the basic steps to start a clothing line that we learned from helping more than 1000 clothing brands to manufacture their products.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s very important to first define a go-to plan that includes strategies for marketing, distribution and budgeting for your clothing line. The good thing about having a plan on the drawing block is that you’ll be forced to think about how feasible it is to execute things with your current resources and see what are the gaps that need to be plugged.
In my role as Founder of Bryden, there were times where I had to battle with myself to scale back on some great ideas by breaking the big plan into smaller manageable parts in order for it to be executed efficiently. I realised that trying to do too many things at the same time would have been more detrimental than being beneficial. I have also learnt that there is nothing wrong with reshuffling your priorities and executing the plan in gradual progression as long as the goal is eventually reached.
Knowing Your Market
Any self-help guru or business book will tell you this, but in the fashion industry, knowing your customer and market is especially critical. The price of your product, style of clothing, shopping experience (retail or online) and even the colours you use are dependent on your target market. This makes conducting comprehensive market research essential in order to get in the head of your target customer and understand their consumption behaviour as thoroughly as possible.
Determining your customer’s lifestyle is vital to realising their consumption habits. Ask yourself questions like ‘What country does he/she live in?’, ‘Where does he/she work?’, ‘Where would he/she like to go to relax?’ and ‘Will your designs allow him/her to wear them to the places or events they have to be at daily?’. Talk to store owners, sales assistants and customers, the more questions you ask, the better you get to understand your target customer.
Knowing Your Customer
Once you have a good grasp of what your customers want, go out and observe what is already out there. Source out competitors, if any, look at their products, the prices and how they are selling them to their customers, then figure out how you can differentiate your brand and shopping experience from theirs. Study magazines, blogs, websites, Instagram accounts that cater to your market, TV shows & even your own closet. It’s also worth considering having a coffee in areas frequented by your target market to people watch and study what they’re wearing.
Before I started my graphic t-shirt label, Ardentees, I remember rushing home to my computer every day after university just to go online and devour any information that I could find about creating the best t-shirts. Sites like Emptees (now Mintees), T-shirt Forums, Threadless and Behance were my daily go-to sites for inspiration and ideas for the label.
Exhaust every possibility that helps you to learn something about your market as it will give you valuable insights on what to design and sell.
The Type of Clothing Line
Think about what category of apparel you want to make – is it streetwear, formal wear or activewear? Then consider the number of styles and pieces you’d like to produce. Bear in mind that the more styles and quantity you have, the more expensive it will be to produce your collection. Being prudent and starting with a smaller quantity will give you more runaway to release new stuff.
One of the most important things that I can’t stress enough is creating a concept for your clothing line. The concept is what breathes life into a brand and serves as the guiding principle for the brand’s identity, aesthetics and core values. The story your brand tells will allow your customers to resonate easily with the brand and feel like a part of it.
If you don’t have the skills in designing, you would need to hire a fashion designer to produce sketches and a graphic designer if you require prints and pattern designs. As a start-up label, hiring extra hands means incurring more costs, but it a necessary cost if you are short-handed and not a domain expert in certain areas like designing or accounting.
You can start by looking for assistance on sites like Fiverr, Dribbble, Behance, Creative Market and Upwork, which have a large pool of freelancers that could help with keeping these costs to a minimum.
Finding the right manufacturing company is a difficult task for most start-up labels. Manufacturing costs, order quantities and quality control are all common concerns amongst other variables which directly impact the end product.
That’s why there is often a trial and error process before settling on the right manufacturing partner. As the business essentially revolves around the product, getting the right manufacturing partner can either make or break a brand.
In my first business, I bought blank t-shirts from different brands like American Apparel, Gildan, Alternative Apparel, Continental Clothing, Alstyle and Hanes and also sampled cut & sew tees from different manufacturing partners. I decided to go with full cut & sew manufacturing in the end as it allowed me more flexibility to showcase the creativity of my designs. That decision allowed me to understand the manufacturing process & helped open other doors to create different product lines.
While I decided to go with cut & sew manufacturing for Ardentees, it wasn’t a smooth process and did take me a whole year to settle on a suitable partner. There were a lot of rejections due to my small order quantities, manufacturing hiccups and constant travelling. Throughout the entire process, I thought to myself, ‘Is it that difficult to start a clothing line?’
That episode inspired me to start Bryden with the vision of streamlining the costly and error-strewn process to make it a fuss-free experience for any clothing brand.
Marketing & Selling
After crossing the initial hurdles of market research, design and production, there is a crucial second stage that will serve as a springboard for your business.
Marketing, which is the art of creating awareness for your brand and converting that into product sales.
Having a fashion label requires you to think about ways to anchor your brand identity across all facets of your business. This helps customers to remember and resonate with your identity and be more willing to make a purchase. Retailers will also feel more confident in stocking your products if you have a strong marketing presence.
Many fashion brands start out by marketing by advertising on social media, sending out press releases or organising pop up events. These are a few ways to do it & there is no hard and fast rule in the way a brand should market itself. Marketing is very much a creative exercise as is designing.
When you’ve built a network of customers, ensure you keep them constantly engaged via social media and newsletters. Always keep updated on your promotional methods to stay relevant to the market’s needs at all times.
Managing Your Clothing Line
If you’ve managed all of the above, you’re off to a great start, but don’t forget to be prudent about how you manage the overall business. There should be consistent reviews to monitor progress and potential pitfalls so that you are always one step ahead. Cash flow, production, inventory, fulfilling orders need to be consistently analysed to ensure your business is continuously moving forward.
It may seem daunting, but if you take the necessary steps to build the right foundation, the rewards are immeasurably fulfilling.
I hope that my post helps aspiring designers and entrepreneurs to feel more confident in kick-starting their business. Remember, if you’re hungry enough and have a strong will, you can do anything.
As my business partner, Kai always says to all questions on whether something is possible: “Can is can”.