5 Tips for Starting a Successful Clothing Brand: The Definitive Guide (2018)

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Many people want to start a clothing brand or clothing line. After all, how difficult could it be?

The truth is that successful clothing brands become successful in part because they’re created by people who are passionate about clothing.

But, a clothing brand needs more than just exquisite apparel design to create a lasting business. It needs all the trappings of a successful business as well. Apparel retailers need to master marketing, manufacturing, and retailing, among other things.

Shira Sue Carmi, the founder of Launch Collective, reminds us that the business of launching a clothing brand is as important as the artistry:

Fashion is amazing in the way it balances art and commerce, but it’s a business. Don’t start a business because you want to design. Start a business because you want to start a business.

So, are you a fashion designer or an apparel entrepreneur? If you are ready to start a fashion business (whether part-time or full-time), let’s get down to it. Here is a step-by-step comprehensive guide with our top 5 business tips for starting a successful clothing brand or clothing line.

  • Develop your brand.
  • Fill in the business blanks.
  • Prepare for manufacturing.
  • Create a sales plan.
  • Spread the word.


1. Develop Your Clothing Brand

Step one of starting a new clothing line or clothing brand? Develop your brand identity.

As we’ve previously discussed,

…your brand is your company’s public identity. Ideally, your brand should embody the best (and most essential) attributes of your company.

The importance of your brand identity cannot be understated – especially in the world of fashion. Clothing is very personal because our clothing choices are one of the ways that we define our identity – to both ourselves and to the world. As a result, the brands we choose to wear become an extension of who we are and how we see ourselves.

In particular, the millennial generation has been shown to desire an authentic connection with their clothing brands. Fabrizio Moreira writes in “Building a Startup Clothing Brand in a Fast Fashion Economy“:

They want a brand “experience,” they want authenticity. It follows, then, that having a message that resonates with these consumers, and staying authentic to that message, is one of the few ways to break into the cutthroat fashion industry as a small brand…

So, before you sketch your first rendering, ask yourself these important questions:

  • What identity do I want my clothing brand to project?
  • Who will want to wear my clothes?
  • What can customers get from my clothing brand that they can’t get anywhere else?
  • What makes my clothing unique? Is it high-end?
  • What is the most important part of my customer’s experience?

Your answers to these questions (and others like them) will build the core of your brand. All of your future branding decisions should expand on these ideas. Your business name, your logo, your website design should all grow from the concepts you laid out here.

Moreira cites Bad AF Fashion (a fashion startup) as a how-to example. Here’s what Moreira thinks they’re doing right:

Arguably, the key to their success has been having a clear brand identity that resonates with their target customers, staying authentic to that identity, and knowing how to communicate it to the desired audience.

So, take the time to think – really think – about your brand from the start. Fashion is an exciting, fast-moving industry. You might have many business ideas, but it’s important for you to focus on one. You can learn more about the nuts and bolts of establishing and maintaining a consistent brand in Grow Your Small Business with Consistent Branding.


2. Fill in the Business Blanks

Once you define your brand, you can begin to think about the vitally important details of actually starting and running a clothing company. From choosing a fashion business structure to pricing, licensing and permits to business plan…

There’s a lot to think about.

First, you will need to choose the legal structure for your new apparel business. Sole proprietorship or LLC? Incorporate or register a partnership?

We discussed these options previously in our article 15 Tips for Turning Your Craft Hobby Into a Successful Business:

A sole proprietorship is the “most basic type of business to establish” according to the SBA (Small Business Administration). You are the sole owner of the business; and, as such, are solely responsible for the assets and liabilities accrued by the business. This may be just the ticket for your brand new, baby crafting business as it is also the easiest to set up.

If you’re interested in a little more protection, an LLC (or Limited Liability Company) may be a better fit. The LLC business structure provides the limited liability features you would find in a corporation. The Small Business Administration has all of the details about these common small business structures and others.

To learn more about corporations, partnerships and other legal mistakes people commonly make when setting up a small business, take a look at our post and video: 10 Legal Mistakes That Can Destroy Your Small Business And How To Avoid Them.

After you determine your business’s legal structure, you’ll need to file the necessary paperwork.

The U.S. Small Business Administration tells us that some form of license or permit is necessary for virtually every type of business. Their website has all of the info you need to find out what sort of license or permit you’ll need to start a business in your state.

Legal details squared away? Then it’s time to think about the specifics of your business. Entrepreneur contributor Toby Nwazor advocates for creating a business plan:

Any experienced entrepreneur knows a company without a business plan is like a fish without water. The plan does not need to be lengthy at first. Rather, it should be one or two pages, identifying the key elements of the clothing line’s business strategy.

Your plan should include (at minimum) a statement about your clothing brand, a general description of your products and a strategy for how you plan to sell them.

For more information about how to create a business plan, the Small Business Administration has you covered again. Click here to see their complete guide to writing a business plan.

In a detailed business plan, you may want to include your anticipated pricing structure. But, whether you include pricing info in your business plan or not, it’s an issue you must consider.

You may dream of owning your own brick and mortar shop – or maybe you fantasize about seeing your labels on the rack at Nordstroms. Either way, in order for an apparel business to scale and grow, it must have price points for both retail and wholesale. And, those prices should take into consideration the expenses of designing and creating your garments.

Nwazor recommends that you aim for prices 30% – 50% higher than your expenses in order to ensure a profit. Profit is, after all, essential to your business’s success.

Plan ahead for all of the necessary legal and logistical business considerations and you’ll create a strong foundation for your clothing brand’s successful future.


3. Plan for Manufacturing

Unless you personally plan to sew every garment you sell (a business model that would be impossible to scale) you’ll need to consider how your collection will be manufactured.

A manufacturer is not just the means to an end – it’s the partner that will help you make your ideas a physical reality. So, making the right choice of clothing manufacturer is critical.

This is especially true if you’re already running a clothing brand and want to start a new clothing line. Your existing manufacturer might not be a good fit for the new clothing line. This often happens, for example, if you started with t-shirts and are now moving to more sophisticated clothing.

You should plan to interview a number of different factory locations to find the one that is a right fit for your business.

There’s a terrific book about this from the founder of Nike, Phil Knight – Shoe Dog. In the book, Knight writes about how he found the perfect partners for manufacturing Nike shoes – and the struggles with partners who were less than perfect.

Before you reach out to potential manufacturing partners you’ll need to get your own business in order. Anna Livermore, founder of fashion business consulting company V. Mora, recommends completing the following “To-Do” list before reaching out to manufacturers.

  • Determine a realistic, honest budget. Don’t overcommit funds you don’t have. 
  • Learn about the manufacturing timeline so you can plan accordingly.
  • Prepare your design resources (fabric swatches, sewn samples, and tech pack or renderings).

When you reach out to a manufacturer for the first time they will have questions for you – questions that you should be equipped to answer. If you take the time to establish your budget, understand the production timeline and know your designs inside and out then you’ll be ready for them.

When you do finally start meeting with potential manufacturers put your most professional foot forward. Jennifer Philbrook co-founder at Stitch Method suggests:

Look at this meeting as a partner meeting and walk in with a smile! Not only are you looking to see if this factory is a good fit for your brand, but they are looking to see if your brand is a good fit for them! You don’t want to assume they automatically want to work on your project.

Of course, walking into that meeting prepared will go a long way toward convincing a manufacturer that you are a worthwhile prospect. Having worked on both the design and production side of the clothing industry I can tell you that manufacturers love a designer who really knows their business.

On the same token, nothing is more irksome than a designer with lots of ideas and no understanding of the manufacturing process by which those ideas are made real.

Before you commit to a full-scale run, order a few samples from several manufacturers to evaluate the quality and speed of their work.


4. Create a Sales Plan

Where do you plan to sell your clothing line? In an online shop or online clothing store? In a brick and mortar clothing store of your own? Or maybe you want to sell in local boutiques that feature many different clothing items?

There is no one right answer. And, it’s a good idea to consider the pros and cons of each option before making a decision that feels right for you.

This is where market research can help you. Not every selling option will be cost-effective or practical.

Selling a clothing line in an online store is cheaper and less labor-intensive than setting up your own physical store. There’s no monthly rent, mortgage or property taxes to pay, and no fixtures to buy. It’s also relatively easy to create an e-commerce presence nowadays without a lot of technical knowledge.

Most template-based web design services offer some form of e-commerce functionality. And some, like Shopify, are built specifically for e-commerce. But, think carefully before you decide to use a template-based service like Shopify.

Remember how important your unique branding is? The templates on those e-commerce sites are available for every other new fashion brand to use, as well. As I mentioned in a previous article,

It’s not enough to have a website… You also want to be sure that your site’s design is unique and that it showcases your products and you.

Just like your logo, your web design should start with your personal brand. A well-designed website will expand upon and support the values and personality traits that you’ve identified as being core to your business. If web design is not among your many DIY skills, know that there’s help available.

There are self-hosted open-source e-commerce services available that allow you to use your own uniquely branded website with their e-commerce functionality.

Check out services like WooCommerce, Magento, and Open Cart. Not only can you use your own original web design, they also scale easily alongside your business as it grows.

Alternately, if you dream of selling in a physical store, it’s a safer financial bet to start by selling in boutiques that already exist before taking the plunge and opening your own shop.

When deciding which boutiques you would like to carry your clothing line, double back to our first point – your well-developed brand.

Choose boutiques that are in line with your brand identity and your target market. If you design biker leathers for motorcycle enthusiasts, you can probably bypass the boutique down the street that specializes in yoga pants and maxi skirts.

However, if you make wise location choices, there’s a good chance your target audience already shops for clothes there.

Once you’ve targeted which boutiques you’d like to partner with, the next step is to start thinking like a retailer. Stitch Method’s Philbrook shared this advice in her article 5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started My Clothing Line:

If you plan on selling wholesale to boutiques it is important that you have merchandise ready to sell during the correct buying season… You need to figure out when you need to have production ready to ship to stores or customers and then work backwards from there through the development stages (leave enough time!) to make sure that you are working on the correct season.

Luckily, you’re already planning to learn about the manufacturing production timeline (remember Tip #3?) so you should be golden.

Pro Tip: Always schedule your meetings with boutiques in advance. In retail, the customer always comes first, so cold calls and drop-ins are a bad idea.


5. Spread the Word

If you’ve made it this far, you know your brand inside and out, all of your legal business details and business plan are in place, you have a manufacturing partner producing your garments, and a plan for selling them.

Now it’s time to focus on getting the word out about your fabulous new clothing business, a new line of clothes, and to find potential customers!

A great way to get started is to compile a list of local fashion editors and media outlets (radio, television and online blogs). When you are ready to launch your clothing brand or your clothing line, you can notify these resources via press release.

Take it one step further by creating an entire press kit. Check out this article from PR Couture to learn how.

Another important (and easy to overlook!) marketing tool for your clothing line are the pictures of your garments.

If you’re just starting out, you might be tempted take these yourself. But, blurry or poorly lit photos can actually work against you. So, if you can afford it, hire a professional photographer to ensure great results.

These images will be used on your website, social media marketing, and advertisements. So, keep your brand and target customer in mind and style them accordingly.

But most importantly, make sure your styles are the stars of the photos – simplicity is key keep accessories and background elements to a minimum.

As a new, up-and-coming business owner, you’ll also want to take full advantage of the inexpensive and easy exposure that social media marketing offers you. As we previously explained,

Social media gives you the ability to easily keep customers up-to-date on new products, store policies or sales. It also enables you to build a social rapport with current customers, while building low-pressure relationships with future buyers.

Maintaining (at a minimum) a Twitter and Facebook presence will help you build an audience of devotees. And consider micro-influencers, who can help you in the early days.

Make it easy for visitors to see what your clothing brand all about by featuring those fabulous photos of your line in a Facebook album.

Social media is also the perfect platform to help future customers get to know you as well as your clothes.

One major reason why customers buy from a start-up business instead of a major retailer is that they feel a connection to that business’s story. So, use your Facebook and Twitter to share that story – for free!

Finally, consider throwing a launch party to create exposure and excitement for your line. In an article for Inc. Magazine, Francis Arden (Aston Models partner) shares some great advice to ensure that your launch party is the well-attended extravaganza you dream it will be.

Build your list.  Remember those local fashion editors and media outlets? They should be on your list. So should local boutique owners, fashion buyers and anyone else who is relevant in your field.

Don’t compete for guests.  Schedule your party on an evening with no other major events – especially not other major events in the fashion industry. You don’t want to force your attendees to choose between your launch and another event.

Hold your event at an interesting location.  A special, unique venue can really make an event feel like… well… an event! But, don’t choose randomly, pick a location that jives with your brand presence. Try to find a venue where your target audience would feel right at home – if ‘home’ was super fun and exciting.

Offer something for free.  People love free swag. If you can afford it, offering a thoughtful and relevant free gift will make a great impression on your guests. A branded t-shirt might be the right gift. Or you can offer a one-off specially designed garment in a raffle. If your budget is tighter, Arden suggests offering an open bar for a limited part of the evening. Everyone loves an open bar; and, you can schedule the timing to coincide with when you’d like the bulk of your guests to arrive.

For more useful tips like these, check out the rest of Arden’s tips here.

And there you have it… Five tips to help get your new clothing line off to a great start. We’ve covered a lot, so let’s briefly review.

1. Develop your brand.  

Develop an authentic brand that honestly embodies your unique artistic point of view and speaks to your target audience. Plan your business name, logo, and web design to embody your brand.

2. Fill in the business blanks.  

File the permits or licenses that allow you to do business legally. Create a business plan and pricing strategy.

3. Plan for manufacturing.  

Determine your budget, learn the manufacturing process and timeline, and prepare your designs for sharing with tech packs, samples, and fabric swatches.

4. Create a sales plan.  

Choose your strategy – online or off? If online – create a custom website with your unique branding and e-commerce capability. If offline – form partnerships with boutiques that your target audience would frequent.

5. Spread the Word.  

Send press releases or press kits to relevant media outlets. Show your line off to its best advantage with professional photos. Use social media to share your story and your fashions. Hold a launch party to create excitement for your line.

There’s a lot to think about when you’re starting your own clothing line – not the least of which are the clothing designs themselves. But, following these 5 recommendations will help set your business off on the right Jimmy Choo clad foot.


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