How to Start a Clothing Line


Michael Kors. L.A.M.B. Marc Jacobs. Victoria Beckham. You? Your friends have always admired your style. You always thought there was a need in the market for a new type of design or aesthetic. You are entrepreneurial and want to start a business. Have you always dreamed of starting a clothing line?

How do you go from creative idea to actual sales of your clothing? Whether you’re designing apparel for children, babies, men, teenage girls, or puppies, here’s how to start a clothing line and get your business up and running:

Set the Foundation

A lot of your initial heavy lifting happens during this phase. When you’re setting the foundation for your business, you’re doing a lot of planning and research. This means obtaining the licenses you need to conduct business and developing the business plan that you will use as an outline for your company’s goals.

You’ll need to do a lot of market research in order to develop a comprehensive business plan. Take a look at your target market and research your competition. What has worked for them, and what hasn’t? You’ll need to be able to describe in detail who your key customer might be and what they might look like. What other brands do they prefer and where do they shop? It’s highly recommended that you get a retail job at a store that caters to your desired customer. This will help you understand what they are buying, what they look for in clothing, and the prices they expect to spend.

This is also the time where you brainstorm your branding and logo – it’s the way many consumers will identify your designs as they become familiar with your clothing line.

What will it cost?

There are a lot of pricing and financial variables to consider when you start a clothing line business. Some people can self-fund a few thousand dollars in order to open their clothing line, but other experts might believe you need hundreds of thousands to make an impact. If you can’t fund the line yourself, your best bet for funding is likely a small business loan. Your business plan should define how much up-front costs you’ll need and for what purposes. When it comes to building a successful clothing line, you’ll have to spend a fair amount of money to make a dent:

  • Supplies: How much money will you need for up-front fabrics and materials?
  • Production: Will you need to pay a manufacturer or independent seamstresses to make your collection a reality?
  • Marketing: What will marketing and advertising cost you?

You also need to consider how to price your garments. Once you start selling, at what point will you start making money that you can put back into the business? You should expect to spend a significant portion of your money on supplies and production. It’s better to have more inventory to sell or give away to establish your brand than it is to spend all your money on ads.

starting a business on clothing lineFabrics & Supplies

For people who want to start a clothing line, the fun part is designing and dreaming up the clothes and aesthetic. But, when it comes to running a business, this is only a small portion of the process. To understand how much fabric you’ll need, make sketches for 10-20 pieces that you can realistically go to market with. Make sure to choose pieces that show off your design chops. Get feedback from friends, family, and if possible, professionals in the fashion industry so that you can get a good idea of which garments should be part of your first collection.

From here, you can estimate how much fabric you’ll need, and don’t forget buttons, zippers, trim, and other materials. If you haven’t already, it’s important for you to understand production terminology so you can properly identify the fabric you wish to use, and communicate it’s construction and content.

Manufacturing

To keep costs low, you might consider sewing all of the pieces yourself. But be honest with yourself about how long you can sustain doing that. You can certainly make the samples, but you may want to research sewing contractors to help build the collection in a reasonable amount of time.

If you want to go straight to a manufacturer, look into the National Register of Apparel Manufacturers to find the right manufacturer for your line. Bring them sketches of your clothing and, if possible, a sample or prototype of each garment. As you interview manufacturers, be sure to ask about minimum quantities, turnaround time, their policies on design changes, etc. Get everything in writing, and be sure to get samples of your designs from them before you sign off on any mass-quantity production.

Selling Tools

In fashion, selling isn’t all about exchanging one garment for money. You have to look the part, which means learning the lingo and having all the necessary tools to process orders. A line sheet shows pictorial illustrations of your entire line, and includes important information on fabric, wholesale/retail prices, contact information, and order deadlines. This is a document that you would provide a buyer to give them a full run-down of what your collection includes. Your line sheet should be accompanied with a swatch card and order form. It’s important to have your line organized with this information so that when you approach a buyer, you look organized and professional.

Also remember that collections are designed by season. Most department stores buy at least two seasons in advance, while smaller stores buy 1-2 seasons ahead. You’ll need to time your design, production, and delivery accordingly.

starting a small businessSales

Once you have your selling tools situated, you need to know where and how to approach a buyer. You can start your efforts off at the grassroots level, and sell at festivals, markets, and to friends and family. You can also sell your garments online, using various online marketing efforts to spread the word and take orders. If you’re less than web-savvy, sites like Etsy can help you set up an online storefront without having to create your own website from scratch.

From there, try to get appointments with local boutique stores by introducing yourself in person or e-mailing the store owner. These stores are small enough that they won’t require large quantities of your product, so you can likely satisfy their orders quickly with a manufacturer or with a network of independent seamstresses. If you have your eyes set for the stars, and dream of your name plastered all over Neiman Marcus, you’ll need a different approach.

Kathleen Fasanella at Fashion Incubator gives some tough love when it comes to selling to department stores. While it’s not impossible to get your line delivered to these large retailers, it will require a lot of money:

Selling to big box stores requires a whole other level in both operational and computing complexity. Both require commitments towards increased internal operational efficiencies and considerable financial investment in the necessary tracking and monitoring systems.

Getting in touch with a department store buyer can be a challenge. You might consider partnering with an individual sales rep who has established relationships with buyers at the department stores or large retailers you want to target.

Photo source: fashionkings.net, hideyourarms.com


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4 Responses to How to Start a Clothing Line

  1. Dave, a great intro for those starting up a clothing business. I agree, approaching dept. stores is a whole different approach from setting up either on-line or through boutiques. We have set up a maternity range we sell on-line which of course brings challenges in itself from the visibility angle. Tough, which ever way to start!

    • Dave Thomas says:

      Zoe: Thanks for the feedback. Marketing is one of the most challenging aspects of running a business. You might consider Pinterest.com, which would be a great way of getting great pictures of your maternity clothing line in front of a receptive (mostly female) audience. Good luck!

  2. Rob says:

    Starting a clothing line can be a great way of learning the in’s and out’s of selling. Plus, having an online store is even better to sell clothing, especially if you use drop shipping or wholesale.

  3. Great post,

    I’m going through the motions with two clients at the moment. The most important feature to add to any platform which is being used to sell the products, is have them on all on a feed. This means all products can be uploaded to multiple shopping platforms with ease. Failure to do so will have you listing individual products which is time and cost absorbing. Whatever you niche is, Google Merchant centre is free (that’s the Google Shopping tab on a Google search), so there’s no cost per click on ANY sale. (this is currently 12.5% of website turnover for one client at the moment).

    Note: You will be shown up against competitors for certain specific search terms (if the products aren’t unique) so research pricing carefully to ensure products remain at a competitive price.

    Other ways of generating free traffic and leads for sales is to upload your products to other sites like thefind and comparison websites. Some E-commerce platforms will let you create the website as a shop in Facebook if you have a big following on there. Either way, my single bit of advice would be to make sure that all products are on a platform that can be uploaded to multiple platforms with ease. Make use of free traffic and sales to increase your profits and cast the net as wide as you can.

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