Maybe you’ve been sketching designs since you were a kid, have been making your own award-winning Halloween costumes for decades, and have already sold out of the custom T-shirts you’re making out of your garage. Or maybe you’re just intensely entrepreneurial (and obsessed with style) and want a piece of the trillion-plus dollars floating around the retail industry. Regardless of your drive, knowing how to start a clothing line is very different from just wanting to start a clothing line.
Luckily, many scrappy clothing entrepreneurs before you have launched their lines to great success, and they’re willing to share their tips with you. We’ve interviewed a few of those business owners to put together this guide on how to start your own clothing line, from product idea generation to funding your business through a small business loan (and some words of much-needed wisdom to power you through your pursuit).
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You Don’t Need to Be an Expert to Start a Clothing Line
First off, don’t let a lack of direct experience in the fashion industry stop you from launching your line. Unlike, say, becoming a doctor, starting a clothing line doesn’t necessarily require special training or a degree. In fact, most of the designers we spoke with had no formal experience in the fashion industry before starting their businesses.
That said, you do need to completely dedicate your time and energy into launching your clothing brand.
Bianca Dabney is the founder of BIDA, a sustainable, minimalistic streetwear line. Her modeling and acting career instilled in her a love for the fashion industry and an understanding of how garments are presented and marketed. Still, she says, “the most challenging part of starting my own business was actually gaining the confidence and self-assurance that I could and should start it.”
Like many of us, Dabney knew college was the clear path laid out before her. “I was raised thinking that going to school and working a corporate job was really the only option, and I was nervous to finally let go of that mentality and see that there were other paths,” she says.
She founded her business without any formal training and used her experiences working as an actress and model in the industry instead, “I’m also a self-taught designer, so finding the resources to create the brand was rewarding yet challenging. Self-motivation, determination, and my passion helped me to become an expert in my field.”
Like Dabney, you might find that the hardest part of the process, at least psychologically, is committing yourself to actually starting your clothing line. But if you understand that the process will require long hours, impeccable organizational skills, and a potentially steep learning curve, you’re fully capable of teaching yourself how to do it—no fashion MFA required.
Step 1: Write a Business Plan for Your Clothing Business
It’s always useful to write and implement a business plan at the start of your venture. This plan will act as a roadmap outlining how you’ll reach your goals over the next couple of years. But also know that your business plan isn’t necessarily set in stone.
“Before launching BIDA, I created a business plan that included brand, sales strategy, and marketing elements,” Dabney says. “However, I’ve had to make changes and adjustments based on my customers and the environment. Running a business is an ongoing evolution. It’s important to have a clear plan of action, but it’s equally important to be flexible and be able to adapt.”
That adaptability is especially important in the retail business, which undergoes trend changes all the time.
“It’s both a very exciting time in fashion and a very unpredictable time,” says Ariel Mehrban, founder of True Vision LA, a streetwear clothing line based in Los Angeles.
“The market is seeing new influences every day, and there are always new technologies and new ways for customers to find products. I don’t think anyone knows where it will settle, or if it will ever stabilize. All in all, I think the best strategy for a fashion startup is to stay nimble and adaptable.”
As Mehrban suggests, the constant turnover in the fashion industry can be both a blessing and a curse—and keeping up with the market might mean tweaking your original plan. But having the strong foundation of a business plan can make navigating those changes feel a lot less overwhelming.
Step 2: Find Your Niche
The most successful businesses identify a problem within the market and then design a product expressly to fix that problem. That said, you don’t necessarily need to dive too deeply into researching the market at this stage. It’s likely that an idea for a unique clothing item will reveal itself as you’re living your everyday life.
Jordan Sack is the founder and CEO of Tillinger, a technical apparel line that specializes in men’s golf-inspired shirts. The idea for his streamlined, sweat-wicking shirts arose when he was interning in Manhattan one summer after college:
“I looked forward to summer Fridays because I finally got to wear short sleeves—but that was still your typical, thick, cotton knit polo shirt. And on the weekends, I would always play golf with my friends and loved wearing the uniform of technical performance polo shirts. But you couldn’t really wear those to work because they were brightly colored, heavily logoed, and just plain ugly. The idea for creating my own golf shirts didn’t arise as an ‘aha!’ moment, but I gradually became more and more interested in making an everyday, work-appropriate polo that had the properties of your typical golf shirt.”
Here’s another approach: If you’re intent upon designing something but you don’t quite know what that “something” is, start by identifying the audience you’d be passionate about serving—whether that’s your peers or a demographic that’s currently underserved in mainstream retail—and think about what they need from their clothing.
For example, Sherri Dombi is the founder of Bee Yourself Apparel, an adaptive clothing line whose design features allow elderly folks to easily dress themselves.
“First you need to have a passion for what you are doing,” Dombi says. “Mine was helping a friend’s dad dress like he used to but allow him to dress independently.”
Step 3: Understand Your Market
Once you’ve hit upon your business idea, now you need to truly understand the consumer you’re designing for. Your designs, fabric choices, sourcing and production budget, and retail outlets all have to cater toward your target demographic’s spending behaviors, lifestyle, and aesthetic preferences—so don’t get started on any of the above before diving deep into understanding your base.
Part of that research should involve studying the companies whose product, marketing, and branding strategies you admire, and whose target demographics you share.
“The first step is really to just absorb information,” says Mehrban. “You need to learn everything that your would-be competitors already know. Part of that time should be spent studying how they are engaging with their customers. What is the value they are offering their customers? It’s usually something much deeper than the garments themselves.”
Luckily, this research doesn’t necessarily need to involve special skills or resources: If you have an internet connection and social media profiles, you can garner valuable information about your customers and how to design toward and sell your product to them.
“The great thing about our time is that we have access to almost the entire world with social media and various web-based platforms,” says Mehrban. “If you’re passionate about design, chances are you have a product that people will appreciate. The tough part is finding those people. I don’t subscribe to the ‘build it and they will come’ myth. The short answer? Scour the web. Find the areas that your customers frequent and get your product in front of them.”
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Dabney echoes the value of using social media and basic analytic tools to define your audience’s behaviors and needs:
“To pin down my target demographic and their spending behaviors, I executed a pre-launch campaign, which I then analyzed through Google Analytics. Online marketing, such as Facebook and Instagram ads, allows for target demographic analysis, too.”
In addition to their aesthetic preferences and lifestyle, you’ll want to understand how and where your audience spends on clothing, too. That way, you can plan whether to open a brick-and-mortar store, sell on an ecommerce platform, or both. Even if that physical location is a two- or three-year goal, incorporate plans for its launch in your initial business plan.
Step 4: Design, Source, and Produce Your Clothing Line
Next, you’ll get into the meat of your clothing line: designing your clothing, sourcing your material, and finding your manufacturer. This can be the most challenging part of the process for many entrepreneurs starting a clothing line, especially those who haven’t worked in the fashion industry before. Here’s how the designers we interviewed went about the process.
Finding the Right Materials
You might have a clear idea of what kinds of materials you want to create your products with, or you might need to do some exploring first.
Before formulating his polo shirts’ polyester-and-lycra blend, Tillinger’s Jordan Sack conducted his own, self-directed research into the production process:
“I bought a lot of competitor golf shirts and studied the materials they used. Then, I reached out to old friends who worked in the industry and bought them dinner in exchange for their time. It was a lot of serendipitous moments all coming together. One friend led me to a pattern maker, who led me to a grader/marker who knew a cutter. The friend also had a connection to a sample factory in the Garment District. It was pretty scrappy. There’s not an easy-to-follow online tutorial. You just have to be resourceful.”
And then, of course, there’s the cost question. A major challenge every designer will face is reconciling the cost and the quality of your materials, though Mehrban says that this decision will be highly individual to every designer’s budget and values.
For their part, Mehrban says, “We’ve found that compromising on quality just doesn’t work. Cost cutting is an important part of any business model, but we don’t ever work with inferior manufacturers or materials. If we can find something better, that’s what we’ll use.”
Erum Ilyas, the founder of AmberNoon, also decided to leave extra room in her budget to ensure that she was manufacturing her clothing with the most effective textiles available and, as a result, pricing her clothing higher than expected.
That was especially important because AmberNoon’s unique value proposition depends on the quality of its sun-protective materials—Ilyas is a board-certified dermatologist who has run her own practice for a decade. Despite comprehensive public knowledge about skin cancer prevention, it’s still the most common type of cancer today. That inspired her to launch her line of sun-protective clothing that women can wear every day.
“Given the quality of the textiles, the design elements, and low minimum order quantities I started with, I do have a higher price point than I would like long term,” Ilyas says. “After all, I want to make sure anyone can access this amazing product for their benefit.”
Depending on your particular goals and mission for your clothing line, you might also find that it’s worth sacrificing your target price-point in favor of lasting, quality materials. When you’re first rolling out your line, you especially want your product to impress your consumer as the best-quality product possible.
Partnering With a Manufacturer
Finding the right manufacturer to produce your clothing is crucial to bringing your vision and goal for your brand to life. After all, if you don’t have a reliable manufacturer, your clothing line can’t exist at all.
“You can have a great idea, great concept—covered all of your bases,” says Ilyas. “But if your manufacturer can’t produce to your specifications, and maintain the quality and stay true to your concept, then your message is just lost.”
When seeking a manufacturer, consider factors like your manufacturer’s minimum order quantity, cost, quality, and trustworthiness. You might also want to find a manufacturer with in-house pattern makers to streamline your processes.
“The manufacturer I’ve partnered with is a local Bali factory, which specializes in knit and stretch production,” Dabney says. “The factory provides services in development, pattern making, and production, so all the elements are under one roof, which is important for quality control.”
To cut down on costs and to maintain your product’s affordability, you might consider exporting your manufacturing processes overseas, as Dabney did. Whether you produce your clothing domestically or abroad, it’s worth taking a hands-on approach to searching for your materials and manufacturers.
“There was plenty of trial and error, and we did lose a decent amount of money trying to find the right partners,” Mehrban says about tracking down the right manufacturers to produce True Vision LA’s clothes.
“It’s very hard to tell how a garment will fit, or to guess the hand feel based on a picture. We made the mistake of relying on photo representations before placing wholesale orders initially, and it cost us. One thing I’ve found is that the integrity of the product tends to match the integrity level of the manufacturer, and when that’s missing, you run into problems. It’s very important to work with partners that have the same ideals as you do.”
And don’t feel pressured to produce a full, 10-plus clothing line right from the start, especially if you’re feeling the strain on your budget (or your sanity)—Donna Karan, for one, built her eponymous label off her now-classic “Seven Easy Pieces” collection. So, start by perfecting just a few items, gauge how your market responds, and build up your brand from there.
Step 5: Market Your Clothing Line
Without a plan to publicize your product, all the work you’ve done tracking down your producers will be for naught. And if you’re not a natural marketer, know that this is a skill you’ll need to nail in order to keep your clothing line’s doors open (either physically or digitally)—as Mehrban says, “Building a fashion startup is four parts sales and marketing to one part design.”
That said, you don’t need a huge marketing budget or even previous marketing experience to effectively spotlight your brand; in fact, many entrepreneurs simply use their (free) social media accounts as their main marketing channels. Other than their low cost, platforms like Instagram and Facebook allow for greater transparency and connection with your customer base, which modern consumers value.
“From the very beginning of the process, I did my best to document my journey of starting a company,” Sack says. “That was pretty much my content strategy. I didn’t have this huge, creative marketing department. If I was going to pick out buttons, I would take a picture and put it up on Instagram and share that button story for the day.”
Beyond leveraging social media, there are tons of free marketing ideas you can implement to disseminate your brand. The key is consistency and cohesion; ensure that every piece of marketing material or campaign aligns with your brand’s voice, aesthetic, and goals. A disjointed branding strategy is confusing for your customer base, which doesn’t bode well for loyalty—which is key for turning leads into sales over the long term.
Also know that, even if you’ve started your clothing line with a clear understanding of how to market to your customers, customers are fickle. So don’t stop communicating with your customers once your initial research is through. Pay special attention to their aesthetic and buying preferences and adapt your marketing materials and product to suit.
“We started out with a clear vision of the design and branding,” says Mehrban. “We knew we wanted to sell ‘highly wearable’ clothing, or others may call staples. The challenge was—and in my opinion will forever be—finding what motivates customers to buy. All brands grapple with motivating customers, and it’s something that never ends, even for the most established brands. Once you’ve discovered your segments, you’ll have to continue researching them. Their motivations will change with time, and even the demographics of those segments may change. What worked last season won’t necessarily work this season. The brands that survive are the ones prepared to adapt to highly volatile environment.”
Step 6: Work With an Expert
While your clothing line idea may have been purely your own, you can’t be expected to fully launch your business without some help here and there. This is especially true if you don’t have experience in the fashion industry. Tapping an expert or a community of fellow fashion entrepreneurs may spell the difference between the success and failure of your startup.
Marianna Sachse is the founder of Jackalo, a line of durable and sustainable children’s wear. She didn’t have any design experience, but hiring a consultant and joining StartUp Fashion, an online community of independent designers, armed her with the information and support she needed to get her company off the ground:
“For new designers, I’d highly recommend surrounding yourself with experts. I found a consultant who had worked with majorly successful brands through a design friend, and I did an intensive four-week jumpstart program to get a sense of the competition and what my brand positioning would be. And StartUp Fashion helped me ensure that I had all the materials I needed to effectively communicate with factories, and connected me with a community of fashion entrepreneurs who are a fabulous resource.”
However, don’t simply settle for a mentor just because they have extensive experience in the industry. As is the case with any other individual you let in on an important aspect of your life—whether it’s your significant other, your business lawyer, or your business mentor—do a gut check before heeding your consultant’s advice.
“If you don’t have a willing friend in the industry who can help,” says Sack, “I’d recommend a consultant, but it’s super important to be able to trust him or her. I’ve made that mistake. Go with your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.”
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Sachse, too, warns that some consultants claim to be more experienced than they truly are. You’ll find the most trustworthy consultants via word-of-mouth, so start your search by scouring your network (LinkedIn is a great resource for this).
Step 7: Get Funding for Your Clothing Line
Like most entrepreneurs in any industry, the clothing designers we interviewed mostly bootstrapped, or self-financed, their ventures, using a combination of their own savings and contributions from friends and family. That makes sense, as securing a business loan as a very young startup—without the necessary evidence of a financial track history to show your lenders—can be very difficult.
Other than bootstrapping, there are a few other options for financing a startup you can explore to help you launch your clothing line. Crowdfunding can be a surprisingly lucrative way to raise funds at the very start of your venture; plus, crowdfunding can double as a method of vetting your market and gauging customer interest in your product.
That said, it’s unlikely that you can fund 100% of your operational costs purely through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or a similar platform. You might also consider seeking equity funding, such as an angel investor or even a private equity firm. These investors will contribute large amounts of cash to help promising startups get off the ground, in exchange for a stake in the business. But only approach private investors if you’re okay with sacrificing a portion of your business’s control.
The Bottom Line
Across the board, the entrepreneurs we interviewed said that patience, adaptability, and dedication are crucial traits for starting and running your own clothing line. Whether you have experience starting your own small business or not, expect to overcome serious learning curves. Starting a clothing line from scratch isn’t always a walk in the park and it involves different challenges than other small businesses.
But if you’re unrelenting in your dedication, you’ll find no better satisfaction than seeing your customers live their lives in your creations—and doing it on your own terms.
As Dabney says, “The most rewarding part of starting my own business is that I get to work with clothes I’m obsessed with every single day. On top of that, I have the freedom to run my business how I like, so I know what I’m doing is a direct reflection of my vision. After starting my own business, I really can relate to the quote, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’”