Thinking about starting a clothing line business or a career in fashion design? Great! You don’t have to be a big name designer to earn decent money designing clothes. You also don’t have to live in a fashion city like New York, London, or Paris. In fact, you can get started from your home selling locally and join the ranks of many famous designer (Diane von Furstenberg, Giorgio Armani, and Todd Oldham, to name a few), if that’s your goal.
But how, exactly, do you go about it? It’s a question that frequently populates my inbox, in a form similar to this:
Question: “I have tons of designs in my sketchbook and am dying to sell them to a department store. What do I need to do?”
The answer, of course, is that the illustration is just the beginning of the design process.
Whether you approach a department store, a boutique, or a private client, they’ll generally only be interested in buying your designs if you can deliver the finished product. So that means you either:
- Manufacture the product in-house by doing it yourself or through people you hire; or
- Pay a manufacture to produce the products for you; or
- License your ideas to a third party manufacturer for a percentage of royalties.
Since licensing deals aren’t likely to occur until you’ve established a recognizable brand name, we’ll focus on the first two methods and save the licensing discussion for another time.
If you were a designer for a large, established clothing or accessory company, you could hand off your approved designs to a pattern maker, who would then turn them over to the manufacturing division, who would then send them to shipping, who would then pack and send them to the retail clients that the marketing department had sold to.
But when you work for yourself, you’re the “chief cook and bottle washer” and have to do or outsource all of the steps yourself. But you’re in fine company: everyone from Coco Chanel to Donna Karan has been through this startup phase, and has sewn clothes, chatted up clients, and packed boxes until the wee hours—oftentimes all in the same day. It CAN be glamorous, but there’s plenty of good old-fashioned hard work, too. Just ask anyone who works on Seventh Avenue.
Once you’ve put some of your ideas into sketches, pick two or three of your favorites and create prototypes/samples.
If you don’t sew or don’t sew well, you’ll have to pay someone to do this for you. Create a pattern, consider what sizes you’ll be able to offer, make notes on construction as you go along, and keep track of all of your expenses. You’ll need to know how much it cost you to assemble each garment (including labor) so you’ll know how much you’ll need to charge in order to turn a profit.
For many beginning designers, creating a prototype is an eye-opening experience.
The more complicated the design, the more costly the labor to produce it. Go back through your sketches and see if you’ll really be able to produce all of those designs. Can you re-use the sleeve or skirt from one design and put it in another? Can you change the look of one garment by adding or subtracting trim? These are just a few of the tricks that profitable designers use to keep pattern-making expenses down.
Once you have your samples, make sure they’re properly finished and will stand up to handling and careful inspection by prospective buyers.
If they do, get out your phone book and make a list of the department stores and/or boutiques in your area that sell clothes or accessories similar to what you’ve created in terms of style and price range.
Call the store’s buyer and make an appointment to “show your wares”.
If you’re selling to a boutique or specialty store, the buyer might also be the owner. If you’re calling a department store, find the buyer for the department you’ll be selling to. Be on time for your appointment and dress professionally—nothing too outlandish or “artsy” that might detract from your sample designs.
Show your samples.
If he or she is interested, they might place an order. Don’t promise more than you can realistically deliver by the due date. Depending on your situation and the buyer, you may request that part of the order be paid up front (so you have money to buy the raw materials), with the balance due on delivery. If you’ll be selling to private clients (wedding gowns, original designs), insist upon this arrangement—you don’t want to be totally out on your labor and materials if the client places the order and then disappears.
Create a purchase order.
You can do this on your computer (Microsoft Office has a template in Excel) or with a form from an office supply store. List the details of the agreement, and get the buyer’s signature on the order. Then go back to your office (which may also be your kitchen table) and get busy filling the order.
Once you feel comfortable maintaining one account, add others.
Again, never promise more than you can deliver. As you grown, you may need to add staff or outsource all or part of the manufacturing process.
So what if the buyer doesn’t like your designs? Then go back home and call the next buyer on your list. Then the next. If you’re getting lots of “No’s”, it could be that you haven’t properly targeted your market in terms of style or price range. Open up your phone book again and look for more appropriate outlets.
Selling your clothing designs locally is a great way to make money from home. It’s also an easy way to break into a competitive industry. Learn your craft, hone your sales skills, and produce an excellent product. There’s just no way to lose.
Recommended Books on How to Market Your Clothing Line Business:
- The Business of Fashion: Designing, Manufacturing, and Marketing, 4th Edition
- The Fashion Designer Survival Guide, Revised and Expanded Edition: Start and Run Your Own Fashion Business
- Marketing Fashion: Portfolio Series (Portfolio (Laurence King))
- Fashion Marketing Communications
- Fashion Merchandising and Marketing
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