(Editor’s Note: Marie Routhier has closed her clothing business and is now a food writer. Her startup story in the fashion business can still teach a lot of would-be entrepreneurs about the fashion and apparel business.)
The key to a successful entrepreneurship is finding the business that you would enjoy the most. You will be put in more commitment, passion, dedication and love — ingredients that lead to success — to a business that you enjoy doing.
If a business has ceased to be fun and has transformed into a burden, either you find something to re-energize your interest in the business, or ditch that business altogether and find a better fit for you. Entrepreneurship is not just about making money; it is about earning money while enjoying what you do.
Marie Routhier of Winnepeg, Canada was an up-and-coming fashion designer: first focusing on skating costumes, then moving on to formal and bridal fashion design. She was starting to make a name for herself with a growing list of clientele. The popularity of this young designer was such that several bridal and business magazines in Canada even featured her success story.
After years in the bridal fashion industry, Marie started to lose interest in the business. An accident forced her to reassess her life, including her business. She packed her bags, and moved to Newfoundland where she went back to her original passion – sewing with spandex. Now, Marie is one of the well-known Canadian sporting costume designer and author of several books.
Marie shared her story with PowerHomeBiz.com in an email interview.
Starting Up an Apparel Business
PowerHomeBiz: How did you start in the business of designing clothes? Did you have any formal training in fashion design or related studies? What inspired you to start an apparel business?
I was a figure skater in a poor family! Anyone who has ever had to pay skating bills knows that it’s a very expensive sport! My family could not afford even basic practice dresses for me, so at age 11, I started making my own. People around the rink liked my work, and started paying me to make costumes for them, as well. You could definitely say that necessity was the mother of invention, in my case!
Everything I do now, I’ve learned along the way. I did attend a fashion tech and design course for a year in grade 11, but quit. It wasn’t an academically inclined school at all, and that’s what I needed. This was never meant to be a career; it was supposed to be a way to pay my way through a few science degrees! I still intend to go after those degrees, but it’s been put off by a few years. I have to grow the business to the point where I will be able to run it, and attend university concurrently.
PowerHomeBiz: You started formal wear, but it was cut short by your accident. How do you compare the business of creating gowns vis-a-vis the business of creating sporting costumes?
To be quite honest, brides are usually awful to deal with. I find that most of my costuming customers are extremely nice to deal with. For the most part, they respect my time and me; they are polite, and show appreciation when they receive their finished products. I’ve had some brides that were the same way, but many would be rude, act as if they were my only clients, be very demanding, etc. I’m not stressed out dealing with my costuming customers. The other big difference is that spandex costuming clients don’t seem to balk at paying decent prices for quality – I did get pretty sick of brides assuming that I could / would knock off some mass produced wedding gown for less than minimum wage!
PowerHomeBiz: When you recovered from the accident, you opened a formal wear shop again, then decided to close it. What led to your decision to retire from the formal wear segment of the fashion industry?
I didn’t actually re-open a formalwear shop, I briefly had a workspace to just do custom orders. It wasn’t healthy for me at all. After a series of bad experiences with brides (bouncing cheques on me, changing their minds on design several times after starting, one showing up at my home at all hours, demanding spontaneous appointments to show her dress off to friends /family, etc), it started really wearing me down. The day I had to call a friend over to keep me company, because I did not think I could manage to work on a dress for a certain bride alone, was the day I decided to get out of it. It ceased being fun long before that, but that was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Around that time, my boyfriend was transferred from our home of St John’s, to Toronto. The GTA (Greater Toronto Area) has a much bigger market for spandex costuming, so I definitely took that as a sign that there were better things to do! I sent out a few emails to swim clubs announcing my availability to do team orders, and the interest just started pouring in. It’s a very niche market, and I have the advantage of having worn the very same type of costumes that I now make.
PowerHomeBiz: You then shifted to spandex costumes. What led you to shift in market and type of product altogether? Did you see a lot of opportunities for you in the spandex costume market than formal wear? What inspired you to start a costuming business for the sports market?
Spandex was how I started, and it had always been fun. You can express yourself more, the fabrics are much wilder, and it’s really cool to see your gear on athletes in competition, rather than just get wedding photos ad nauseam! Also, with spandex costuming, clients can do cool things in your work- win big competitions, TV appearances, etc. — makes it a lot more interesting, I think.
PowerHomeBiz: What preparations did you make when you started your spandex costume business (e.g. did you prepare a business plan; did market research albeit informal ones, etc.)?
Actually, I was so sick of what I was doing at the time, that sending emails announcing my arrival to ON, and my desire to do costumes was my only real preparation. I got so booked by that first series of emails that I still haven’t had time to do a proper business plan, and I really need one! The initial set of orders snowballed with word of mouth, and it hasn’t left me with much time!
PowerHomeBiz: You are not only selling clothes, but you are selling a lifestyle. How do you characterize Marie Routhier sporting costumes? Who is a Marie Routhier wearer?
I have to say, I love my clients. They all have great spunk and attitude! Reminds me of the personalities I used to hang out with in my skating days… oh, the memories!
PowerHomeBiz: How did you finance your business? How much was your start-up capital?
I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but I didn’t finance it. Because I was previously burned on payments, I now have a pay-in-advance policy — so the first orders covered the cost of fabrics, etc.. and that was my only real start up costs. Anything else along the way has pretty much been paid for with orders.
Manufacturing Your Clothing Line
PowerHomeBiz: Kindly describe process involved in producing your costumes.
First I meet with the clients, take measurements, go over music / theme / character, and design a suit. We pick out fabrics, and I make the suits to their measurements and specifications. We have a fitting, and it usually ends there, with a finished product. If any alterations need to be done, I take them back to my office to finish.
PowerHomeBiz: What are the challenges you faced in designing and manufacturing your products?
Having a couple of clones would be really nice. During competition season, it usually feels like there isn’t enough of me to go around, and I work incredibly long hours. This year, it actually got to the point where I was no longer able to handle it all by myself, and I took on an apprentice in January. Finding someone who thought like me, was a quick learner, had a scientific mind, and actually WANTED to do it was a challenge in itself, but I’m quite pleased with the result!
PowerHomeBiz: One of the common problems of a start-up fashion/clothing designer is where to find suppliers, manufacturers and outsourcers. What strategies did you employ in looking for the manufacturers who will create your products as well as suppliers of textile? What advice can you give others who are looking for needed manufacturers?
I can’t really answer this, as I do all of the work myself, with my apprentice. I am currently in the process of crossing over to ready-to-wear, which will be manufactured by an outside company. The Internet is your friend.
PowerHomeBiz: Do you outsource the manufacturing of your designs or do you hire seamstresses to create your costumes?
Neither, at the moment. I will be hiring a few seamstresses in the summer, to deal with next year’s custom orders, and am in the process of settling with a manufacturer for my ready to wear. Till now, everything has been done by me.
Growing and Managing Your Clothing Line Business
PowerHomeBiz: How has your business grown through the years?
I am currently in the biggest growth spurt of my life! To date:
- Started working out of my grandmother’s house (kitchen table), doing orders for friends at my skating rink
- They’d go away to competitions, and I’d end up with orders from all over the province, and eventually the country.
- Repeat clients would grow up, graduate, and/or get married, and ask me to make their gowns. This became a supplementary income.
- I opened my bridal shop in St John’s, only to have to close down shortly thereafter due to my back injury.
- Rented a small manufacturing space and office to handle custom bridals, after I recovered
- Quit bridals, started spandex again. Started on my kitchen table, eventually took over the basement. Now, I rent out a neighbor’s basement to be used exclusively as work space
- I ran out of room.
- Took on an apprentice in January, she is coming along well. I will be apprenticing a few more people over the summer, for hire in the fall.
- I was recently picked up by a sales agent, for ready to wear. My line debuts this spring/ summer
PowerHomeBiz: What other strategies are you employing to grow your business?
Mostly word of mouth and networking.
PowerHomeBiz: Can you give an indication of the size of your business?
I have a long way to go before I reach a million dollars total, nevermind in one year! The best indication I can think of is the globality of clients, and how fast word spreads for me. I have clients across North America, as well as in Europe and Australia. This morning, I received my first order from Aruba! It never ceases to amaze me when I hear that I have a reputation in a country I’ve never been before!
PowerHomeBiz: How do you decide on what product/s to offer to your markets?
The clients tell me, for the most part. When it comes to fabrics, I’m always stress / performance testing new fabrics and styles, and present them to clients as options when they pass my requirements.
PowerHomeBiz: Where can buyers find your clothing? Do you distribute your clothes in sporting stores or retail stores?
My ready to wear items has been available in stores since May 2004. I will have the final list of stores by the end of March, and they will be listed on my ready to wear site (Editor’s Note: Her clothing websites are now closed)
PowerHomeBiz: If using dealers, what was the approach you made to the dealers to ensure that they carry your clothing label?
It’s actually completely out of my hands, my sales agent knows her clients.
PowerHomeBiz: How do you manage the creative aspect of the business (designing costumes, etc) vis-a-vis the business side of it (e.g. marketing, finding contracts, overseeing production)?
With great difficulty, at this point. I really do need to hire an office manager; I’d like to concentrate on the creative and marketing, myself.
Marketing Your Clothing Line
PowerHomeBiz: When you offered your services as a spandex costumer, what was the market’s initial reaction? Was the reception as warm as you expected?
More so! I was accepted with wide-open arms here! A few friends I haven’t known as long as others (i.e.: who didn’t know me when I skated / made costumes before) cracked some jokes about spandex, but that’s about it. The clubs and individuals were happy to have me here, and my friends and family were happy to see me doing something I love, and reaping the rewards of being good at it.
As a matter of fact, I started questioning my future in fashion a few months ago, and played with the idea of registering for University in the coming fall… I got so much flack from my clients, I decided not to! It’s nice to feel loved!
PowerHomeBiz: An important part of your target market is sporting teams and clubs. How do you approach and convince sporting teams to use you as their official costumer?
Networking, and word of mouth. As I mentioned, I do have the advantages of having been an athlete, and of having a scientific mind. I like to ensure that my products really stand out against the competition! A lot of the time, it’s the actual athletes that convince the clubs to order from me, after they compete against some of my clients!
PowerHomeBiz: What are your main marketing strategies?
I like to maintain a large web presence, as this makes my business, my work, and myself accessible to more people globally, at any time of day, than I would if I marketed myself any other way. It’s also cost efficient, and convenient to both my prospective customers and myself.
PowerHomeBiz: You seem to do a lot of public speaking appearances, road trips, special events, shows, etc. How vital are these approaches to your overall marketing strategy?
You know, I’m not actually sure. I usually book those as a change of scenery – I get bored easily!
PowerHomeBiz: You’ve written some books on spandex costumes. How valuable are these books in raising your profile as an expert in spandex costuming?
I’d say it’s a contributing factor. From talking to clients, I’d say I’m definitely more known for my actual work, than for my teachings… although I do get a lot of positive feedback from the manuals.
Next Steps for Your Apparel Business
PowerHomeBiz: What do you think are the keys to your success?
My intelligence, bullheadedness (stereotypical Irish here!), and scientific mind. I’m not happy with what I just know now, I’m constantly trying to outdo myself, create new techniques, and surprise my clients with even better costumes than the last. I know a lot of people fall into the rut of just doing what they do, but I like to experiment.
PowerHomeBiz: What are the next steps from your business? What are your plans for this year?
The launch of my ready to wear line is pretty much taking up most of my attention at this point! We have plans beyond that, but I’ll keep those to myself for now 🙂 World domination and the purchase of a replica Spanish Galleon factor into the mix at some point!
PowerHomeBiz: Any lessons you want to share to other start-up entrepreneurs?
Learn to delegate, and if you’re going to do something, do it all the way.
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