21 mistakes fashion designers can make

Follows is a guest entry from a pattern maker with over 30 years experience. Born and raised in New York, she worked in the fast paced city for 25 years before moving to New Mexico five years ago. As she is not available to assist you with your projects any longer, her contact information has been removed.

21 mistakes fashion designers can make

Product Development
1. Not narrowing your focus. It’s best to specialize. Decide on one type of garment to sell and limit the number of styles, colors and sizes whenever possible. I know that was my biggest mistake. Forego that vision of competing with Jean Paul Gaultier or Zara.

2. Not understanding the time it takes to develop a new product. If you are planning to launch in Feb 2011 give yourself 2 yrs. If it happens before then, great, but when manufacturing is involved, you need to build relationships with your suppliers and contractors. You will need many moons to prove yourself to them and them to you.

3. Trying to take on difficult markets like labor intensive lingerie. Bras and shape wear can be very hard to produce. With very few factories in this country a designer is looking at large quantities and faraway factories.

4. Not looking closely at the current market.

5. Not establishing good fit from the very beginning.

6. When you are ready to sell, don’t make the mistake of failing to diversify your sales. Look for many stores in good standing as opposed to a few hot spots.

7. Not learning about marketing your product. Find a good marketer or sales rep and explain your product and sales vision then listen and decide. Diane Von Furstenberg represented her line successfully in the beginning. Anna Sui did very well for years with a sales rep until she went out on her own. Know your marketing capabilities or find an expert.

8. Not understanding how much money it takes to develop a new product. Normally at the start you won’t be ready to meet fabric and factory minimums which means you will be working with lower minimums to test your market and gain market share. It can take years to pay off your investment. I had a client who purportedly made a lot of money from a automotive software biz and decided to take the plunge and produce swimwear. He opted to produce 10K suits right out of the gate (against my advice) and after one year, he’d only sold 27 suits. No doubt he will have to dump them since they were fashion not commodity apparel.

9. Not delegating. After you have gained as many skills as possible you must know how to delegate. Find the very best people to work with, let go and allow the experts on your team work to their potential.

10. Not writing a business plan. You need to do it and update is as you go.

11. Not being open to making strong partnerships.

Personal Development
12. Not learning the hands on skills of draping or pattern making enough to trust others with those tasks. It’s extremely helpful if you can do the initial draping and/or pattern making yourself so that the design reflects your vision. Learn from Isabel Toledo.

13. Not developing your skills. Learn from the market place and improve it.

14. Not having mentors. Don’t get so attached to the product that you can’t improve it or get advice from professionals.

15. Not being cordial and not being able to compliment a job well done by your suppliers.

16. Not thinking out of the box.

17. Not setting up a space where you can be creative and try to make the 1st samples.

18. Not Networking

19. Not considering ideas from others

20. Not laughing. Losing your sense of humor can be disastrous.

21. Not imagining your success. Stay fresh in your ideas and be determined to be successful. You can do it.


  1. Reid says:

    #14 is my favorite this week. I took the short jaunt up to BC for the Olympics, and extended it with a few business meetings in Vancouver over the weekend. As a designer of technical outerwear, I have found it extremely difficult to find valuable mentors. This seems to be a highly competitive world of secrecy, where everyone uses the same 2 factories in Vancouver, and ten overseas.

    That said I met with a guy in Vancouver who has been helping me via email to increase my “tricks.” Especially in garments with bonded features, its all in the tricks and what may seem like small change to him has been huge for me. Hurray for mentors!Report

  2. Heather says:

    So much great information. Thank you! I like #12. Having some basic knowledge of pattern making and sewing is important for communicating your ideas and also to know what works as far as construction goes.Report

  3. Amy says:

    EXCELLENT POST! This is all stuff I have been trying to get clear in my head. You have simplified it for me. I am printing this out (along with all of my favorites from Kathleen) and putting it in my “get it right” notebook.Report

  4. shelly says:

    Thanks for reading my long list. I have learned so much by making these mistakes over the years! Bet there are more tips we could add!

    Thanks to Kathleen for her wealth of experience and creating a wonderful free exchange of information!Report

  5. Thank you for being so generous with advice. I have to say that number 1 is a lot tougher than it seems. I’m a place in my business where I cater to such a niche segment with my product- too niche to make money and comfortably pay my bills. This means I have to diversify, but just a little. I am going to start incorporating less expensive fabrics and make styles that have more mass appeal- and if it works then I might put them under a different brand name so that the original brand’s image does not get diluted. I said it’s difficult because when you are struggling to make ends meet (and make it all look effortless!), it’s hard to not make compromises and just make anything that you know will sell, even if it’s not in keeping with your design philosophy.Report

  6. sarah says:

    These are all great tips! Thanks!

    It all takes time, determination and constant improvement. I always learn so much here.
    Reinforcing good and positive actions, cements my drive to keep pushing on.
    Number 2 figures strongly for me and my work. There have been so many small and large accomplishments on the way, I don’t feel a need to rush into a tradeshow. Instead, I savor those moments as successes in themselves, even if it’s the ability to maintenance my machines myself. It’s so much more important to be a scientist about your fit and a sleuth for your supplies, and know why you’re doing it and how you really want to go about it before you go in headfirst and fritter away those precious hours and dollars. I keep talking about showing, I’m sure it will happen. I just don’t want to make an a** of myself! I’ve been a bulldozer before and just knocked down the good with the bad in fool hardy pursuit.

    It’s all happened so organically, albeit with some forehead-slapping mistakes, it hasn’t felt like work, well not intense back-breaking labor. And I never quit my day job!Report

  7. What a great list, I could look at every one of them as a way to improve. #1 is especially hard for me to follow as far as narrowing my focus and specializing. I hopefully have a good idea, am getting patterns made, but I constantly find something I want to add.Report

  8. Jennifer Philbrook says:

    I know I am way behind on this post but I wish I had read this a year ago. Number 2 speaks directly to me. I have been pushing back my launch date for so long and have been feeling like a failure! Now I feel better about myself as I realize the problem was an unrealistic date.Report

  9. Marci says:

    Jennifer I am reading this later than you but I feel the same reassurance. I even contacted her about a year ago for my design I thought I should keep things close in the beginning. Oh how I wish she was closer too me!!Report

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