How to start a clothing line

This topic comes from a combination of my email and the forum. I wanted to share it with you because I think it’s a good example of simple, modest plans and good instincts. There are some features of her plan that I think are pivotal -and this is a basic outline of how I explained to start a clothing line in The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing (it’s rated #1 on Amazon for a reason). For some of you it may seem too simple but I really believe that some DEs (designer entrepreneurs) go overboard with complexity rather than having a good core focus. It’s the foundations of a plan that matter most at the outset. You shouldn’t use marketing to compensate for a weakness in your foundation and that’s what a lot of (mostly big) companies do. Here’s Tonya’s message:

I grew up sketching and later on taught myself to sew. I’ve wanted to launch my own plus-size clothing line for about 20 years now but the problem has always been lack of money. I work as an Analyst in IT. I’ve decided to take $10K out of my 401k and invest it in myself by starting a clothing line.

As a plus-size consumer who can never find the type of clothes that I like, I’m sure that there is a need for more diversity in the product offerings. I’ve also been researching the plus-size market for the last 10 years. For more info, I’ve been working at Lane Bryant part-time since October which has given me good insight into what women are buying.

Before I take out the money I want to have a clear business plan. My problem right now is deciding how best to market and produce the line. The 3 options I’m considering are:

OPTION #1
Create samples for a small 5-piece collection and sell them to other plus-size specialty stores by direct mail look-book/flyer. I’ve been able to identify about 30 of these independent stores across the US. I would also show the line at the WWD Magic show to get orders as well. I would them contract with a factory to produce based on what I got orders for.
Concern–>Can I afford this with only $10K AND will I attract enough potential buyers at this huge trade show?

OPTION #2
Start by producing 3 units per size, per style of the 5-piece collection and sell them over the internet. In addition, I would flesh out the online inventory with other designs made by local home sewers as needed.
Concern–>Can I afford this with only $10K

OPTION #3
Don’t mass-produce anything. Produce all merchandise using local home sewers and sell online.
Concern–>Finding enough local people who can really sew!

Most of the people who contact me about starting a product line are not this together. Yeah, her plan needs some work but her instincts are excellent. I see all of the options as being viable although some more than others. I like option #1 the best but here are the things that I really really like about her plan that are featured in every option she’s listed:

She got a retail job -which cannot pay what her IT job does- at a place that serves her target market. I tell people to do this all the time but nobody listens to me.

Small product line. This is totally doable. It’s not overly ambitious. This means she’s patient, willing to invest in the long term from the outset and is not driven by ego. Not being in a hurry and growing too quickly is such an advantage.

She’s self-financing; she’s not borrowing money. I know that 10K isn’t a lot. For some people I’d say it wasn’t enough (based on the other factors above) but I think she can pull it off with room to spare because I’m assuming that she’ll spend these funds wisely.

The caveat is that she should sell to some stores before she ever went to market. She needs to merchandise and sell the line herself to small stores in her area. Once she’s taken some orders, filled them and -important- gotten some repeat orders, then she could take the next step of a mail order campaign with line sheets. Once she’d developed a relationship with some of her retailers, she could get a referral from one of her retailers -in the same way I mentioned in Made by Magpie. Once she’s got a rep, she could build on that relationship. Only then do I suggest jumping off into the abyss of showing her line at Magic.

As far as production goes, she can probably do a lot of the patterns and prototype making herself. If you find yourself in the same boat, maybe all you’d need would be somebody to consult with you for sewing process improvement. And then there’s the issue of machines. People don’t know what to buy but unfortunately -in spite of the plethora of sewing experts in home sewing- we have none in the apparel industry, so this site is the best place to find a sewing consultant. If Tonya could hire somebody to advise her, I don’t see why Tonya couldn’t combine the labor force (independent contractors) she lists in option #3, to produce small quantities.

Speaking of sewing consultants, Jenny wonders…

Do you have any resources to share for those interested in becoming a sewing contractor? I know there’s contractors for every niche out there, but I’d love to see you or someone else blog about what steps a talented home sewer could take toward sewing for DE’s.

…and I don’t know the whole answer to that but we’ve helped individuals become contractors in the forum. I don’t know why some of you couldn’t become contractors rather than DEs provided you had the interest and skills. I’d certainly tell people about your services, that’s for sure. To answer your question Jenny, I’d need to know what people needed to know before I could tell you anything. Now back to Tonya.

Her option #2 is also interesting but it’s tricky. This option is sewing some up and selling them off a website. Mike C and his wife have done this quite successfully so he’d have better advice for her than I ever would. Still, it’s tricky.

In the forum, Tonya says:

There are pros and cons to each of the three options and I can tell you that I’m leaning heavily towards option #3 which is Production-On-Demand [custom clothing] using local sewers. Because of my IT background I can handle the website development myself which will save me a lot of money. Plus there’s an intrinsic value in something handmade or one-of-a-kind.

Sherry (in the forum) brings up that Tonya still hasn’t formed the central focus of her business and I’d agree. I’m going to try to say this as lovingly as I can but I’m wondering if Tonya is swayed by option 3 because it seems most approachable to her; most doable and closest to her own experience. I wonder if she’s pulling her punches, it does feel less risky and getting into business can be such an intimidating thing. If you find yourself in the same boat, ask yourself which of the options would you really want if anything were possible? If Tonya really wanted to do it, she could do option #1 with maybe a combined possibility of option #2. Then again, Mike may say I’m all wet. He started with option #2 and moved into option #1 :)

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