How to start a clothing line pt 2

On the question of how and who can start a clothing line, comes this from my mail:

I’m a young wanna-be entrepreneur based in Hong Kong. A friend and I are looking to go into the fashion business. We have some great ideas and I think we have a pretty good concept that will be a hit with consumers. However, we have no experience in Fashion Design per se. We also know little about manufacturing clothes, but manufacturers are really easy to get in contact with in Hong Kong.

We’re planning to start a new upper-middle class brand, casual and comfortable that will appeal to the growing Asian middle-class. We want to design our own products and then hopefully outsource the manufacturing to somewhere in China. We won’t be producing our own products (i.e. as real fashion designers do, with a sewing machine). We intend for our products to be relatively simple print t-shirts and polo shirts and things like that.

What we’re hoping to do is link up with someone who has some fashion design background and work together on making our dreams become a reality. One thing we do have is some money that we are willing to invest in the business. I have two questions:

  1. Do you think it’s absolutely pointless for two guys with no experience and education in the fashion industry to try to enter it? We have determination and smarts, but we lack the technical design skills to move our project along right now.

  2. Do you know where I would be able to find a designer to link up with? Ideally I’d want someone with strong technical skills that’s looking for partners to invest in them. Because we’re so removed from the fashion industry (I’m a corporate lawyer) I’m finding it really hard to meet people who are connected closely to the fashion industry.


I can’t speak to the issue of Hong Kong specifically but regardless of venue, your questions are nearly identical to those I get from Podunk USA. It is within that context that I’ll answer this question. I think your real question is, “Can I do this”? While my assessment is cursory, I think you have everything you need to make a go of this.

In general, the sort of people who succeed in this industry are analytical thinkers. I can’t tell you how many former scientists, software people, engineers, attorneys, nurses, tinkerers, DIYers and the like make a go of it. And by success, I’m not referring to designers with big name recognition; most of whom have filed for bankruptcy several times in their trajectories. No, I’m referring to the backbone of the industry, businesses putting out millions of products that few consumers would label as coveted designer brands. I think this is telling. What’s more important? A big name or big profits? If you say the latter (as I think you do), you can make this a successful venture. Being centered on the correct goal is the first step. More on refining that at close.

The second step is realizing what you don’t know. You might think you do but few do; how can you know what you don’t know? I realize from your tone (this is written to a broader audience) that you are intelligent and respectful enough of other’s skill sets that you don’t think you can duplicate them so quickly, so you’re willing to hire it out. That’s the second step, education. While you don’t presume you can acquire the skills others can readily supply, you need to know enough to know when you’re getting shafted. Barring the negative, you need to know how to keep others on track and the process of product development. I wrote a book on how to do that (the most highly rated book in the industry). Would it surprise you to know that most successful people in the business don’t have a fashion school background? I imply no insult to my many educator friends and visitors, but the big lesson you internalize from fashion school, is that it’s too hard to launch your own line so most of us never attempt it. I think that’s the real reason that industry success stories are dominated by people who never went to fashion school. Also see Why fashion colleges don’t teach entrepreneurship so I don’t have to repeat myself.

The third step requires an open mind and not being wedded to facets of your plan that can bear improvement. I spent half an hour the other day with a woman who claimed to be amenable to improvements but when I suggested her marketing strategy could stand re-assessment, that was her cue to -rapid fire- list ten reasons why her plan was solid. She didn’t even ask what ideas I had. And then she wondered why I wouldn’t give her a referral, referrals being an endorsement of one to a third party. If she couldn’t even bring herself to ask what the suggestions I had were (she hasn’t read my book either), it’s not likely a contractor would have a better go of it with her so I sure wasn’t going to lend my name as a lever. A lot of people wonder why nobody in the business will help them when the usual reason is they haven’t listened to advice they’ve already been given. It’s like asking for a second helping when they haven’t eaten their first serving.

If there’s a fourth step, it’s becoming integrated with the community, you need friends and colleagues. No single person can provide you with all the information you’ll need; you need a broad spectrum to pull from. The only way to become integrated is to spend money. Sad but true, the only difference being how much you spend. I recommend spending money cost effectively in the course of developing a working relationship with a contractor or a designer. Once they trust you won’t make them look bad, they’ll make introductions to others who can help you. Of course, once you launch and exhibit, you meet other exhibitors at trade shows who will be helpful but you had to pay to get to that point. Prior to launch, other options are hiring sourcing or product managers who are essentially paid to tell you whatever you want to know but that’s pricey. Sourcing managers can be akin to living, breathing directories (also expensive). Another option is joining a private membership trade group, the cost ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars (and why the Fashion-Incubator forum is a great bargain). One last option is publicly accessible forums. Unfortunately, because they’re public, few people who really know much will provide referrals (see reasoning in step #3) and besides, why would they broadcast their competitive edge? It’s not that information isn’t available, it’s that good information isn’t public. Long story short, one way or another, there’s an entry fee to become integrated into the community. The only question is how you spend it and the value of what you receive.

Regarding specific answers to your second question, there may be an issue with “I’d want someone with strong technical skills that’s looking for partners to invest in them”. This sounds more like you’re looking for someone to back, playing the role of an angel investor and I’m not sure that’s the route you want to take. This person’s goals and project ideas would have to be similar to yours and they may not be. They may have their own idea of what kind of product line they’d ideally launch, provided they had the means you’re offering to do it. That said, it could work out. You may discover their project idea is more viable than yours so I’d suggest pursuing that option.

Second, a lot of designers (mostly those who’ve been doing it for a long time) don’t want to launch a line so they wouldn’t want to partner with you. They enjoy doing it for a fee with limited engagement and responsibility but it’s not something they want to do to the exclusion of everything else they’re doing in their lives. And that’s what it would take.

Third, it will probably surprise you to know that there are tons of “real designers” as you describe them (“with a sewing machine”) who want to hire designers themselves. To find someone could be trickier. I’d recommend placing an ad or contacting a local fashion school to see which promising graduates or students have potential. There’s also contractors. I recommend asking one who makes products similar to what you’d hope to produce. Obviously, they’d like the work.

Lastly, about your project over all, “simple print t-shirts and polo shirts and things like that”, I’m not as optimistic. I don’t know about Hong Kong but here in the States, we hit saturation a long time ago. A line like this is going to require very strong brand management and marketing to make an impact; it’s an entirely different strategy. It’s not manufacturing as much as it is marketing. One is making what amounts to commodities and differentiating themselves by selling a logo or perceived image. If you’re adamant about this sort of product line, you may be better served by hiring a graphic artist or stylist, a retail brand sales consultant and a PR firm -along with a contractor to do the heavy lifting.

Caveat: To avoid the worst of potential problems with this class of product development, see push manufacturing. If you intend to build loyal customers based on product integrity, this is a must read entry.

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9 comments

  1. Bethany says:

    Great post! I would add that a new entreprenour with zero experience shouldnt plan for huge numbers right out of the gate. And they should know that the first year is all about making every mistake in the book. I am just starting my third year and for some reason I feel like all these doors are opening to me. There are fabric vendors that I have been wooing for two years with minimum of 1000 yards (way too high for me) that are now willing to haggle for smaller yardage because I stopped by their booths and chatted them up at every fabric show. Of course, it could just be the crappy economy, but I like to think it is my charming personality :).

    As to connections, there is the saying ‘when the student is ready the teacher appears’. I think this is true for books and for connections. When you are ready, the connections will just appear- but you have to do the work it takes to get to that point.

    My general business plan for a start-up is as follows: Year 1: learn, make mistakes, learn. Year 2: Marketing, marketing, marketing, spend money, marketing. Year 3: Hopefully make some money by continuing to learn, market, and be able to cut spending because you have a higher minimum and better orders then in your first 2 years.

    Oh, the other thing I wanted to say about those who are new to the industry is sometimes not knowing something is hard is the best way to get it done. I know that I dont offshore because I know all the pitfalls and it totally freaks me out. But I also know other companies who offshore right out of the gate and I am guessing they are making a better profit then I am because their costs are lower. So sometimes it is better not to know anything and just plow through it to learn.

  2. Kathleen, you know I think you are brilliant. One is still making mistakes by the third year even. Every mistake is costly so I agree with above comment. Watch your money, watch where every penny goes. I have posted an article about you on my site. Your books must be required reading for everyone in the fashion business regardless of whether they are in retail or manufaturing. Well done, Kathleen.

  3. Judy Steiner says:

    I like the way Kathleen suggested that people in Podunk USA might have the same questions as someone in Hong Kong. She might have been talking about me.

  4. Anita says:

    Great commentary! I find it fascinating how so many people from different backgrounds make a go of a fashion business. It seems that those of us who didn’t go to fashion school never had anyone tell us that we couldn’t do it, so we just went ahead and did it anyway. It’s like the first time someone told me that putting in a set-in sleeve was hard. I never found it difficult at all, so I didn’t understand why they thought it was so hard, but if I had heard that before I made my first attempt, I might have had different results.

    I think another benefit of coming from a non-fashion school background is that person won’t be as constrained by what is supposedly the “right” way to do something. I come from a software background, where there’s always more than one way to solve a problem and I tend to take that approach in all my other ventures. Some of the things I’ve done in my sewing and design processes might make others cringe, but they work for me. Granted, some solutions are going to be better than others, but I’d rather not limit myself before I’ve even started. I think sometimes it’s probably better to learn by doing it wrong the first time. There’s often greater value in learning what not to do :-)

  5. Kiran Bindra says:

    Great post!

    Having been in this industry for 6 years and in software prior to that, I can attest to the fact that not being from Fashion background but having the right skills in product development has contributed to our success.

    My company provides sampling and product development for private labels and new designer businesses – http://www.InStyleExchange.com

    The successes amongst new designer businesses are folks with legal, accounting, real estate backgrounds. They don’t approach their business with ‘I know it all’ attitude. They are eager to learn, listen to the advise given by their peers and they watch what the reaction of every action taken.

    It is an exciting time to be in this industry, especially the prospects of producing in the US and selling to the growing economies around the world!

    Cheers ‘n Good Luck,
    Kiran Bindra

  6. Minh says:

    Kathleen,

    Thanks so much. Amazing post. I don’t think playing the role of angel investor is what I want to do. More like, I’m interested in the industry and have a concept that I believe will work. I believe that the most important thing in an early start-up is to have the right partners, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now.

    You’re realistic view about spending money definitely hit home with me. I’m loth to spending money but I understand that to get anywhere with a project such as this some substantial investment will probably be required.

    As for listening to others, hopefully that’s one of my strengths, simply because I know I don’t know anything about the industry but I’m willing to learn as much as possible.

    I haven’t read your book before but I will definitely go and pick it up. I’m not sure if it’s on sale in HK. If it is do you have any idea of which retailers stock it or if not can I buy it online? Amazon.com takes 6 weeks to send stuff to Hong Kong and I’m not keen on waiting so long.

    Again, great post. Thanks so much.

  7. Ryan says:

    Hi Minh,

    I’m a Canadian based in Hong Kong and have been working on producing my own label (men’s leather bags and wallets). Contact me via the forum, we should get together.

  8. Kathleen says:

    I haven’t read your book before but I will definitely go and pick it up. I’m not sure if it’s on sale in HK. If it is do you have any idea of which retailers stock it or if not can I buy it online? Amazon.com takes 6 weeks to send stuff to Hong Kong

    It’s not on sale in HK. You can buy it from Amazon or me via paypal (follow the links on the upper left side of page). I fill all the amazon orders and guarantee it won’t take six weeks. I ship international priority mail.

  9. Sheila says:

    I haven’t read your book either. I was quite struck by your words of wisdom. My son has started a clothing line 1 1/2 years ago. He absolutely knew nothing about the industry except he has a great sense of style. He was quite brilliant about finding investors and started up his company. He also is very good at marketing. This is his third successful business at now a ripe age of 23.

    The first year was a rough one for him and I dedided to help him because I had some knowledge, I had sewn my own clothes for many years. I knew how a garment was constructed and so forth. However as you know the commercial apparel industrusty things are done differently that in your own home.

    I began sourcing contractors and that has been a real eye opener. We have made alot of mistakes along the way but we have learned what we won’t do the next time. It is true about being nieve in the business because you really don’t know many of the bumps in the road until they happen. We just decided to never give up and we’ll make it happen!

    We have met many people that have been more that happy to offer help. We also don’t have an attitude and are willing to learn anything we can from people in the industry. We finally have come across contractors that really work with us. I Can nod and say yes that is exactly true what you have said. Thanks for your expert advice.

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