Should you start a clothing line?

From my mail:

I have been reading your blog, your book is on the way, and I have learned a lot from you. I am in the newborn stages of considering a children’s clothing line. I believe I have a market niche. My first challenge is to determine if there really is a market for my line and whether the cost of production will comport with my targeted market. My question is how to determine the existence of a market for my line of children’s clothing. My husband and I are established professionals and he needs strong market evidence before I put time and money into this. Do you consult on such matters?

I do consult to a very limited extent but mostly hesitate because it is very difficult if not impossible to predict outcome with any certainty owing to myriad factors -and certainty is what most people want. Most people on the service side would likewise hesitate because we would have been wrong so many times. An example I like to use are the folks who came up with the idea of making germ plush toys. I would have given it a thumbs down in the concept stage but the line is doing well. I even bought a set for Christmas ornaments. And then, there are product lines that could be doing much better than they are. Drilling it down, sure, I think I know what good design is but it all depends on how you execute.

Whether anyone else is willing to admit it or agree to it, the only way you will know if your venture has a chance is if you try it. If you want a sure (or surer) thing, start a franchise. They give you training, support and a guaranteed territory. Manufacturing isn’t a franchise. It’s not even a kit for which you can buy separate pieces and put the whole together to get a real company, real products or real sales. It’s a risk although it doesn’t have to be as risky as most people make it but they selectively pick and choose the advice they’ll follow -and then they wonder why it all fell apart? Manufacturing isn’t a list of options, no matter how much you dislike it or wish to avoid it, there are some things you must do. And you have to do them when they are supposed to be done. Most people never get off the ground because they put the cart before the horse. Like all the IP stuff. Let that go until you are far enough along (for goodness sakes have samples!) to have something worth protecting. Most people blow their entire start up budget on legal stuff when they haven’t bought as much as a yard of fabric.

Manufacturing also takes time. The endeavor is not well suited to someone who wants to work it in on the side, after dinner or when the kids are napping. Not unless you can do a lot of the product development yourself. A very common conflict is when a designer’s time is limited by her first priority, that of caring for her children. I get it. The pattern that seems to be emerging of late is that people who have less time, tend to view all the manufacturing steps as options, like a list of desired ingredients you check off when you order a pizza. They perceive any deviations from the plan as flexibility and pat themselves on the back for their creativity and even think they’re ahead of the game and maybe even saving themselves some money. Some things you can’t do. Take sizing. I don’t care if you have kids spanning four sizes and want to use them as fit models so you develop patterns in all sizes, you’re going to lose your shirt. Your “flexibility” is going to bury you. I am not being a meanie in saying you can’t use your kids as fit models. This isn’t a rule you can break but most people do. And most people fail.

My point being, this endeavor is risky in that you have to put money and time into developing prototypes to see if the concept will fly but most people make it far riskier than it should be by their own actions. If you follow the plan and its silly rules even if they don’t make sense to you or seem counterproductive or resist the temptation of following what you think is a novel idea (it’s not) … you can dramatically limit your exposure to risk.

A few other points in your specific case. I become very very nervous when women talk about a clothing line in terms of birthing or having children. Women start 97% of clothing lines. Men end up owning 98% of them. I don’t think this is coincidental and I don’t think it has anything to do with male domination or discrimination against women or any of that. Which is not to say it’s all rosy for women but men don’t take things as personally as women do. It seems that some women hedge their bets, telling themselves “it’s just part-time”, that they’ll play according to the rules if it takes off but I think that perspective is more like a built in excuse they tell themselves. Like an advance out they give themselves for when they fail. Like they didn’t really fail because they weren’t serious about it.

I do think that failure avoidance is much more prevalent today, further impacting women in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Recent research shows that people who have been praised for being smart are less willing to risk. They don’t want to stretch and test their mettle in uncertain territory. I can’t say whether this is true of you but I have seen that this problem is endemic among Gen Y; too many don’t want to risk failure because it would mean losing their smart badge. And they especially don’t want to do it in manufacturing of which perception continues to mount that any dumb bunny can do it.  These are easy to pick out. They often disavow or disassociate themselves from it, as though it were something to be ashamed of.

If you ask me personally, I think this is a great business to be in. Done well (following the rules), it’s practically a license to print money. The people who excel in it aren’t artists or what we typically define as “creative” people. The people who excel are pragmatic, grounded, analytical, systematic and psychologically healthy. Other than DIY hard scrabble folks, most successes are from people who have rigorous academic backgrounds, like lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. Only you know whether this defines you.

Summary: People who make it follow the rules and are willing to risk. If your first prototypes don’t fly, it’s nothing personal. Dust yourself off and try something else to see what sticks. The question is not if but when and you’re the only one who can determine that.

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15 comments

  1. Victoria Ranua says:

    Another entry that “talks” to me! Thanks again for your pragmatic advice… you really reinforce how I feel abou developing my idea (even if my dream is ambitious).

  2. luckylibbet says:

    Thanks for the direction to the article on http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ re praising your children for intelligence vs effort. I’ve only read half of it, will read the rest, but had to come back here to comment on how germane I found the article. My kid always talked about how “stupid” she was – she attended a highly rated California public school, and was not an A student – so we switched to commenting on how hard she worked, how she always looked for different solutions to problems, how much she enjoyed solving puzzles… the article lit a light bulb in my head, hey, that’s why she’s doing so well in college now! We always told her that when she got into the “real” world that employers would find her dedication and willingness to find alternates extremely valuable, that the skills needed to get by in an educational environment do NOT work when you’re working for a company that wants to make a profit – different skill set needed.

  3. Renee says:

    Kathleen, this is a great write-up and definitely timely for me (and I’m sure bunches of other folks).
    I needed to hear “Dust yourself off and try something else to see what sticks.” after having the “why don’t you think my stuff is selling?” conversation only today. I’m finding it’s easy to get discouraged when your garments aren’t selling and you’re getting limited feedback as to why that is. Thank you for persisting with us all!

  4. Lynn says:

    The “don’t take it personally” is just what I needed to hear today. I “know” it’s not personal but sometimes it “feels” personal. Luckily the feeling didn’t stick around too long and I am back at work today. For me, right now there are so many variables to deal with – do I have the wrong product or is it just that it hasn’t been exposed to the right market?

  5. Sherry says:

    Sage advice here–take it from someone who did not follow the plan and silly rules in an unrelated business venture. Follow the rules; don’t take NO personally; see failure (translated as business did not take off as I had hoped) as the opportunity for a fresh start–not the loss of your smart badge. Needed to hear this today and offer these comments as my own pep talk.

  6. Clarisse says:

    Thanks for another great reality-check post. I think it’s hard for some DEs to “not take it personally” when they’re using their own children as fit models. That’s a big red flag for me.

  7. Christine says:

    Very interesting article. I am in the childrenswear consulting business and deal with many mom based start ups. I loved how you stated to not use your children. It is amazing how many moms out think that becuase they cant find something in a sotre noone else is doing it. It is important to know and educate yourself with many aspects of this business which not only includes prototypes and manufacturing but sales, marketing, customer service and accounting. It also requires a high deal of negotiating and communication. Something more to think about.

  8. Jay says:

    Mrs. Fashion Incubator can put a lot into a few paragraphs!!! So many good points in one place but if I may, just a couple of others and one slight disagreement.

    I do see some people succeed or start to succeed so it isn’t hopeless. I disagree a bit on the doctor, lawyer engineer start up successes. The worst customer I have is generally a person who is highly successful in another field. All of the uncertainty that Kathleen so ably points out just does not occur as often in the straight world. When I look back, many of the successful garment manufacturers were lawyers, engineers etc. Much of that is in the past I am afraid (at least on the US side of things). I just think their is a difference between garment manufacturers (of the past) and DE’s of today.

    DON’T BE IN A HURRY but keep putting one foot in front of another. Someone I know in Chicago was doing street fairs in 2009 and is in 65 store now. I believe she started in 2006. Once you initially arrive, you have to stay for a while. (that whole don’t take it personally thing is OH SO TRUE) If you think you are going to cause a sensation with your initial effort, then I would seriously rethink your plans. You’ve got to stay at it for two or three years to even give yourself a chance.

    Now saying this in a forum full of tech designers may sound treasonous, but at the end of the day, the hardest thing to do is to sell the stuff for a profit. As you develop your product, keep that daunting task in mind. Don’t use crappy hang tags and labels. The devil is in the details.
    Of course if your clothing would only fit a kangaroo, then you have a pretty serious problem. You can be saved from being the Ralph Lauren of kangaroos by following the rules as Kathleen points out.

    Do not think that putting up a website is the live all end all. You should have a facebook page and a website, but this is not going to do much for you initially. Selling is pretty much hand to hand combat. First time selling is likely to be done face to face. The face to face stuff is what builds up the effectiveness of your website.

    Walk a couple of trade shows before you consider spending your hard earned money on a booth. Better still, see if you can hook up with a sales rep. Hard to do but worth a shot. If nothing else, you will get an earful.

    Different horses for different courses. People succeed and fail in all kinds of ways, but making a great product (hard to do) and selling it successfully (also tough) are things that you just have to do and none of that happens by itself. My uncle used to have a tie clip that had these letters. ycdbwsoya This is pretty profound stuff!!

    Kathleen;s book is dynamite and you will find the forum helpful. There is a ton of great info here.

  9. Dear Kathleen,

    Thanks for a wonderful post! Totally agree in that there is no ‘true’ prediction in what will be successfully received in the market. We can only give guidance and input based on experience and trends in the market. What we struggle as manufacturers is the DE’s who do not understand the absolute necessity of product development with prototypes, fit reviews, testing and the time it takes to produce all the above mentioned deliverables. Just got a set of children’s SS11 sketches, over 20 designs, asking for salesmen’s samples by first week of February!!

    Alas, the answer is No, of course. I will be reminding the client of our conversation and emails in November to start working on SS11 which was not taken seriously. If anyone out there would like to take over…please let me know :-)

  10. Tula says:

    I think a lot of people underestimate what’s involved with starting a clothing line, which is why Kathleen’s book is so necessary. It’s not just getting the clothing made, which is a lot of effort in and of itself, but there’s also the whole running of a business. You can’t just expect to expect sales to magically roll in, website or not. Sales and marketing are a whole other skill set that a lot of people don’t have. The best idea will go nowhere without the proper marketing (unless one is extremely lucky).

    Kathleen’s remarks about engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc… make sense, because study in these professions tend to revolve around problem-solving. That’s an important skill to have in running a business because it helps you look at all of the aspects of it and account for all the variables. You may have the design aspect down pat, but if you can’t implement it or don’t take other manufacturing complexities into account, then you won’t succeed. Not to say that other professions can’t succeed, but these probably have a built-in head start due to the type of training they get.

  11. Jane says:

    Oh this is a GREAT POST! Kathleen’s point about what makes a good design is priceless. In the past she said “a good design is one that sells” and that is just the 100% truth. It doesn’t matter what I think of a line and truthfully, I rarely even get involved with my clients’ actual designs at all. I just help them with the business side of things.

    It only matters what the consumer wants to buy. If people buy it (and your operation is set up correctly so those purchases are profitable!), you have a business. If no one buys your stuff, you’re out of biz. Period. Even if you and I and all your friends think your stuff is great.

    And one more thing… When I designed my line (14+ years), it was hard not to take things personally in the beginning. It quickly became easier. A few years ago, a reporter asked me to talk about a biz decision I made that failed. You know what? I COULDN’T THINK OF ANY!. Am I THAT full of myself? I hope not. I think I just moved on and forgot about the failures (and there were many, I’m sure, like my Fall of ”05 collection – ugh). But maybe my brain’s insistence on remembering only the good things helped keep my stay around for 14 years. Who knows?

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