10 sales mistakes designers make

Yesterday I was chatting with Leah Wiley, the sales rep I interviewed when I went to Magic. She said she’d finally gotten around to putting together a top ten list of mistakes she sees designers making with respect to selling clothes to stores and boutiques. Without further ado, here’s the recitation I transcribed:

1. Trying to do too much, bringing in way too many styles which means anything over fifty. When I asked her (incredulously) about this, she said some DEs have archives of stuff after doing it two or three years and they want to push all of it.

2.Doing far too few, less than five pieces. A store is trying to figure out how to make sense of it but it’s not enough to make it brand recognizable. A new brand is not going to garnish a lot of real estate in a boutique anyway but three pieces isn’t enough to put a story together.

3. Not figuring the costs of representation. DEs have no idea what a reps costs are, what their rent is, what the commission structure is, and how a rep has to roll all of that into the cost of doing business. In business, you have to know the costs your vendors have, not just your own. She says designers are often shocked by the costs and this stops them from getting great representation.

4. DEs assume they’ve got final say on price points, Leah says “they’re tripping”. Not only do you not have final say on your price points, you don’t know the determining factors of the final word on your price points. You have to be flexible on your wholesale. The buyers have final word. Leah said

Buyers tell me what they’ll pay. Buyers ask me why a designer thinks a piece is worth $250 (a bustier) at wholesale. They’ll say, I’ve never heard her name. I’ll explain that all the laces are imported from France, it’s got a five band hook and closure (over a three band) and the buyer will concede a little for that but we’re still at $198 (up from the $150 they usually pay). My store has already told you; the highest she’s ever retailed a high end corset is $350 so she’s going to walk away. You’re going to have to figure out where you’re going to make up the difference but it’s not off the back of your stores.

5. Spending on branding, marketing, shows, samples and line sheets. They all cost, but designers have to be clear on what takes spending priority. Line sheets and samples are first (please note she didn’t mention a single word about four color catalogs and we both wish you’d stop blowing your money on those!). She mentioned one designer who spent $170,000. on shows and marketing with sales reps dictating what the collection should look like and she ended up with nothing after the first year and a half. But because of what she sank into it, she’s barely treading water and can’t afford to talk to anybody. Leah says to find one really good rep and let them decide how many shows or what are the great shows to be a part of instead of sinking money into booth after booth, eight grand per booth. A rep will know before you will whether its a good market for you. Another mistake she mentions is designers who rep their own booths; this is the wrong way to save money. One designer lost $13,000 taking bad paper. If a rep does your booth, a rep knows who to sell to, who pays their bills and who bounces boxes. She says that while a rep likes big orders just as much as you do, a rep knows better than to put too much space into a new store. She’ll talk them into a smaller order, offering reorders if it sells. She says you don’t go back to the drawing board based on a rep’s input of what the line should look like, reps don’t get to make those choices (verbal croquis agrees). Now, if after six months to a year and it doesn’t work, then maybe a rep can help you sort out what the next line is going to look like.

6. Priorities. Most designers don’t know what takes precedence. It’s very simple. After samples and a rep, you’ve got to ship what you say you’re going to ship. You can’t not do that. These are the bare essentials. Nothing else is a priority until you can do these three things.

7. Focus. What is it with everyone wanting to be a “lifestyle brand”. Do you know what that means? You can strive to become like Vera Wang, Donna Karan, Armani and Ralph Lauren, but this is not a term you get to use when you start out. It confuses the marketplace. A buyer is going to ask where’s your sheets, shoes, handbags, sunglasses, perfumes and you’re just doing one group. That’s not a lifestyle brand. Speaking of terms, if you say you’re hip or edgy, you are neither. Edgy means we’ve put you in Ross and TJ Maxx. Hip means we’ve put your stuff in Sam’s Club and Costco. That’s where hip is. Just throw those out, it’s bad, beyond over. Use terms like “contemporary”, it sounds boring but this means something; this is appropriate terminology! I beg you people, watch those triggers, like “looks good with denim”. What doesn’t? Speaking of, your names are not cute. I hate to have to call you to get your UPS shipping number to return the stuff if it comes plastered with tacky names like eurotrash or anything slutty. It’s not cute. Many of my customers find it offensive.

8. Get to know and trust your sales rep. Ask the right questions from the beginning. Leah says to read the section in my book on sales and interviewing a sales rep, that you shouldn’t hire anyone without asking all of those questions. She says she hates to be a sales pitch but that “I can appreciate it if they don’t want to spend the bucks to read it, really I do, but this is business and they’re holding up the line”.

9. Leah says “Your rep is not a magician! The stores still have final say. We may have the reputation, we may push but the buyer’s the one who has to come back and say yes to this. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean you jump off a cliff or get a second job, or maybe it is. I don’t know but we’re not the final answer. Everybody plays their mutual part”.

Hmm. I lost one, this list is only nine. I’ll bet number seven was supposed to be two points.

I hope you appreciate Leah’s honesty. By now a pattern should emerge. Anyone who has something valuable to say, something you really need to hear, is going to pinch you a little or be abrupt. Be wary of anyone makes nice or paints a pretty picture. As I always say, have you ever met a rude used car salesman? That said, Leah is really nice one on one but like me, she’s frustrated when people blow their chances. It’s such a waste of time, talent and money; we resent it.

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  1. av says:

    Great Post! I am on rep #3 and crossing my fingers that this one is a keeper. All the points made above are totally true. If the rep has been in the industry for awhile, they know what sells and what doesn’t. Store owners will give them feedback from their customers. They know what items are flying out the door and what one’s are sitting on the sale rack collecting dust.

    If a d-e ever gets the opportunity to sell their product in a retail setting, do it. Customers will tell you what is good and what is not about your product. Whether you ask them or not. These same issues are what your rep will have to handle with their buyers.

  2. Oxanna says:

    Fabulous post! Lots of good stuff here. Thank you.

    One question: Leah wrote, “I hate to have to call you to get your UPS shipping number to return the stuff if it comes plastered with tacky names like eurotrash or anything slutty.” What does that mean exactly? Writing/style name on the hangtag, a print, packaging? I is confused. :)

  3. Lisa NYC says:

    a big thanks to Leah for her insight!

    re: # 5: Another mistake she mentions is designers who rep their own booths

    Don’t you have to rep your own booth until a rep picks up your line? Do reps take on new/unproven lines before they’ve ever been to market? Or do you mean DEs who choose not to hire a rep and instead rep their own booths continually?

    Several of my DE friends have their lines with different reps. Most have had great experiences. I’m all about hiring reps–I consider them a part of doing business. When seeking a rep for my line this coming year, I do plan to go on the recommendations of reps whom my DE friends have had favorable experiences with in hopes of avoiding the “car salesman” type…LOL!

    I think DEs have soooo many hats to wear that it’s foolish not to hire an experienced rep to help nagivate the process. Simply, it’s money well spent.

    With friendship,

  4. Darby Charvat says:

    Can I please be an exception to the “no less than five” rule? I’m targeting my swimsuits to the fit tween, and only have three styles, though I do have two colorways each… so does that count as six?? I also have a pair of pull-on shorts, too.

    As far as sales reps, for newbie DEs it’s like a catch-22. Reps don’t want to hear from you unless you’ve gotten a couple seasons under your belt, but it’s hard to do that if you haven’t got a rep and are trying to sell the line yourself. Is it dumb to consider hiring a rep who’s just starting out in the business? Maybe a newbie rep would be willing to work with a newbie DE.

  5. Andy McDonald says:


    This post provides a great insight into one of the fundamental problems of fashion – the whole industry is dictated by middlemen who are just protecting their own jobs by separating creators and consumers. Where is the authenticity? Where is the value?

    It’s no better than a music industry where artists have very little influence on the music that is being marketed in their name.

    The reason why ‘Fashion’ (in its widest sense) annoys me SO much is that it completely undermines the cultural significance of clothing (and other aspects of our visual identity). In maintaining the status quo, these Sales Reps and Retailers are simply perpetuating the ‘tyranny of the new & popular’ (as described by Chris Anderson in his book: The Long Tail).

    Cheers, Andy (Scotland)

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