#1 mistake of new designers

I was hanging out of Crafters.org yesterday and came across a posting from the newest of DEs; she was asking why her clothing wasn’t selling. In analyzing her line, I realized her missteps were pretty typical. Normally I wouldn’t post on it but I was reviewing another line this morning from Allison Kelly (contestant on Project Runway) and saw some of the same problems. Specifically, the number one problem made by new designers is continuity.

Many young lines are not congruent, the pieces don’t belong together, mixing and matching. Ideally pieces should cross merchandise. Miracle and I have written three entries on who do you hang with (pt2, pt3). If your line won’t hang next to somebody else’s on a rack, looking like it belongs there, it can’t stand alone either. It’s typical for new designers to have some orphans but some product lines are all or nearly all, orphans. In the beginning, develop your signature pieces according to what resonates with you. Over time, your signatures will become what sells best for you. If you’re all over the map style-wise with a bunch of orphans, a pattern won’t emerge between related pieces and you’ll never know which are the winners. Your fabrics, styles, silhouettes and pieces should be congruent. If your pieces when hung together, merchandise like rack of goods at a thrift store, your line is all orphans.

Regarding Allison Kelly’s line specifically, she’s got five pieces on this page. Based on this presentation, I’d say the last three are orphans because they don’t belong to any other piece. The first two go with each other if only based on color. Notice Kelly has not repeated fabrications between these two (or any other) style. She’s got to do a lot of sourcing to cover that; how can she meet minimums without investing in unnecessary inventory? I suppose she can if she’s buying fabric at retail but one’s prices will be higher (in her case, thinner margins) and one isn’t guaranteed fabrics on reorder. Orphan number three (the polka dot) should be yanked, asap. It might be interesting in another colorway though.

If you go to Kelly’s main site (the above was a custom orders site), based on presentation, the styles don’t look so disparate. I still vote that number two and seven here (number five on the other site) be dropped because it’s too casual -it’s sportswear really- to mix with the other pieces. Style wise, I’m not hot for number five (number two on the other) but what do I know? I tend to avoid direct style critiques.

Having good continuity isn’t just good design sense, it’s good business sense. As much as is possible, you want to repeat the same fabrications and colorways across styles. While there is less congruity in haute couture lines, they still have a story line and overall influence. Besides, how many of you are haute couture designers? Haute couture is designed for effect, not sales, they lose money on those. They make their money on their bridge and RTW lines which are congruous. This way, your patterns are cut with similar shrinkage allowances, you can use the same sources, contractors and the same methods. Costs will be similar as well. The problem as I see it, is new designers pick the worst elements of haute couture to emulate because that impresses them, getting a lot of press but they ignore the concepts that generate income. Forget glossy! Follow the money.

Returning to the thrift store rack analogy, a store doesn’t want your stuff if they can’t hang it all together. Forget who you hang with, first be sure you can hang with yourself. Until you do, worrying about patterns, sewing, costing and marketing is a waste of time.

Who do you hang with?
Who do you hang with? pt.2
Who do you hang with? pt.3

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  1. Bethany says:

    Awesome post. In my opinion the best merchandiser of all time is Trina Turk and yes I am saying that because I worked for her. But the reason I went to work for her is because I could see her genius and wanted to learn from her. If you go to her site you can see how her collection is put together.

    To break it down into a stereotypical collection it works like this: Trina usually has around 3 prints that are exclusive to her. She uses the colors in those prints to create the solid colors in her collection. Each print could have one or two color ways, I don’t think she usually goes to three. Then each printed top can coordinate with say three bottoms: for example a printed blouse will coordinate with a solid skirt, pant or suit. Using the same print she might make a skirt. That skirt will coordinate with three different styles of tops that are solid using the same colors as in the print. Those solid tops will also coordinate with the solid bottoms and the solid bottoms will coordinate with the sweaters, dresses, etc. That is what makes it a cohesive collection. Every now and again there might be one or two items that fall out. Those are usually not ordered by stores and therefore dropped (and usually they were my favorite items!) She also uses the same patterns season after season and if she gets a big hit she could use that pattern the entire year! (Remember, she does up to 12 collections a year).

    Of course, what I am telling you isn’t a big secret because it is just good design. Everyone does it. That is why when a collection goes down the runway at the end of the show it flows so nicely. Do you remember Jay’s collection vs. the mean lady’s collection at the end of Project Runway 1? Jay’s collection was cohesive, color coordinated and thoughtfully put together. The other lady’s collection was a hodgepodge of styles, colors, and items- a typical newbie’s collection. That is why Jay won.

    In regards to Kelly’s custom site, I noticed that the dresses themselves, though beautiful, were designed in such a way that I don’t think they lend themselves to the expense of making them cut to fit. They were all very forgiving in the waist and hips which is usually where the problem in tailoring lies. Maybe some women need help in the bust department? I was just surprised she picked sack dresses to use as a custom order. If it were me I would go for pants. They are very tricky, women need all different lengths, waist to hip ratios and I know I have a problem rise. I would pay $300 for a custom pair of pants, but not for a custom dress- well at least those dresses. Again, they were lovely and I would totally buy them retail, but I wouldn’t pay the custom expense.

    As an aside, does anyone know what Jay is up to these days?

  2. Laritza says:

    I am no fashion expert that is for sure! But I can see what you are saying and totally agree with you. Besides her website although very creative is a real pain to look at. It has a mind of its own and does not let you easily (quickly) browse through the different pages. In the description of the crochet top she says “it is a tedious process’……..not being a marketing expert either why would you want to describe “your” creation as tedious? negative words reflect on the overall “feeling” the person gets on things….

  3. Miracle says:

    As an aside, does anyone know what Jay is up to these days?


    I’m not a Project Runway watcher and have only seen 6 episodes in a marathon (the season where the Cosa Nostra guy won). BUT, the New Yorker just ran a very good 2 page story on Jay and his frustrations in being able to launch a line (basically he lacks business acumen and a certain level of professional polish) and the other contestants. It was centered on reality tv show winners and what happens after they win.

    If you can get it, it’s fascinating reading.

  4. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    Weird…we were taught at my school (is it ok to mention its name? it’s not bad) that every line/collection should be cohesive and have pieces that match. As in, they were all the same colors and fabrics and theme.

    When we were doing our presentation boards, we had to put 1 or 2 or more other colorways and swatches for those, but what we actually sewed was all the same fabric and color(s).

    My collection was Chinese/Japanese meets the West and was called Fusion. All the garments were that theme and were all made of black duppioni silk with red and gold floral Chinese brocade as the trim. Actually it was if you made a facing and sewed it on the outside instead of the inside. Then I covered the raw edge with gold ribbon.

    We weren’t really taught per se to design a bunch of stuff then drop what wouldn’t work, although we ended up doing that anyway.

    So that’s why I think it’s weird that these designers have such a hodge podge of stuff. I really like the Trina Turk stuff above.

  5. Heather says:

    I have a friend who CONTINUALLY nags me to try fabrics that she finds lovely while ignoring my comments about them “going” with any of the current products.

    We have a lot of flexibility in prints and colorways, but darnit, I’m just not going to skew the whole company because she thinks it would do well. Pink kitten flannel will never, ever, grace my cutting table!

    It’s a conversation I have with her literally every week. Now I’m just going to print this and hand it to her each time. It’s easier than telling her she has horrid taste.

  6. J C Sprowls says:

    RE: Trina Turk. Right on! The Summer ’07 line is extremely marketable. And, I can see styles spun off other blocks. There are even a couple pieces that “bridge” consumers from other lines into the TT collection – smart!

    Now, is TT approaching this from the technical side, first, or as a designer, first? It looks to me like she spent time on the operations side before developing her own line.

  7. bethany says:

    Trina was a designer for like 10 years for a denim company.(I cant think of the name)Then she and a partner- Lynn- started Trina Turk in T’s garage! Lynn is the patternmaker/production manager and is amazing in her own right. I didnt get a chance to speak with her very often, so I dont know much about her, but they are definatly a team. The third in the trifecta is Trina’s husband who is a stylist and photographer. He does all of her photographs and the three of them have turned TT from a garage into (I am guessing) a 50 million dollar company. Dont quote me on the amount, but I know she is doing very well. I would also like to add she is an amazing person to work for. It was so calm and ‘normal’ at her offices. No running around, no stress, just work. As you can tell, I am sort of obsessed with her company. She is just so inspirational I cant help but gush.

  8. Jennifer E. says:

    From nmag article
    What I needed was someone to sit down with me and say, Here’s how you start a fashion label.”

    Someone should email Jay tell him to read this blog and get Kathleen’s book.

  9. bethany says:

    I ask (Santino) what he thinks of Michael Kors’s clothing. “I think Michael Kors has made an excellent business for himself appropriating everything Halston already did.”

    I snarfed my cola when I read this. Best quote ever. Best article ever. Gonna start a thread on the discussion board for anyone who wants to join me.

  10. J C Sprowls says:


    I refrained from putting on my “orange, bitchy face” when Lisa commented about being taught to “match”. I don’t mean any disrespect; but, the word is easily misinterpreted.

    I hope Lisa’s instructor further clarified to avoid contrivances while focusing on cross-marketability within the collection, etc. I’m not picking… I know it’s difficult to articulate the whole concept in such few words. It’s a highly visual subject to discuss.

    In any event I admit I had a flash of MK screaming something about “holly hobby” and “matchie, matchie”. As a result of watching that show, I’ve co-opted the HH phrase, which is very bad on my part. I think Ann’s (Gorgeous Things) phrase is much more clever: Becky Home-ecky!

  11. Natasha says:

    I wonder if Jay’s troubles getting a backer doesn’t have alot to do with the wya his personality came across on screen. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person I’d ever want to work with.

  12. bethany says:

    I dont know what a ‘orange, bitchy face’ is, but I would sure like to see that :)

    And I LOVE the phrase ‘becky home-ecky’. Cracks me up every time.

  13. J C Sprowls says:

    Margaret Cho commented about MK in one of her shows that he looked like a “real bitchy orange”. I usually talk about putting on ‘hats’ when I have to change my POV to consider something. In this case, I was trying very hard to not put on a ‘face’.

    RE: Jay and advice. It’s hard to say. Not everyone’s a doll. And, abrasive is not the quickest way out of the gate. I intuit that he knows this and has a business face, too. It’s difficult to speculate what might be the problem.

  14. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    I’d like to see Trina Turk’s website if she has one. Is it something simple like trinaturk.com? Or something a little less obvious?

    J.C., sadly, they never ever talked about cross-marketability or who you hang with. But that wasn’t the point of my comment. And also why I read stuff on this site.

    Also, while I thought the Dahl stuff on the 2nd page with the 7 things seemed to more or less loosely go together as a collection, the stuff on the custom page seemed weird to be a collection, if it was meant to be, and I agree that custom stuff should be something like pants that’s more complicated.

  15. Pia says:

    This is the first time I read this site and also the first time Ive ever heard about Kathleen`s book (meaning: i hope i am not asking something that has been explained there!!!).

    After reading the old posts on “who do you hang with” and the usual problem with meeting the fabric minimus there was one big question poping up: What about buying ingrey fabric and then doing finished garment dyeing? Of course this “tactic” will not work for all the styles in a collection but it may help with some.

    I must add that I am not an expert in the manufacturing industry so maybe my comment is either very naive or really really dumb, but I would love to have some feedback on it.

  16. MW says:

    What about buying ingrey fabric and then doing finished garment dyeing?

    It really depends on what you’re making, which is why it has been used primarily with knits and simple garments.

    You have 2 issues with garment dyeing:

    1- some designers don’t like the look/feel of certain garments after dyeing, it doesn’t work for some things
    2- you have to keep your trims simple. For example, if your garment is cotton or rayon and your trims are nylon (some elastic, many trims, lace, etc.), the nylon usually only stains with the fiber reactive dye and even then, sometimes it may pick up certain primary colors in the dye that don’t match the garment (for example, red dye can stain nylon fuschia). You may have to do a double dyeing, one for fiber reactive and one for the acid dye. You’re pretty much omitting any polyester as I have been told that poly is more complicated to dye and thus has high minimums.

    There is a technical way to dye both in one process (so as to not have to subject the garments to two dyeing processes), but the Cotton Inc guy never sent me the technical details. If anyone is interested, he said something like “should be possible to run an acid dye process during the wash off of the fiber reactive dye since the water temperature would be high enough to withstand it.” (I will not explain).

    I do have some silk items that were garment dyed and they are beautiful. I do think we could actually do A LOT with garment dye, but dye houses seem to be reluctant to experiment with the possibilities. Keep in mind that this is generally a small company’s issue becuase most large companies can piece dye their goods (if they want).

    While it is true that you have fabric limitations, usually, the best way to start off is to say “I am a small manufacturer, do you have a stock program or is there a way you can accomodate me?”

    Looking at the line and liking a fabric, only to find out that the quantities are prohibitive, is not the best way to approach it.

    Companies have creative ways of helping you out, from tacking on your order to someone elses, to running a little extra production, to a bunch fo stuff. Be upfront and say “what can we do, how can we work together” and see what they say, keeping in mind that b/c of the minimums issue, you won’t have everything your way.

  17. J C Sprowls says:

    There’s also a technical issue to take into consideration: shrinkage. If you garment dye, the whole garment is subject to shrinking differently than the greige goods test out for. IMO, this might unduly complicate the project.

    For silk scarves and other items where torquing or uneven shrinkage isn’t an appreciable issue, I see no problem with experimenting with lab dips. I would even feel comfortable experimenting with whole garment knitting or even sewn knit sweater-type projects. I would have low expectations for a tailored piece, though.

  18. I agree with Bethany – it’s a good approach to focus on the signature pieces first and then build the collection around that. Another good way to boost sales is – in cases where your 3-4 signature pieces are fairly expensive to produce – include simper and less expensive versions which incorporate elements of the prints you’re using.

    This approach also allows you to sell some of the signature pieces which will come with bigger price tags and then focus on selling more of your matching complementary pieces.

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