Fashion mentors: free & good advice to start a clothing line

Circumstances dictate revisiting what mentoring means, and how to get good and free advice in starting your clothing line. As an aside, I thought “free” was implied in a mentoring relationship but that seems to be evolving. A lot of people market themselves as mentors but then expect you to pay for it. Call me crazy but that sounds like consulting to me. For our purposes, we will assume mentoring is free -and this is critical.

Mentoring is oversold in some respects; judging from what you read on the internet, mentoring is so great for mentors they wouldn’t want to do anything else. It can be true that a mentor is helping you for warm squishies but they have to be selective because there’s a much larger pool of protégés (colloq. “mentees”) than mentors. You know, supply and demand. More yous, less mes. So let’s talk about that -you can’t be picked unless you know what you’re up against.

If a mentor is any good, they’re quickly drained and tapped out unless they set boundaries because everyone wants a piece so a mentor becomes selective or dies. Literally. Only a paid mentor has time to be everyone else’s dream machine; all other mentors must carve out time to eat, sleep, earn a living to care for their families, and even time to relax and regenerate. So let’s say a mentor has one hour a week to devote to grooming the industry’s next star -you. Why should that mentor pick you? It is very very easy to know who is worth the investment of our limited time -we pick people who are resourceful. Meaning, skip the pitch -we pick you by your questions. It’s not what you tell us, it’s what you ask us. Resourceful means asking good questions and following through because to the right person, a single word can be sufficient. At the same time, asking too many questions is a red flag and so I’ll explain how to attain tasteful balance so your mentor doesn’t think you’re trying to take advantage.

How to get a mentor interested in you:
The single most important thing you can do to get a fashion mentor interested in your clothing line project is to have read their work beforehand. Developing well formed and specific questions based on their analysis and conclusions is the surest and quickest way to get them to help you -even if they have no time (trust me on this). It is not necessary that you agree with their analysis or conclusions but you must invest reading and study time in your project (google is not research, it’s a passive index, not analysis or content). If you do the research, you may discover this person has already answered your question in great detail. If not, your questions should cite conclusions from your research and explain how it contradicts or compliments information from other authorities or that of your own analysis.*

If you don’t have enough research to pull from, the best strategy is to request reading recommendations. The key to making the presentation of your problem compelling is by explaining what you have already done. That doesn’t mean saying you’ve sketched and sketched till your arm hurts or that you’ve done the research and this product does not exist anywhere (the kiss of death). No mentor is going to answer an open ended question because it takes too long -and you don’t want the recipient to get the impression you expect them to do your homework for you. And even if they don’t think that, someone won’t want to give you inappropriate information but without a summary of work you’ve done so far, no one will know what to feed you. Context is everything.

How to get a mentor to ignore you:
Now I’ll tell you what doesn’t work in asking questions. The first time you ask me a question, I’ll explain the answer in detail, what to do next and where to get more information. You know, what a resourceful person needs to get off and running.

The second time you ask me a closely related question –which would have been answered if you followed through on what I told you the first time-, I’ll give you the answer, maybe explain a little but follow through with resources for you to solve the problem yourself (resourceful, remember?).

The third time you ask me a question –that would have been answered if you’d been resourceful enough to follow the advice I gave the first two times-, I’m becoming annoyed and starting to wonder why you’re asking me but I’ll respond, mostly for the benefit of others who may be following the conversation but weren’t privy to the ongoing situation.

The fourth time you ask me… I’m left with a tangle of unanswered questions as to the suitability of our match but the unavoidable conclusion is that you don’t respect me. I will bail because the situation is illogical – why continue to ask me questions if you don’t respect my advice sufficiently to have followed it yet? Will the fourth time be the magical number and you’ll listen to me now when you didn’t before? I really don’t know what it is but with only one hour to groom the industry’s next star, I need to move on to someone else who is resourceful enough to use my time more efficiently.

Minimally, a resourceful person is someone who -once they gain the ear of an authority- respects the time and advice they’ve asked of a knowledgeable person. Respect means following the advice they have solicited on various occasions before expecting a second, third or fourth serving of it.

How to repay a mentor:
Although a traditional mentor is free, there is a payback in the relationship or you can’t make any more withdrawals. Luckily, paying a mentor is super easy: Do what they say! As someone reminded me today, people know they don’t know but they don’t know how much they don’t know. Their default is to assume they know better than an authority when said authority tells them something they didn’t want to hear. So that’s pivotal right there -good advice is typically not what you wanted to hear but what you needed to hear. It takes internal strength and resourcefulness to switch gears and revise your idea of how your fashion empire unfolds. You don’t have to do what a mentor says all of the time but good grief, don’t come back for a fourth helping if you’ve not followed any of their previous advice. That said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who can reassess and re-engage.

Some aspiring protégés think they are repaying the mentor by asking them more questions as “an opportunity to contribute” and get “exposure”. However kindly intended, don’t assume an authority is struggling in obscurity because you’ve never heard of them (you’re out of the loop) or that they want “exposure”. If your friends are like you, it could mean being exposed to still more people who also don’t follow advice but ask more questions, the answers to which they also don’t intend to apply. I think it is better to for an individual to become better and more exposed themselves by joining the mentor’s community. The best way to get exposure for someone you admire is by being a role model, an example of what they teach.

The conclusion is, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. If your teacher hasn’t come, you’re not ready. Get ready and then they’ll be crawling out of the woodwork.

*My best source for information is buried in bibliographies.

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  1. Oh this is so cool! I just read a blog post by a scientist on how to network at conferences and there are a lot of parallels.

    “But, as you climb the ladder and want to meet people, meet them with a purpose. When I was a very new graduate student, I once cornered a BSD [Big Swinging Dick] in my field because I really wanted to meet her. Then I realized I had nothing of real substance to say to her. While I now interact with her regularly, and I don’t think she remembers my n00b self cornering her awkwardly at a conference because I “wanted to meet her,” it was sooooooo awkward. Later, when I had grown up and developed my “swagga” a bit, I learned that another BSD was coming to visit my institution. I was very knowledgeable about her work as it applied to my own, and I had a very specific topic I wanted to discuss with her.

    “She wasn’t set to visit my group, but my spies and moles told me that she would be having breakfast at a particular restaurant at a particular time. I showed up uninvited with my data in hand and my question and she apparently thought me hilarious enough that we talked for more than an hour. She’s become someone who I now turn to for mentoring and she recently helped me untangle some manuscript reviews I was struggling with.”

    Things that science and fashion have in common.

  2. nat.laurel says:

    Oh, I am a clear case of “when the student is ready the teacher will come” and feel very much like sharing it here!

    I had a blog from which my career of an image consultant spurred. Very quickly I realized that the lack of knowledge in clothing construction impeded me. I DESPERATELY needed a mentor and a mentor has come. An apparel industry veteran, with decades of experience offered her advice. (Such a great feeling, I still remember that day!) Actually, I’ve known her for ten years from my other blogging projects; but as I started to dream of a mentor she was the last person I thought of. The moral: your mentor could be right next to you.

    My second mentor was/is a highly skilled tailor, who does custom clothes. I learnt about her at a party while discussing how to find ‘a good tailor’ for personal needs. I begged a lady who mentioned ‘some-great-tailor-she-knew’ to get me in touch with her but it turned out she wasn’t taking new clients (what did I expect?) Yet, I learnt that the tailor in question also worked at a high-end department store. I set up to visit each branch in my area to meet her. And met her I did. A person of tremendous flair yet meticulous when it comes to hand work. Such a rare combination. Actually I do pay her a consultation fee every time I turn to her while working on a client’s case, but the amount of information and the level of details she volunteers to provide me with is such that it makes her more of a mentor than a mere consultant.
    I am indebted to both of these ladies and I can’t recall a single time I would not follow their advice religiously.

    As for my own practice, whenever people seek my advice I always find myself spending twice more time on those with the ‘right questions’ and evidence of the homework done.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Just this morning I heard from my mentor which kind of brings this full circle as it relates to commercial relationships. Namely, as a protege, you have to have some skin in the game. Your best mentor options are people you do business with. However, if you’re not a customer, your options are dramatically reduced. Here are two opposite situations by way of example:

    1. I can’t count the number of people who want me to mentor them who haven’t bought my book; they expect me to recite it to them. Now it may be certain that they are wonderful enough to justify my time doing it but I’m going to take the cognitive short cut of mentoring someone who already has it and has read it because it makes the most efficient use of my donated time. Someone who has invested in me is more likely to respect and follow my advice than someone who is willy-nilly fishing around for a warm body. The former speaks to purpose and intent; the latter is desperation and very unattractive.

    2. Part of the reason we seek proteges is that we would like to do business with you or find a way our paths can cross so we can maximize your potential, to see you profit from your gifts. We often have more commercial weight to throw around -we can’t force you to take our advice so carrots are good incentives that you will.

    Specifically, I was my mentor’s customer. He took an interest in me, gave me advice I definitely didn’t like but directly or indirectly, everything I’ve done in the past 15 years (including this site etc) is the outcome of what he told me. Now oddly enough, he is my customer. He says I repaid him years ago but I remain grateful and continue to do him every good turn I can. I am happy to continue to repay the favor of his having mentored me (yeah, click on that link and buy stuff!). My point is, an integrity based relationship need not be compromised by financial transactions.

  4. Leslie Hanes says:

    And, if you are wise enough to hire someone like Kathleen (or even Kathleen herself, if you are lucky) you will find that the advice keeps coming, at no cost, for a long time. So just do it.
    I don’t need to call often, but when I do she is always there for me.

  5. Rocio says:


    I’ve had 5 mentors over the last 20+ years and all of them agree that they find an incentive in sharing their knowledge with someone who will actually listen and try to build on what they are learning…

    My latest mentor decided to take me “under his wing” because (since none of his 4 children ever cared to be part of the family business) he didn’t want his 40+ years of production experience to be forever lost :-(

    The 2 people I’ve “taken under my wing” so far are really going places (have made me very proud) and to me that’s the biggest reward :-)

  6. Jay Arbetman says:

    I grew up in a family business so my first mentors were my father and uncle. When the concept of mentoring came up, they always said that this is the only business that you can learn something from a dummy. This was usually added when I had brought something useful to the conversation. They believed that abuse was a teaching tool. Interesting guys in interesting times.

  7. jemma says:

    looking to start a online store. Need a manufacturer for patterns and sewing of designs to sell can anyone help out. let me know i am just starting out and need good quality and good price

  8. Mark Scott says:

    Hi, I am looking to start a men’s pocket square business and based upon the article that I read from this site on digital textile printing, I can see this dream becoming a reality. I have come across a few printers such as SuperSample, Fabachrome and L.Y.M.A Products. I am not sure who is good (and trustworthy). Can anyone make some suggestions?

  9. Annoyed says:

    I’m wondering if this post will be one of those posts that draw a lot of comments from people who don’t read the entry or think it does not apply to them. :::no mystery why they’re floundering:::


  10. Kathleen says:

    From this CBS MoneyWatch blurb of Sheryl Sandberg’s book:

    […] she notes that “searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming…. Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

    Studies, she writes, “show that mentors select proteges based on performance and potential.” Given this, “I believe we have sent the wrong message to young women. We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.'” The word itself need never come up. Instead, “the relationship is more important than the label.”

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