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:
- 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.
- 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.