Why no one will help you

Yesterday, I got yet another email from someone who was complaining that very few people in the industry are willing to give advice on how to start your own clothing line. Since Miracle and I donate incalculable amounts of free time to help people succeed, we talked about the reasons why we don’t help certain people. We help everybody we can -time permitting- unless they are stupid, annoying and cheap. All kidding aside, everybody has to start somewhere and whether you intend to or not, you can be unintentionally stupid, or annoying or cheap. I know I have been outside my range of expertise. I think one can only be one of those three things. In other words, one can be stupid -this isn’t brain surgery- but one can’t be annoying and cheap at the same time. Or, one can be annoying but not stupid and cheap. Or one can be cheap, but one can’t be annoying and stupid too. Make sense?

Based on practical experience I’d say people won’t help you because they can’t. You’re usually asking the wrong question or you’re asking the wrong person. It is only rarely that you do ask the right person, the right question and they won’t help you. If you’re not asking the right people the right questions, few will volunteer the longer course because they think that you’ll poison the well. Everybody thinks nobody will help them due to fears of competition but you’re on the outside looking in. They’re doing it, you’re not. You are not a threat. Trust me.

The reason most people won’t help you is because they think you’re not ready. If you’re asking for a contractor referral and no one will tell you, it’s because -in their estimation- you’re not ready to enter in that kind of a relationship using their name as a lever. You need a referral to get a good contractor, or good suppliers. Not always, but mostly. Most businesses are leery of people calling from directories because callers aren’t screened and they won’t know if the person is really ready to get into this or not until they’ve invested in the relationship that they might end up not wanting -which is why you need a referral. In the beginning, it is very unlikely you will be charged the full cost of handling your job. We subsidize you (yes, we do). Like any investor, we want the best bets, those who are as prepared as they can reasonably be.

If someone gives you a referral, they are vouching for you, implying you are ready to take this step. We are cautious about referrals because your actions determine our reputations too. If you do something untoward, that contractor will lose respect for the person who referred you (for picking somebody like you) and take their other referrals less seriously. Your actions in part, determine our reputations -and believe me, we love to score points with our contacts by sending them good business because they will make us an even greater priority and give us other referrals we may need. So, just as we have much to lose with our contacts by making bad referrals, we also have much to gain by making good ones. There is nothing that raises my reputation in the industry more than giving a good referral. But again, this is why any other designer will refuse to tell you about their sources for the same reasons. They don’t want someone poisoning their retail-well, their rep-well or their contractor-well. It is always embarrassing if one has made a bad referral with much loss of face and apologies all around.

If you’re not ready, it’s more likely -be honest- that you haven’t been listening to advice you’ve already been given. If you’ve been frustrated in your quest for advice, be honest and think about it. Have you gotten advice you didn’t follow up on and you should have? It may not have been the answer you asked for or wanted but if you’re asking the right person, someone who is an authority or trustworthy (why else would you be asking them), they will answer the question you need to have answered, rather than the one you wanted. Take inventory. Has someone given you advice you haven’t taken but should have? Doing so will prepare you, from which you can get referrals. For example, I don’t give referrals to anybody who hasn’t read my book. I have no way of knowing if they’ve prepared sufficiently otherwise. At least that way, I’ve got a baseline of standards and expectations and it must be working okay because contractors call me sometimes and compliment me on the quality of customers I send them.

In summary, people usually won’t help you because you could poison the well. Throughout history, the answer is the same. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. If your teacher hasn’t appeared, it’s because you’re not ready. Follow the advice you’ve already been given and then your teacher will come. In the meantime and until you are ready, people will keep you from fouling the well.

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  1. Karen C. says:

    I so agree about when the student is ready the teacher will appear. I’ve been preparing for 6 years and just about to launch–and I read your book for the first time 4 years ago! But it wasn’t time yet for me to get out in the marketplace, even though I tried to hurry it because I wanted it so bad. Now that I am ready and so much more educated about the industry (in big part because of this blog), all sorts of opportunities and info have just been flooding my way. My advice is to do all of the steps–then jump.

  2. Eric H says:

    This entry reminds me of two books. The first is Reputation, edited by Daniel Klein. Some of his writings are online here. The basic idea is that reputation is third party verification that you are who you say you are. One of the oldest and cheapest ways to gather this information is through gossip!

    The second is Oliver Williamson’s _Economic Institutions of Capitalism_, in which he talks about bilateral relationships between buyers and suppliers. Suppose a buyer wants the supplier to invest in a new process or machine (or client?) that will reduce costs and profit them both. The supplier may be reluctant because he realizes that once he has made the investment, an unscrupulous buyer may try to renegotiate or leave him out to hang. Therefore, the supplier may ask for a “hostage”.

    In this case, a referral substitutes as a mechanism for signalling that the buyer won’t reneg. It’s only a credible commitment, though, so long as the referrer’s word has some value. In other words, stay in tight with good gossips!

  3. Jewels says:

    I wanted to give another perspective to this discussion being that I am a fashion designer AND a fashion design instructor.

    I have been at a college for the past two years and find that the people who want to learn sbout this business understand that you basically have to start from scratch: education, experience and patience.

    I have some extremely talented students who understand all this, that no one is going to hand you all of the contacts you will ever need, all of the sourcing information, etc., unless you “pay your dues” and learn to make those contacts on your own.

    On the other hand, I have had some students who said to me “why should I wait 10 years to be a senior designer when you’ve been doing it for 18 years – just give me your contacts and all of your information because I’m not going to wait!” I kid you not.
    These type of people who are of the “give me, give me” mind set, are what I think turn off a lot of people from helping one another.

    Even as a fashion designer, I can’t tell you the number of people that have asked me to give them “free information” because they simply would not take the time to do the research, attend trade shows to meet potential contacts, tou name it. One gentleman who is working on starting a line of womens clothes kept calling and emailing me questions (he had no experience in the business, doesn’t sew or draw but “knows” what women want and how they should look) and I explained that I gave him as much as I could, the rest was up to him, but that if he wanted me to oversee the design and production of his first collection, he would have to pay me either as a designer (if I was to design the entire collection from the first step to the last) or as a consultant (to steer him towards the right people for each step). He was upset and said that I should have more sympathy for him as he was just starting out and that I should just “give him” everything he would need to know and not have to pay for anything since I’ve been doing this for a long time! Needless to say, I no longer speak to this person.

    A lot of people forget that those of us in the industry have had to start from scratch, too, and that our knowledge is precious commodity, not always available for free.

    As a designer who teaches, there are plenty of classes to take from people like myself who will guide you as best as we can and help you fine tune the basic skills that you will need. The gentleman mentioned earlier said he can’t be bothered with classes and just wants someone to do everything for him now without having to compensate them.

    It’s because of attitudes like this, that everyone is coming out of the woodwork to be a fashion deisgner; shows like “Project Runway” which I love, are somehow making some people think “Oh, I can do that – that’s not hard” and thinking they can be the next great designer – my answer to the wannabes (with no experience or knowledge of the industry) is “No you can’t.” I have my students watch it each week, and they see how hard it is to constantly be “on” – this industry is 24/7 and if you can’t handle it, do something else. If you want to be in the midst of it, then understand that it is going to take a lot of you to invest in yourself to study, learn and experience all that there is to know and that there are people out there to assist (not to mention organizations) but you can’t get all of it for a free ride.

  4. Andy Chang says:

    As a manufacturer, I’m always glad to help people with manufacturing questions or problems. Whether it is how to make certain things or technical details of fabric construction, prints and etc.. However, whether I take their orders is another story. I never take cold inquiries, whether it is from a large company or small no name company. Reason is, if this is a large company, it should already have a plethora of factories whom they are currently working. So why would they want to go through the hassles of starting a new relationship?
    Through my experience, they are either the type of company that will use outside quotation as a leverage to press against their current supplier, or they are such a bad company or hire such bad merchandisers that no factories want to work with them.

    You’ll be surprised at how many factories Walmart and Target goes through each year.

    Now, if you are a small upcoming brand, there is definitely no volume in the order. The risk of the person being able to sell his/her design is unknown, there is a lot of minimum issue where I would have to work with fabric mills and accessories vendors. And like what Kathleen mentioned earlier, I’m using my contact to get things done. What if this person fail and not pay for the work? Not mentioning my own company’s lost, I would have lost credibility with my vendors. I much rather use my credit for my current customers whom really needed my help, rather on an unknown.

    As a result, for 33 years, my company will only take referal leads. I only accept work from referals from my current customers, or if my current contact moved on to a different company and came to me to continue the working relationship.

    Without attending tradeshows or a salesforce, My clients includes:
    Tommy Hilfiger, Swiss Army, Quiksilver, Modern Amusement, Original Penguin, Perry Ellis, Dillards, Saks,El Corte Ingles and etc…

    If there is no one willing to help you, I believe you really have to take a good look at yourself and think what you need to adjust to change for the better.

    Then again, I’m sure you’re not doing that bad. At least, there are people here willing to provide you with feed back and help.

  5. sahara says:

    While I do agree with all of you regarding wanna-be’s, i.e Project Runway aspirants, etc., do take this in consideration. As a sweater designer working in The Garment District for almost two decades now, I’ve have seen some of the most talented and capable new designers “locked out” of opportunities and business connections because of jealousy, prejudice, and money. And trust me, money can trump talent and capability. Celebrities don’t start from scratch.

    Fashion publications do not help; they often fuel the fads, fires and feuds, and Hollywood makes it worse, through worship.

    I have been fortunate, as I make custom sweaters, knit jacquards and jerseys, so I am not a real threat. But I discovered my samples cut into pieces, just before a Fashion Week show, by a competing designer(“WHY DO YOU WORK FOR THAT B***H? I’LL PAY YOU NOT TO!” and you’d be surprised to know who said that; after all, they’re successful).

    I didn’t have much help, mainly because of prejudice and sexism. Most knitting machinery in factories here, are run by men. Women design. One mill was very helpful in getting me into the course taught by Shima Seki, but then they went out of business. After that, I worked very hard to learn, but then I LOVE WHAT I DO!

    Let’s keep it real. Design can be a cutthroat business. It’s BASED ON VANITY. This is why I help newcomers; after all they’ll become my next clients; and I’ll remain a respected artisan.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I’m referring to people helping you get your act together -producing a product. I wasn’t discussing the issue of getting the word out about your product once you are producing it. Two different time periods.

    And no, celebs don’t start from zero. They usually hire a professional firm -with experience in the industry- to get it together for them. Celebs pays for it too. That’s the other thing, newbies need consulting or education that they’re not willing to pay for so you’re right, celebs don’t start from zero but they do pay for it. There’s nothing keeping newbies from investing in their educations. Regarding press, once you’re in the business and turning out stuff, if you want press in WWD and all of that, you have to hire a PR firm. Even celebs have to hire PR firms (that’s one reason they’re celebs). Iow, you’re talking pr stuff but just because somebody is already famous does not necessarily mean they’re getting free press. They generate it. They pay for it.

    There is always room for somebody who is good. I believe in a cosmic fairness. If you do good stuff, you’ll be okay. I know you hear about somebody who’s been done dirty but personally, I’ve just never run into somebody who was doing really good stuff who didn’t make it. When people fail, it’s usually because they were doing something they shouldn’t have been, one way or another and they didn’t want to listen.

    My post was about why nobody is helping you to enter the industry in the first place. If you’re not in it, you don’t have samples to cut up, you’re not a threat. Btw, I don’t understand how it came to be that you and your samples were separated and in a position of peril. I mean, it obviously happened but I don’t understand how; it’s just incredibly unprofessional that they were not in the hands of someone who would be entirely responsible for them. Who else would have them other than a rep -who’d have to buy them. I mean, I’ve never heard of someone just leaving their samples with a store overnight, that’s just not done so I’m really confused about how someone would have had an opportunity to damage your samples without you knowing about it. That’s just not done so I don’t understand.

    My post was not about why you’re not getting press once you are making products. Most of my companies aren’t selling fashion items. I think the idea that you need press is very overrated so vanity isn’t an issue for most companies. I know so many many companies that churn out millions of dollars in products each year and nary an article about them. They just put out good stuff, everything from manufacturing seat covers to whatever. It’s all the sewn products people and they’re the larger portion of the business so I don’t agree that vanity or jealousy is a key factor or reality for *most* companies. Maybe for fashion companies. But sewn products people are doing almost 60% of the market and vanity is the least of what they do.

    I don’t know what kind of people you were running with. Maybe the “art crowd”. Boy, for all their “values” and artist statments, that can be an ugly crowd. Me, I’d rather stick it out with the monosyllabic grunts. People who are entirely too busy managing their own problems to have time to go out and mess up somebody else. I don’t know about this vanity, jealousy crowd you were running with but they couldn’t have been very professional if they were doing things like that. Glad to hear you left them to their own devices.

  7. Sandee Harris says:

    These people are generally pains in the butt. I often get these type of phone calls and have to stop myself being rude. I tell them to start with the phone directory and the internet and start walking the garment districts – these people generally know nothing – most of them cannot even sew – let alone anything else – just that they have this great idea and want to have it made up and sold off – most of us have spent years training and honing our skills and are not going to waste our time giving information to these people who just want shortcuts.
    Do what the rest of us have done and work for it.

  8. gary gromet says:

    I went to Scott Notions (305-576-9928) to buy thread and new scissors. The company services the design industry in Miami. All the people there were very free with advice despite the fact that I have only a niche product, a featherweight bicycle jacket, that still needs a pattern.

  9. Tina says:

    I’m a newbie trying to start up an accessory business from scratch. I don’t sew, and have no formal design education. I really appreciate the honesty of the people contributing to the blog. I also appreciate the time and advice people give me whether I’m paying or not. All I’m looking for is a little direction, if not a smidge of encouragement. I think if people treat each other with respect and kindness it will come back to you. For the most part, everyone has been wonderful. I pray that this will remain the case as my business comes together.

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