The Inside Scoop is a series that chronicles the ups and downs of starting a Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) apparel company from scratch...in the middle of a pandemic.
Facts about Fashion Startups
So you want to start a fashion brand. This is the dream of many a stylish go-getter. But fashion, particularly women's fashion, is a difficult business. Before you spend your life savings, let's ground ourselves in reality.
While US women's apparel is a huge market (worth $182 billion dollars annually, and growing at a nearly 5% CAGR), new brands will have to fight successful incumbents to gain a foothold in the market. Even the biggest player, Nike, only has 2.8% global market share. Target, #15 in market share? 0.3%. While that leaves a huge majority of the market wide open, it also means that new brands are competing against hundreds, even thousands, of other small apparel companies for the same customers. Instagram, Facebook, and Google are saturated with clothing ads. In addition to competition, you should consider the economics. Profit margins are low (4% - 13%), and return rates and customer acquisition costs are high. Consider, too, that the cost of starting your own custom line of clothing (as opposed to printing a design on a ready-made t-shirt) is likely to cost upwards of $25,000.
We don't share these facts to discourage you from getting into fashion. In fact, we feel very much the opposite. In a notoriously cutthroat industry, we have greatly benefited from female founders who have come before us. These women have been transparent and downright gracious in sharing tips, tricks, and resources as we got our start. We hope that this article does the same, while helping banish naïveté so that you are ready to tackle the challenges you will face head-on.
Frankly's First Days
The next question to consider is whether you can do this on your own. Do you have fashion experience? If so, you probably aren't reading this article (but if you are, send us an email - we are always looking for great talent!). If you're on the outside, it can seem impossibly complicated to get started. This is where we were when we started Frankly. While I had some experience on the corporate retail side, the bulk of my relevant DTC experience was in footwear, so it truly felt like we were starting from scratch to design our first collection.
As we outlined in our previous Inside Scoop post, Frankly's first step was speaking to dozens of potential customers and industry insiders. Talking to people in the fashion industry made one thing clear: fighting the status quo was going to be an uphill battle. Designers thought braless clothing without a shelf bra was impossible. Merchandisers thought more nuanced sizing would crush us before we got started. Manufacturers wanted no part in sewing the complex patterns we had created. So we started by doing it all ourselves.
I spent my time in class sketching dress designs and internal support structures for our clothes. Jane scoured abandoned corners of the internet to find a local, home-based patternmaker that would bring our initial design to life. We drove to her house in East Bay with our sketch, a few similar styles from other brands, and fabric and materials we had purchased on a weekend social trip to Atlanta. We decided to build the dress exactly to my measurements, so we could see if the concept/structure worked for me - our extreme user. Our patternmaker took my measurements, had me try on the existing dresses, and made notes on my sketch as we explained our vision in layman's terms. We found a small, female-owned factory in San Francisco that was willing to sew a sample.
This was our end result. Not bad, but not exactly the pinnacle of style. We realized we needed to bring in some professionals. We needed to convince people that the Frankly vision was worth the extra effort. So we flew to Los Angeles, the West Coast mecca of fashion, to get down to business. When you get to this stage, you have two choices: work with a design studio or with independent contractors.
Who to Work With to Design your First Collection
Design studios are a one stop shop for new labels or small brands. They will hold your hand through the entire process, from concept up to production. For this white glove service, you will pay a premium. Working with a design studio starts with an initial consultation (usually free) to discuss your vision. We recommend talking to a few companies to compare prices and see who you like working with. Maker's Row is an excellent place to start to find lots of studios in a single search.
Estimated Cost: $3,500 - $5,500 for two styles
Overall Verdict: Works best for first-timers and for entrepreneurs who don't mind spending more money for less hassle. If you want to think less about product development, and more about other aspects of your business, this is a great option. This is also a better fit for simple, straightforward styles.
Working with independent contractors means you have to source individuals to help you complete each step of the development process. You will likely start by sourcing a designer, who will help you sketch your concepts and choose materials. From there, you will also need to source a patternmaker, a cut and sew team, a fit model, and a marking and grading service. Your initial contractors may be able to connect you with these professionals, but they may not. You will pay each contractor on an hourly (or sometimes per item) basis, which can save you quite a lot of money, if you manage it well.
Ultimately, this is the route that we went for Frankly. We are venturing pretty far from industry norms, so we knew we needed a special team that really "got" our concept and could deliver at high quality. We found our awesome designer, Reagan, on our first trip to LA. She has been our MVP ever since. She helped connect us to our other contractors and has kept us moving forward during COVID-19 when we couldn't make it back to LA.
Estimated Cost: $1,500 - $2,500 for two styles
Overall Verdict: Works best for people with some industry experience and for fashion entrepreneurs who want to save money and focus on product. You must have a clear vision, good project management skills, and the desire to be very hands on in the product development process.
An Overview of the Product Development Process
Once you find partners to help you get started, things can move quickly. You always want to be prepared for the next step in the process before you get there, so that you can keep moving forward without delays. Below you will find a highly simplified overview of what the process of designing your first collection looks like, along with some behind-the-scenes images of Frankly's process. You should plan for at least six months of development and production time for your first collection. Ours is closer to 10 months, due to COVID-19.
Vision Boarding: you will work with your designer to set the aesthetic for your collection. You should be prepared to send information about colors, prints, patterns, and brands you love. Your designer will share back a vision or "mood" board that reflects all of this, plus their knowledge and input. This is your opportunity to make sure you are in sync. Takes ~1 week.
*NOTE: We did not formally do this, so this is not our vision board
Sketches & Flat Files: Your designer will sketch up your requested styles and create a digital rendering of the front and back views of the garment. This is also when you should begin discussing materials selection, as the technicalities of your patterns will change based on the weight and stretch of your fabrics. Takes ~1 week, plus time for sourcing materials.
Patterns & Tech Packs: A patternmaker will make a digital and/or physical pattern for each garment in your sample size. This separates the garment into each individual piece that must be sewn together. The tech pack is the digital guide that accompanies the pattern and details exactly how to combine elements for the manufacturer. Takes 2-3 weeks.
Sampling: Your pattern and tech pack will get passed to a cut and sew team who will use the instructions to assemble the garment in a single size. Once your sample is complete, you will need to test it on your fit model to make sure it works and looks exactly as you expect. If it does not, you will need to revise the pattern and do another round of sampling. Takes 1-2 weeks per revision.
Marking & Grading: Once you have had a perfect fitting, your pattern is considered final. The final pattern, and the "perfect" sample will be sent to a team for marking and grading. Marking and grading will duplicate and adjust a pattern from a single sample size to a full size run (e.g., XS - XXL). Once marking and grading is complete, you will want samples in a variety of sizes (called skip sizing) to test on different bodies to make sure it scaled as expected. This may require multiple iterations. Takes 2-4 weeks per revision.
Production: Once you are confident in your full size run, you can enter production. Manufacturing at scale is a huge undertaking, and one we will cover in a separate blog post. Takes 6-8 weeks for small scale production.
Top Five Takeaways From Designing a Collection
If you read this entire post, bravo! There is so much nuance to designing a collection that there was no way we could fit it all in a single article. In summary, here are our top five tips as you get started.
- The heart of the fashion industry in the United States is in New York City and Los Angeles. While it is not impossible to start elsewhere, being in one of these two locations will make your life a lot easier.
- If you don't have fashion experience, work with people who do. Working with a design studio will be expensive, but the easiest for an outsider just getting started. If you're willing to put in more legwork to save money, find individual independent contractors within the industry and have them help you make connections. Maker's Row and Upwork can be good places to start to find the help you need.
- Spend some time reading up on the basics of the fashion industry so you can speak the lingo. We recommend starting here.
- Know that while starting a fashion line doesn't take millions of dollars, it is still an expensive endeavor to take on. This is especially true if you're an individual using your own money to bring your vision to life. Know when to be scrappy and know when to spend.
- Don't rush the process. It takes a while to get things right, and you want your clothing to be perfect before you sell it to customers because your reputation depends on it. Build contingency into your timelines and know how to best use your time when inevitable delays do arise.
New designers: did you find this helpful? Experienced fashion moguls: other advice to share? Let us know in the comments!