Published: May 24, 2020 Updated: March 27, 2023 8 min read
Does this sound like you? It's always been your dream to start your own clothing line. You see a need in the market, you are passionate about a product - there is just one problem. You know nothing about fashion. That's ok. To get you started, here is my first lesson, fashion design for beginners - the importance of merchandising.
Just look at Tyler Haney, founder of Outdoor Voices. In this 2015 interview with Marie Claire, Haney boasts about her lack of experience in the fashion industry as being positive.
"I've cherished not having the experience, which is a bit counterintuitive. But it allows you to not have preconceived boundaries or notions of ways of doing things. That's been 90 percent helpful and 10 percent frustrating, because you're hedging your self-experience all the time. That's truly the best way to go about disrupting the category: not really knowing how other people have done it. It's definitely been fun. Not having the experience, you have to very much convince people right off the bat that they want to be a part of your company. So enthusiasm has to be high and being very articulate and confident in what we're doing. Just so you're making a very clear vision. And I've found that as I've tightened that up, I'm getting better and better people to join the team."
Well, if she can do it then you can too right?
Well, it's also important to know, what's not mentioned here, is that Haney comes from a wealthy and well-connected family with a history in retail.
So, no. She didn't just do it all on her own with no experience.
Your goal doesn't have to be to grow as big as Outdoor Voices, but if this girl can make it happen, then why can't you be another success story?
Most new founders come to me saying they have this great idea, and already know their market, but they don't know how to sew or sketch. They think because they are not fashion designers they can't make their dream of starting a clothing line come true.
Don't think like this.
Trust me, I am the first to offer clients a dose of reality (even sometimes when they don't want to hear it). But, don't let a lack of artistic skills stop you.
Guess what? The Karl Lagerfeld, the late king of modern fashion himself didn't know how to sew or draw either! What Karl was really good at was telling other people what to do. He had a vision, and knew how to predict trends, innovative, and put together a cohesive collection.
Again, if he could do it why can't you?
Before you even start worrying about the technical nitty-gritty of design you need to know how to merchandise your collection. In Fashion Design For Beginners, it is not so much about learning how to draw, and developing new skills, but, using the skills you already have to put together a killer line.
Designing a line that will perform well is more than just putting together a bunch of styles you love. A successful fashion line uses a merchandising strategy.
Did you know that there are actually different kinds of products? I am going to walk you through them. And, use popular sustainable and ethical retailer Everlane as an example.
Yes, I know Everlane is not really all that transparent, ethical, or sustainable. But, they do a great job at merchandising. So, let's take what we can learn from them, and make it better in our own line!
What is your brand known for?
This is something that you do every season, with small updates. Your customers come to you, because they know you are the best at this.
An example of this that sticks out in my mind is Zero Waste Daniel. His thing is Piccaso-ing together amazing images and designs out fabric scraps. He's really good at it, and his patchwork aesthetic follows through season after season.
What Everlane is known for is their work appropriate basics, at affordable prices. Their dedication to basics is even in their tag line "modern basics. radical transparency."
At Everlane you see the same basic styles season after season. Like the ones below.
So what is your brand going to focus on? When people think of your name, what will initially come to mind first?
These are the little things stores put around cash registers that you end up impulse buying. Accessories are transaction builders. Things like putting your company's signature print on a cell phone case, selling small goods like scrunchies and coin pouches out of your waste fabric, and other lower-priced items are easy for customers to add to their purchase, and not think twice about.
The profits on these items can be low, but the thing is they move. So, you will most likely sell a lot of them. Don't underestimate their power. Some retailers like Flying Tiger and Party City create entire concept stores where only transaction builders are sold.
Going back to our Everlane example, they sell hats, scarves, and small leather goods as transaction builders.
**PRO TIP- you can add these transaction builders into the marketing of your main line too? In this example from Everlane, what are we adding to cart? Hats, Coats? Shirts? All of the above?
Think of profit generates like transaction builders, except in your main collection.
These are the items you have the best margins on. Every style in your collection is not going to have the same exact margin. Sometimes customers, because they don't know the inner workings of product development and production, don't understand why things cost more. So, the perceived value of an item does not align with your brand's actual costs.
I find this happens a lot with silk. Many customers can't understand why silk dresses cost so much more than a modal dress. Especially now that synthetic fibers have gotten so good at mimic natural fibers.
In many cases, unless you have a very elevated and educated customer, most would choose a $150 modal dress for a $300 silk dress. And, guess what? Your margins on the modal dress might be higher than on the silk dress even though you are selling it at a lower price point.
I don't know Everlanes costing. But, I can tell you what I know from my decade in the fashion industry in general. Products with high margins include, t-shirts, athleisure, and swim.
And, Everlane sells all of those things.
Remember how first we spoke about signature items? That can get kind of boring. That is why there are also image enhancers. These are the wow pieces, the show stoppers, the items that get media attention.
For Everlane this season, spring/summer 2020, that is their linen collection. Everlane has marketed itself as a sustainable and ethical thought leader in fast fashion. But, recently they have been getting a lot of flack or not really being as "radical" as they claim. The linen collection is a step in their assortment plan to start practicing the values they have been preaching.
While Everlane has their basics, the cotton t's, and everyday slacks. Now, with the linen collection, they have an entire capsule collection dedicated to enhancing their image as a sustainable brand.
What do you think?
Let me hear your thoughts in the comments section. Is this too little too late from Everlane? Or, are they actually attempting to live up to their values.
These are items you intend to lose money on to bring in traffic. One of the most infamous loss leaders to date was from Missguided when they sold $1.26 bikinis.
Initially the sustainable and ethical influencers went wild. How could these be made ethically or sustainably for such a low cost? And, as Missguided (haha get it? a pun), as they were they were onto something.
It wasn't just impossible to make a sustainable and ethical product at that cost, it was basically impossible to make any sort of product at that cost.
Missguided was selling a loss leader.
The cheap price, and the additional press they got from it (albeit bad press, but hey, any press is good press as they say), brought in more customers.
For example, I, and many people like me, didn't even know who Missguided was until all of this went down.
Now, from a sustainability and ethics standpoint, loss leaders are ok. Because at the end of the day the factory and workers are still getting paid. You, the brand are the one losing money.
WARNING: Loss leaders are tricky. This tactic should be reserved for established brands only, not start-ups. I would not recommend jumping into them right away. But, instead, spend a few seasons getting to know your customers, and what they really want.
Ok, so now that you have your product categories you are ready to design.
Things ever fashion design for beginners student should keep in mind while designing their line.
There is a lot to think about when designing. The core collection, money makers, headline styles, etc. Where should you start?
Always start with your core. What you want to be known for. This is what will become the base of your business. So, make sure you get it right before moving on to any other design.
Lots of brands will just start with their core collection for their first few seasons. Then, as they grow and get to learn more about their customer, what they like, and what they want to buy, they expand into other product offerings.
Just because you are designing your signature items, that does not mean they need to be basic. Think about it. Why would someone buy a shirt from you that they could get at literally 1,000 other stores? Make sure your product is unique.
PRO TIP: Just saying you are sustainable or ethical is no enough to be different these days, everyone including H&M claims that.
Real talk. About half of my job when I was Director of Product Development was reigning in designers. They were like, we want 250 studs on this shirt. And, I was like ummmm, this is Walmart product, we can afford 10. Let's redesign the whole thing.
Designers tend to get carried away with extra whistles and bells. While it's good to create freely, you should always keep the final price in the back of your mind. Budgeting tools can be found here.
Take your time while planning your line and focus on quality. If you can not afford testing and a real quality assurance plan. Then, at the very least plan for a few months where you can wear your samples and test them out.
I see so many brands skip this quality step. Having a high-quality product is what is going to keep your clients coming back season after season.
Guess what? It's still ok that you don't know how to draw. There are tons of tips and tricks to making the design in your head a reality. Check out this post on product development and production. And, I promise you drawing is not a pre-requisite to getting started.
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I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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