My experience and 7 top tips for starting a fashion business from scratch.
From making £36,000 in my first year to being bankrupt in the third, this is my honest experience of starting a fashion brand from scratch. I have decided to write this blog post to try and help new budding fashion entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes I made.
I launched my brand, stuffwithprints in 2016. I had no fashion education or professional experience, no business knowledge and no design skills. If you are reading this with any of the previously mentioned, you are already starting at an advantage to me and therefore I implore you not to be put off by my failings. I was also only 26 years old and incredibly naïve.
What I did have, was a pretty good grasp of digital marketing and social media marketing, as that had been my career from the age of 21. This is actually what spurred me on to create a brand in the first place. As a marketeer, you are constantly making (sometimes millions) of £££ for other brands/companies, and there’s always that little niggle at the back of your brain which is wondering whether you could do the same for yourself. I was also bored to death with corporate companies and felt like a fraud every time I had to write another business jargen email, or spend hours in a back to back meetings about stuff I didn't really care about. I studied the arts and longed to work within the creative industry, but in London this is a super competitive field and without any previous experience you are unlikely to get a job.
I knew that if I was starting a business, it would have to be something I was passionate about, or I wouldn't want to do it in my spare time. Naturally, art and fashion have always been the two loves of my life and my creative outlet. For as long as I can remember I have been creating and styling outfits out of whatever materials I have at my fingertips, from hand-printing my own t-shirts to fashioning Harem pants into mini dresses. I've also always been obsessed with prints, constantly hunting out the most original printed fabrics and garments from vintage stores or markets. And so, stuffwithprints was born.
I started my Instagram initially to build a network of like-minded people who enjoyed my eye for curation, with the thinking they would have the same taste in products too. Once I had gained around 10,000 followers I decided to launch my first product. By this point I had also built a network of artists I admired and wanted to collaborate with and started reaching out to them. I would just pay them a one-off fee for their art as I didn't want the hassle of splitting the profits after sales if there was any. T-shirts and jumpers seemed like the obvious starting point, due to the price point and ability to have them made to fit the demand - so I wouldn't need to invest and buy in bulk.
The t-shirts sold well - but the profit margin was very small after having them all made to order and once postage and package was deducted. My Instagram following had also doubled by this point so I felt it was time to launch something bigger. I reached out to manufacturers online and came across Cento clothing ltd. These guys acted as a go between with manufacturers and clothing brands. They also had an in house design team, which was perfect for me as my Photoshop skills were limited to say the least. They were perfect for a fashion business novice like me, and guided me through the process from design to manufacturing. By now, it was coming to the end of 2017 and I was obsessed with boilersuits. There wasn't a massive variety of boilersuits on the market at this point, and especially no printed boilersuits so I thought there was a gap in the market. My favourite artists at the time was Alexa Coe, she agreed to design the 'dancing ladies' print for the boilersuit and so I sent this along with my mood boards over to Cento and they did they rest.
Once the boilersuit sample arrived and the necessary edits were made, we were ready for production. I didn't have any budget for a professional photoshoot, so I just took my sisters canon to Manchester and shot the jumpsuit in Affleck's Palace with a model I found on Instagram.
The jumpsuits sold out within a week. This was both a blessing and a curse.
After the jumpsuits sold out so quickly, I started planning a summer range for 2018. I did this in stages, as I always had new ideas and creating new samples. I created around 20 samples and went ahead with 12 designs. After my 5th design manufactured with the help of Cento, I decided I needed to cut out the middle man and source my own manufacturers, to do this I initially used Alibaba.com. This is a website for businesses who sell wholesale to suppliers. I searched for designs similar to mine, e.g s"slip dress" or "jumpsuit" and sent inquiries to the manufacturers I liked the most. I then had samples made by 4-5 suppliers until I found the design, quality, ethics and price point which suited my brand the most. Once you have done this a few times, you find suppliers who you have the best relationship with and no longer have to get samples made by so many different manufacturers. In hindsight, this was a mistake. All manufacturers on an industrial scale, do runs of 100+. I should have sourced my manufacturer locally and tested my designs out on smaller runs at a higher price point. There's also no way to ensure quality if you are outsourcing your manufacturing overseas, whereas if they were local, you can visit regularly and ensure that your visions are aligned. Needless to say, this would also have been much better for the planet to avoid all of the unnecessary transporting of good overseas.
From sample to delivery - the process took around 6-8 weeks depending on design edits/how complicated the design is/shipping times etc.
Since I had so many designs I decided to invest in a professional studio, models and a photographer. I sourced everything via my Instagram, so the people involved in my creative process were all aware of my brands journey, process and what I was trying to achieve.
Once I launched my SS18 range, I started reaching out to influencers, asking if I could send them some pieces from my range. I had no budget to pay them to post anything, so I couldn't rely on them wearing any of the pieces so this was a big risk.
Sales were initially slow, but trickling in. I panicked a bit at this point as the jumpsuits I launched previously had sold out within 2 weeks so I was expecting a quicker uptake from the big launch. After the slow uptake I reduced the price of all the products by around 20%.
I had some lucky breaks with some huge celebrities/influencers wearing pieces from the collection which helped push sales massively. Everytime an influencer wore something, I would get an influx of around ten to a hundred sales depending who the influencer was.
That first summer, five of the twelve products sold out, with the remainder of the stock selling out over the next few years. Overall, after my SS18 launch I made around £10,000 profit.
By this point I was a bored of the products I was creating and felt like they weren't 'high fashion' enough to keep up with the fast fashion market, so I decided not to make re-runs of my sell out products. This was a big mistake.
When I was designing my second big range for AW18 I decided to create more 'high fashion' pieces as I was heavily influenced by brands like GANNI and Shrimps and I thought I needed to become more like them to be successful. This was also a huge mistake. I should have just kept to my USP which was, artists prints on designs.
My AW18 range was a bit of a flop. In part, because the designs we're so far removed from what I had created previously, but also due to the Instagram Algorithms changing. From the two years I had my Instagram account the algorithm changes had already affected me a lot. From a chronological feed, where all my followers would see my posts, to having to pay to promote my posts this really affected my brand just so my own followers could see my content. This was another of my mistakes. I was so heavily reliant on Instagram to sell my products, that when the algorithm changed, something that I had no control over, I couldn't get the reach I needed.
I ended up losing aroung £10,000 on my AW18 range which essentially bankrupt me so I couldn't make any more garments even if I wanted to. By this point the stress of running the business and the financial strain were taking it's toll on my mental health (something I have struggled with historically) so I decided to take a break from my creating clothes.
Things I would do differently if I was starting a fashion business from scratch again:
1. Source your manufacturer locally. Not only is this better for the planet, but it's better for the quality of your products. You ideally need to work with a company who you can visit regularly to ensure your visions are aligned. This way, you can test out your ideas with smaller, better quality runs at a higher price point instead of committing to a run of 100+ pieces.
2. If something sells out quickly - do a re-run! Capitalise on the popularity of any sell out items.
3. Find a USP and stick to it. Don't go off brand and confuse your following. I should have stuck to one idea which was garments with artists prints, instead of going off brand with more 'out there' garments. The printed items were the items my customers were buying so I should have listened to the kind of product they wanted me to create.
4. Find a pricepoint and stick to it. I shouldn't have panicked and reduced the price of my initial SS18 collection, this collection completely sold out so I should have stuck with my original price point to have banked enough capital for my second range. I used the industry standard pricing scale: 3X what you pay your manufacturer.
5. Have multiple sales streams. I built my business on my Instagram following. This is always a super risky strategy as nobody has any control over Instagram's algorithms. From December of 2018 to December of 2019 they changed dramatically. Likes and reach was suddenly restricted, and suddenly I had no control of reaching my own following with my posts. And just like that my whole business model was in jeopardy. Unfortunately I had no budget to start pumping money into Google AdWords or Facebook/Instagram ads, I only had my weekly newsletter subscriptions so I was at a loss of how to market my products. If I was to do it again, I would sell on various platforms as well as pop ups and market stalls.
6. Manage your finances. If I did it again I would manage my money differently. I would get some business advice from a bank for how to better manage my money, potentially getting a business account or savings account where my money would go. It's also really hard to keep track of money in vs money out, so at times it felt like I was making more money than I really was. Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity - but it's easy to get carried away when you're selling products and things seem to be going well. This is heightened by the buzz on Instagram with customers and bloggers wearing your garments. You start to believe the hype and be less realistic about what money you've actually made.
7. Identify your best season. My AW18 range was jumpsuits, dresses, t-shirts and jumpers. This was an Autumn winter range and in hindsight I think people want heavy knits, coats and boots in winter, not necesarily little dresses. I also think influencers post less unpaid content in winter. They are inundated with brands wanted to work with them on a paid basis, and there's also arguably less 'photo opportunities' than in summer so this is another uncontrollable. Unless you are paying influencers for their content - you can't guarantee they will post. If I were to do it again, I would do a main run in Summer and a smaller run in winter.
The lessons I have learnt from starting and running SWP have been invauable. Friends, family and colleagues often ask me if I could go back, would I do it again? And honestly I would. As stressful as it was, I am proud of what I achieved with my brand and I would do it again in a heartbeat, I would just make some critical changes next time.