I’m very involved in the local fashion industry, I teach fashion at two local colleges and I offer small fashion business consultation services based on my experiences in the industry to young design entrepreneurs wanting to start small design lines. I’m often asked the same questions by hopeful designers and I hear a lot of criticism of small design lines particularly those out of AZ. Because I am a small line, I know the reasons behind the obstacles that small design lines face. So, I thought I would address those issues in this latest blog entry.
When I lived in LA, I used to own a regular clothing line (mass produced in quantities of 100+ pieces per color per style and not “one offs” like my current line is) called and I also worked at a few companies as designer and production manager. When I moved back to AZ, I had to close that company down because there was no way to mass produce clothing in AZ. There were no manufacturing resources like wholesale fabric vendors, industry pattern makers, pattern graders/marker makers, industry cutters and sewing contractors, send out services for bias/straps/die cuts/rivets/snaps, and garment industry sales reps, etc… So, in order to continue to operate a line that makes multiple pieces, I would have to travel to LA a few times a week to continue to use these services. When I lived in LA and manufactured my line, I personally took the sketches to the pattern maker, then took the patterns to a separate place for grading (sizing) and marking (this is what is used for mass cutting by placing all pattern pieces in the most efficient way to save fabric). Then I would pick up the marker and take it to the cutter. I’d sometimes even have to pick up my fabric and deliver it to the cutter. Then I’d take all of my cuts and deliver them to my sewing contractor. Then I’d check on my contractors weekly for quality control. I was also the sales rep. I could never find one in the mart willing to take on a new line that was small (yes 100 pieces of each style and color is actually considered very small for the fashion industry). So, I personally went to Magic every season to show my samples to buyers (which cost about $10,000 a season). I also went to each boutique I could find and personally showed my line to the buyers. That was the hardest part. We sold in about 30 stores internationally. And all of this was only possible because I had a partner who was the investor. It took a $200,000 investment to be able to start a business like this and that was cutting a lot of corners and doing almost everything myself. Most of that cost was in actually making samples.
It’s very, very expensive to manufacture clothing. Industry pattern makers charge about $100/hour. It takes hours to make proper production patterns that need to be production ready. Then a sample maker will charge a lot of money to sew a single sample because it takes a lot of time to sew one garment as opposed to the price of sewing 100’s in production through an assembly line method. So, after hundreds of dollars just to have an initial sample, then you have to do a fitting. And then change the pattern accordingly…so you need to pay the pattern maker again to make the changes to the pattern and the sample maker again to sew another sample. Traditionally, it takes many attempts to make a perfect fitting sample. So, each piece in a sample line may cost thousands of dollars to perfect. And then you have to do that for every piece in the line. Then after you have a complete sample line, you show the samples and take orders. That way you know how many to produce and you only produce what is paid for already. The process of creating the garment in multiples of hundreds or thousands is much cheaper per garment because a marker is used to cut all of them at once in a few minutes. So, you save on all of that time for cutting. Then the sewing assembly line is much faster per piece so it’s also much cheaper than sewing the samples. So a sample that may have cost thousands of dollars to make may only cost 20 bucks in production. Now, when a small line designer creates one-of-a-kinds, or very small runs of production these items are essentially considered samples. Including time and skill, they actually cost hundreds of dollars per piece because they aren’t made through mass production methods. So, it is really difficult to put that much time and money into making one-of-a-kinds or small numbers of something and gamble on whether anyone will actually buy it.
Now, for designers that are educated in design and can actually make their own patterns, that will save them some costs, but still…that takes hours of their own time. So, it’s still the same as paying someone else to do it. And those same designers can probably sew their own pieces. But, most are not production sewers so the quality isn’t the same as what you buy off the rack because most don’t have all of the different industry machines required to do all of the different types of seams and hems and most don’t have the time or money to keep making adjustments to the pattern and sewing up test samples to perfect the fit like you would if you were The Gap or Guess. So, these small line designers face the obstacle of pricing their one-of-a-kind garments fairly given that the customer isn’t going to understand why it costs so much but looks and fits less perfect than a similar item at the mall for ¼ the price. It’s difficult because it takes so much time and money to make and isn’t the same quality that customers are used to seeing in the mall so people don’t want to pay for something that isn’t made perfectly and is so expensive. So, there has to be something extremely unique about the clothing to justify what it costs (like being made out of recycled T-shirts for example). Most people that are not in the fashion industry don’t understand any of this and are quick to criticize the work of small line designers.
“Designers” who just decided one day to be designers without taking any classes on all of this are more likely to go out of business sooner because they have to pay everyone to do the stuff they can’t do themselves. They have to pay someone to make their patterns and grade them and sew them. And when they realize how much money it takes to make their first line, they usually run out of money very soon after and can’t make a second line. Those who can do everything themselves will work their butts off doing everything and therefore be able to sustain their business longer. But many will burn out because it is a lot of work to do it all yourself. You need a lot of love for the craft to stay motivated.
So the only answer is to be an educated designer with a big financial investment. This way you know what is involved and can do some of it yourself and pay for some of the other services. It has to be a big enough investment to create a large sample line that can be shown at Magic in order for stores to even consider placing orders. A small line isn’t going to be picked up by any stores the first year and real California Mart sales reps won’t even touch them until they’ve been around for a few years. They don’t want to take a chance on a small line that they know will probably fizzle out in a year or two because most lines do since most are started by people who don’t understand this whole process and why it takes so much money. They don’t want to work hard getting orders for a designer who probably won’t be able to deliver because they won’t be able to come up with the funding needed for production. Ask any “real” sales rep from the California Market Center and that is exactly what they will tell you.
So, the obstacle is money….it actually takes a few hundred thousand dollars to have a real line (although very small) with multiple sizes and color ways. The only other option is to do custom design where you charge hundreds or thousands of dollars per piece and do it all yourself and there is no mass production involved. And there has got to be something pretty spectacular about a garment to justify the high prices of one-offs to the public. But, there is a cap to how much you can make with one-offs.
The amount of work all of this takes for a small line designer, also means they don’t have the time needed to focus on marketing and sales and don’t have the money needed to pay for the extras that can take your business to the next level…. Good photos, makeup/hair/stylists for shoots, real sales reps, etc… One way to work around all of this is to do most of it yourself or be open to trade and utilizing the services of people who are looking for experience to build their resume. What I do is make all my patterns myself. Then I also grade them and cut and sew my own items. I make everything out of recycled T-shirts because they are available to me even in a city without manufacturing resources, I don’t have to meet minimums and it makes my product unique. I rely on trade for services like models, styling, photos and must be open to working with students and newbies who are looking to build their resumes. They often prove to be the most talented and creative people to work with anyways and I love the collaboration and sense of community this brings. Of course, I promote the heck out of them as much as I can and be sure to include them in all write ups and media coverage so it is a win-win for everyone. So, I have no huge out of pocket expenses except my own time. I make everything out of T-shirts so that each one is unique and even though they are made with the same pattern, they can be considered one-of-a-kind since they are each made with different T-shirts. This all justifies my price point. But, I know I can’t go higher than what I price it at because experience has proven what prices hand sewn garments made out of T-shirts will sell for. So, there is a ceiling of how much money I can actually make doing this. I am at my max. I have multiple pre-paid orders per week from my website…almost more than I can personally keep up with. But it’s still not enough to be a full time income because of my price points. So, I have to teach fashion (all of this info is what I teach in my fashion classes by the way) classes to supplement my income. Therefore, that leaves me no time to personally go out and do my own sales. There just simply is not enough time in the day to personally contact store buyers. Any sales I do get is from people who have found me online and have come to me.
I hope this provides some insight into the obstacles that small line designers must overcome. Those who have a total passion for the craft would be creating clothing as a hobby even if they couldn’t make a living out of it, so those are the people who will be able to stick it out and eventually succeed over time.
If you want to learn about all of this in way more detail, I suggest picking up three very informative books on this exact subject: 1) The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Products Manufacturing by Kathleen Fasanella 2) Fashion for Profit by Frances J. Harder 3) The Fashion Designer’s Survival Guide by Mary Gelhar. Or feel free to contact me for a one-on-one business consultation.