Have you heard that you need a lot of money to start a clothing brand? That’s the story I was told, and I’m here to tell you this couldn’t be further from the truth!
I started my brand, Purusha, with no money while living in my parent’s house. I was 24 years old, reacquainting myself with my childhood bedroom, and unsure of what to do with my life. I had no money and no prospects. Little did I know, these were the perfect circumstances to start your own business! You get scrappy, you’ve got no choice but to begin a lean startup. There are no resources and no dollars to fund PR, buy inventory, or hire a web designer. This is where you learn how to get stuff done yourself. And these days you have so many tools to create a business from where you are with what you have.
Before you is my 10 step lean startup guide to creating a clothing brand:
1. Make the clothes yourself.
Get right into it, don’t be shy. When I first got into clothing design in 2009, I bought a few wholesale blanks and dyed and screen printed them myself. I’m not great at sewing, so I decided it was best to try to embellish already made clothing. There is such an abundance of ‘blanks’ brands to purchase tops from: like Bella, American Apparel, and Alternative Apparel. You will need a resale license, or a tax ID to purchase, so get that set up ASAP.
If you’re good at sewing that’s a huge bonus! You can actually design your clothing from scratch, or at least from existing clothing patterns with fabrics of your choice. The only drawback with this is you might have to charge a bit more for your clothing as sewing is much more time consuming than screen printing or dyeing blanks. I'll talk more about sewing later...
If you’d like to try to dye and/or screen print your own blanks there are loads of awesome tutorials online. Just google 'how to screen print at home'. I taught myself to screen print from this one: How to Silkscreen Posters And Shirts. It's an oldie, but a goodie tutorial. The brilliant thing about screen printing is you can do it with very little space and you can get as creative as you want with prints! Screen printing is an art in itself and I find it very beautiful and fun to play around with. It’s a nice mix between art and mass production, as you can put the time into a great print, and then once it’s done you can reprint it easily and quickly.
I learned to dye from instructions at dharmatrading.com. This is also a great place to buy dyes. They have everything you need, whether it’s natural dyes or synthetic dyes, fabric paints, tie-dye kits; I think they even sell blanks now. I started my brand using only natural dyes, which is really trending now, I was a bit early. The drawback with natural dyes is they fade overtime with washes and require some chemicals and a lot of water. The bonus is they are produced without petroleum and are from plants, which is a great selling point to a conscious consumer. I now use procion dyes, which are synthetic. I prefer them because they don’t fade (so less likely for the consumer to discard them if they do fade), are super easy to use, require little water, and are environmentally friendly in that they don’t need land to grow them, land that could be used for food.
It will all be very experimental at the beginning if you don’t have experience with garment construction. Don’t be afraid to make things that come out ugly! Your first items you’ll have no idea what you’re doing, and it’s best to not take it too seriously. You’ll make something you find beautiful after tweaking and playing around with the process.
2. Share your clothes with the world!
Once you’ve made some clothing you’re happy with, it’s time to present it to people! I had my mom take photos of me in the clothes in our backyard with a PowerShot. You could definitely use an iPhone these days. I’m not a model by any means, but the photos came out decent and showcased the clothing well. Naturally dyed yoga clothing in my parents garden, it made sense. Now if you’re designing streetwear with graffiti prints I would suggest shooting in a city. Think about who would like the clothes, and build the photo shoot on that kind of person. If you’re just starting don’t bother hiring models or a photographer. It’s too expensive for a startup. If you don’t want to model ask some friends. Once you have some photos you’re happy with it’s time to sell your creations!
Some of my first designs and photos, 2009.
3. Set up an online shop.
Start an Etsy shop and build a website on Shopify. (This is my Etsy shop, and my Shopify site.) Things have changed tremendously since 2009 in terms of e-commerce, and it’s easier than ever to build your own website. When I first started you had to hire someone to code and build your website, or you had to learn code yourself. These are the golden days of e-commerce, where you can buy a professional looking template on Shopify for like $60, or even for free.
Etsy is a perfect avenue to get started with a new brand. Etsy gets around 200 million visits a month, so you’ve got traffic built in already. Sign up and start listing your items. Research what keywords and tags to use so people can find your stuff. Look at other sellers who are selling similar items and compare your prices. Don’t price too far from those items, unless your items are significantly different. Read the handmade seller's handbook. I’d personally recommend joining an Etsy seller group on Facebook to get tips and insight. The group I like is The Handmade Mastermind.
I think it’s wise to get your URL up and running as soon as you can. As awesome as Etsy is, it has some drawbacks. It’s unlikely, but Etsy can shut down your shop (and your entire business if that’s your primary income source). I’ve heard some rare horror stories about people losing their businesses in Etsy. Plus, Etsy owns your customers when you sell through them, you can’t retarget buyers with emails or reach out for promotions. Shopify is the best place to set up shop. You can buy your domain, use a free template that still looks professional if you’re not ready to pay for one, and use a tremendous amount of apps to beef up your site. If you’re serious about giving a clothing line your all a domain is a must!
4. Keep your other job.
Don’t quit your day job until your clothing line is sustainable. I waitressed for two years until my business made any real money. Yes, everyone, great news, I moved out of my parents' house! But that meant juggling my clothing line with another job. I couldn’t just make clothes yet, I needed something else dependable to pay my bills. If you can only work on your clothes on the weekends and at night, well, that’s that. Do the best you can. Give yourself time to build the brand, spread the word, gather a following. It won’t grow overnight, and setting up those expectations will leave you frustrated and disappointed.
5. Study SEO and Marketing
I used to think SEO was a scam, or like it was unnecessary; but just like on Etsy, you want people to find what you make when they’re searching for it. For example, let’s say you make LGBTQ T-shirts. Make sure in your products to put the keyword phrases you expect people to be searching in them. Teach yourself basic SEO skills with this: Write quality blogs about topics you know that relate to your brand. Be sure those keywords are in there!
Marketing your brand is pretty important. Whatever brings the right people to your stuff is crucial. I recommend reading Guerilla PR 2.0 by Michael Levine. If you’re still in the trenches of building a company, you most likely can’t invest in PR. PR is public relations, or publicity for your clothing line, like features in magazines and blogs. Most PR firms require monthly contracts at thousands of dollars a month. There’s a lot you can do on your own. Reaching out to blogs and websites that relate to your products is a great start. Offer to send free products in exchange for reviews and write-ups. Because you’re looking for free PR stay away from huge bloggers and websites, they probably won’t even talk to you.
Probably the easiest and cheapest way to get the word out on your brand is to build a following on social media. Instagram is king for clothing brands and visual products. Create a beautiful and cohesive feed of photos for your product, follow people that might like what you make, and engage with people. Comment on and like their photos. Find mini influencers- people that look like they’d wear your clothes and have 2,000-10,000 followers. Contact them and see if they’d share a photo of themselves in your clothing in exchange for free product. If you reach out to influencers with a big following, 25k plus, you might need to pay them to wear your stuff. Every influencer is different though, so if you feel like you’d really click with someone bigger, there’s no harm in sending a DM or an email. Instagram is a great tool to keep your product in front of people, but keep in mind a lot of people on Instagram are there to just browse and snoop around. I’ve found it’s a good avenue for connecting, but it doesn’t always translate into sales. This is where your marketing and SEO are super important when people are searching for your product they are looking to buy.
6. Find people that can do what you can’t.
Not being able to sew felt like a huge flaw in having a clothing brand, at least for me. Know what you’re good at and find people to do what you’re not good at. Since I wanted to sew my own pieces from scratch, I had to find a seamstress. I advertised on Craigslist, and it worked out really well. I got lucky! The first seamstress I interviewed I hired and she’s still with me 6 years later. Really dig deep and try to figure out what areas you’re weak in. Maybe it’s sales, maybe it’s branding. Whatever it is, try to find a freelancer to help you out.
If you’re unsure about the areas you need help, take a personality test, like the Myers Briggs test. I found I’m INFJ. I’m pretty introverted, so down the road I’ll want more help with sales and in-person events. Knowing who you are is powerful, and useful in finding others to complete you and your brand.
7. Don’t take on debt or buy a lot of inventory.
I still offer made to order clothing. This means we don’t have to pay for clothing stock before we know if anyone will want it, and we don’t have to pay for a warehouse to stock it all. This is where a lot of clothing boutiques tank, trying to expand faster than the market will allow. Look at American Apparel and Yoga Smoga. It’s best to keep people waiting and have less inventory, this creates a mentality that your company and your products are special too! Waitlists are a good thing, and at the very least, they’re better than being underwater in debt.
I would’ve gone out of business many many times if I stocked inventory. It’s a lot of money upfront to stock even ten styles in sizes XS-L. I have stocked my three most popular styles in the past, but this was only when I couldn’t keep a style on the shelves. Know where your company is at the moment, don’t pretend you’re bigger than you are. It’s tempting to try to play big before you’re ready, but you’ll only lose if you try to get ahead of the market. Be honest with your sales, and with your projected sales. Yea, it’d be nice to double your sales in the next 6 months, but without proof (sales growing every month), it’s all just speculation. This is one part of your business where you want to play it really safe.
8. Know your customer.
Build a few profiles for your customers. Where does she live? What does she eat? What movies does she like? What trends does she follow or does she hate trends? Create a story around your brand, a myth. A clothing boutique is often about fantasy, which can be really fun and you can get super creative! What fantasy are you selling? Read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, and The Brand Called You by Peter Montoya. Get to know your brand better, and keep reevaluating what it is. It might evolve into something completely different than you planned, and that’s ok. Just don’t lose sight of what your brand is or try to abruptly change it overnight into something completely different. This will confuse your customers and send them away, searching for another brand that knows who they are. People recognize authenticity and want the security of coming to a brand and knowing what they’re getting.
Don’t force your idea of your ideal customer on your customer! I’ve made this mistake with my brand in small ways. I’ve dabbled in plainer styles, trying to please more people and “open the market” to new customers. You can’t be everything to everyone! It’s actually better to be loved and hated than to be neutral in clothing. Some people will think what you make is awful. Some people will think it’s genius! I believe you have to pick a look and a story that is resonating with your customers and stick closely to it. A clothing boutique should express your myth, your brand story. A boring story that tries to appeal to everyone will be just that, boring.
9. Live a balanced inspired life.
This might sound a little obvious, but I think it needs to be said that as a clothing designer you need to be continuously inspired. You can’t force an idea or a design concept into existence through sheer will power, often you have to wait for the ideas to come to you. And they’re more likely to come to you when you’re living a full happy life. Seek out culture through travel, even if it’s just to a town nearby. Go to museums, see live music, try new foods. Read actual books, not just internet articles, develop hobbies that have nothing to do with your clothing brand. Somehow these other outlets will bring about the strangest and best inspiration for clothing, trust me!
Exercise is super important to keep your mind open to inspiration. Do some yoga! If you don't know how - check out my advice here. If your body is healthy you’ll dream up clothing designs with more clarity and originality. Some of my best ideas came to me while hiking up a mountain with my dogs. As an artist/entrepreneur (to me, these are the key roles of being a clothing brand) you have to take care of yourself if you want to create good work.
So don’t ever feel guilty about taking a day off, or overwork yourself in the belief that you’ll produce better work. Inspiration doesn’t work like that. I’m not saying there isn’t tremendous value in working hard, you just need to find a good balance.
10. Blame out!
I heard this phrase from marketing expert Dorie Clark. When you’re getting rejected from retailers or not getting the sales you want, do not blame in. Don’t doubt yourself if you have the vision and the drive. If you start to not believe in your work everything will fall apart. Just look at the people that don’t want what you make to be either crazy or have bad taste. Keep going, remember how far you’ve come, stay inspired. Don’t lose the why, why you started your brand in the first place. Every business has ups and downs, you just need to ride those waves and keep creating what you think is beautiful.
By Hayley Elliott, Owner at www.purushapeople.com