Once your company and brand have been set up, your next challenge is to grasp the industry's Calendar. Staying ahead - or just afloat - in the buoyant fashion world means to whole-heartedly embrace its order of business. Be prepared that this Calendar is ruthless. The only way to survive is to anticipate outcomes as much as possible.
To start, you can forget about Christmas (especially if you're designing menswear as the season starts the first week of January). You can also forget about leisurely holidays with the exception of a long weekend here and there, or a week in August when your factory has closed. Be prepared to relinquish your social life as the hours of 9-5 do not apply to this industry. Weekends will be spent catching up on admin, organising your sales, finalising collections, traveling to factories or tradeshows, etc, so it's best to have little expectation about downtime in the early days.
A season and collection have a limited life span
With a season lasting only six months, you will need to design, sample, produce, price, sell, market and distribute your collection within an extremely short time frame. On the fashion calendar that means designers will be starting a new season one year to 14 months before the collection makes it into stores, starting with collecting images for mood boards, ordering fabric swatches and planning their ranges. If we are talking about next year's Autumn Winter 2016 collection, by September 2015 a menswear collection will have to be designed and handed off to factories, with women's just one month later.
Once you have given a design to a factory, don't be surprised if the first sample you receive is nothing like you expected. Sample makers and factories will rarely get it right the first time, so don't bank on it being saleable for your final collection. As a designer you'll need the time and freedom to re-work your pieces, and this can only be done once you've seen your first prototype. Don't forget, a sample costs between double and three times the cost of a production item, so budget accordingly.
When you start a relationship with a new factory you will have to get used to how they work and their capabilities (they may not have all the machinery to make certain stitches for example) just as they will have to get used to your handwriting and designs. Rome wasn't built in a day, so budget for extra time as realistically as it may take another four weeks to receive your next sample, especially if you are producing abroad.
The complexity of the process can be daunting
Possibly the most difficult aspect of the calendar is having to wait for others to do your job. Factories can't begin to make your collection until they have received the correct fabrics. Fabric mills need between four to eight weeks to produce a fabric as they are dependent on receiving the yarn; the price of a fabric could change making it too expensive, and so on. The complexity of the process means there are many balls you will constantly be juggling. It can be daunting and each season will bring its own trials and challenges. But then, just when you're about to give up, your collection arrives and the arduous process is almost forgotten when you get to see your final work in garment form.
As a young designer, you will have to charm the factories to work with you, as you are unlikely to bring them significant orders in the first season. It takes much less time for a factory to product 300 items of a style, then it does 10, so in order for them to make time for you in the busy calendar – don't forget every other brand on the planet is sampling and producing at the same time you are – so the sooner you start development the better your chances of having a full collection by the time your sales start.
Working with so many suppliers and companies multiplies the chances of things going awry, and mistakes will always happen. Some you can live with, some could spell disaster, so being prepared is necessary for survival. Even if you follow the calendar religiously, you are still at the mercy of others.
For example, in September you design your collection and give the drawings and specs to your factory. The fabric has been ordered from the mill and your seamstress will make a first prototype for you to approve before creating a final sample in the correct fabric. The fabric you ordered is due to be delivered end of October but two days before its due date the mill sends you an email that there has been a problem with the yarn and they can no longer make it. They can send you a swatch for a replacement fabric, but this will take another 6-8 weeks to produce. What do you do? Here's another: you approved the first prototype, the fabric has arrived, but your factory makes a mistake and uses the wrong side of the fabric and wrong colour lining and the garment has to be done from scratch. Meanwhile, it is now early November, many weeks have passed since you first handed off your designs, and you are no longer on course to achieve the deadline which you set in order to shoot the look book for your images and to prepare for the start the sales campaign. Suddenly your Christmas has been taken over.
Always have Plan B
Successful start-ups will need to be able to make decisions and have a constant Plan B in place. The most important thing to remember is that fashion week dates are non negotiable, whatever happens you will have to be ready for the first day of sales.
Below a simple example of a calendar for producing a sample collection for the selling season:
Design collection and range plan – 2 weeks 1st prototype - 4 weeks from hand-off 2nd prototype or final sample – 4 weeks from approval.
Fabric order – 6-8 weeks for fabric to arrive at factory.
Trim order – 4-6 weeks for trims to arrive at factory (buttons and zippers usually have less lead times than fabrics).
Photoshoot look book – 4 weeks to allow for casting, scheduling photographer, stylist, model, hair & makeup and location. It's best to shoot a month before fashion week as all the up and coming models and new faces will be pitched for the catwalk shows and there will be nobody available to shoot.
Sales tools – 1 week. Creating linesheets, pricing the collection, etc.
Before you can price a collection you will have to negotiate the sewing costs with the factory, this can also take some time.
Adding up all the weeks of this calendar, and you are well over six months, meaning that you will have to multitask as much at the same time as possible. In addition you will need a few weeks to plan your sales strategy to either get in touch with buyers and stores if you are selling the collection yourself, or to work with your agent if you appointed a showroom.
Once the selling season starts, you have only one chance to see buyers and stores, so it is vital that you are ready on day one with all your sales tools in place. Handing off the collection on time for sales is one of the most stressful factors in the calendar, as you will be rushing and finishing until the very last minute without fail. Then, when it's done, it's time to think about the next season.
Next up: Setting up the tools for success and survival