London - There isn't a formula or handbook to achieve success in the fashion industry, but a good dose of perseverance and self belief will get you far. Like so many other designers and brands, my business partner and I started our brand out of our tiny apartment, the living room functioning more as a design and production studio, fabric storage and meeting room than anything domestic.
Like many startups and young businesses, you will learn as you go and face the challenges as they come your way, however there are certain tools worth investing in early on. With limited budgets, there will be costs to prioritise and others to forget about. Spending money on an expensive office and being tied to a long lease is one of the things best to avoid. Either invest in a work/live space, as you'll be working on your collection 24/7 anyway, or alternatively find something to suit your needs that won't cost the earth. A swanky office is very far down the list of essentials; Anna Wintour is not likely to visit you in your first year of operations.
Focus on your sales
The most important tool to invest in, once your collection is ready, is your sales tool. Knowing who, when, where and how to sell your collection will determine how far you'll go each season. If you don't have a distribution plan or store contacts, you'll either need to invest either the time to research this yourself, find a partner who has the relevant market knowledge, employ a sales agency to do the sales for you, or participate in trade shows.
Working with an agency can be beneficial in the early stages of building your brand as they will have the relevant market knowledge and buyer contacts to sell your collection on your behalf. Agents take an average of 15-25 percent commission, depending on the type of agreement you have, in addition to contributions to running costs during the selling season. A showroom will usually hold their sales campaign in multiple cities, such as Paris, London and Milan, so be prepared to contribute an average of 10,000 euros per season per collection in order to participate. These are standard fees but don't be scared to negotiate.
Tradeshows will cost a little less, and as organisers are always keen to add up-and-coming brands to their roster, you may find yourself getting a very good quote to participate. Tradeshows, however, only last a few days, so if your entire season of sales has to be achieved during a few days of fashion week, you'll need to do more than just hire the space at a show. Hoping that buyers will fall in love with your first collection and place an order is not realistic and is not likely to make any significant financial impact. You'll need to either secure appointments beforehand, or alternatively consider having an agency or sales partner to support you.
Don't be afraid to try the personal approach
In our first season of womenswear, we received a grant through UK Trade and Investment and participated in shows in New York and Los Angeles. We took zero orders and didn't sell to any customers at either show. Our break came when we packed the collection in a suitcase and took it to Fred Segal, one of the best stores in Los Angeles, that's where we sold our first order. After that we took it to Harrods and Harvey Nichols – for us it was the personal approach that worked.
We didn't have to deliver a hard-sell in our early days, we were lucky to already have had some press coverage. Buyers need to see media interest in a brand, as consumers will buy into designers they read about, that celebrities wear, or that are the one's to watch. Being obscure is fine in a cool way, but being off the radar will not bring you sales, so the next tool to invest in is press.
Working with a press office is a good way for samples to be loaned to magazines and be featured. Often for a small retainer a press office will take on a new brand if they see potential. My first press office charged as little as 300 pounds per month for a new brand, and this was enough to get us into Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and many other publications. You, as the designer, are your own best ambassador, so don't be afraid to contact editors yourself.
Invest in a press office and decent look book
The press tools that you must invest in are shooting a look book, so you have images for the season. This is your chance to convey your story through image, and will be a good way for editors and buyers to understand the collection. Having a decent photographer and stylist are important. They will add depth to your collection and present it in a fresh way. There are plenty of fashion editors who do side jobs as stylists, and often for a little cash and free clothes they will style your look book. Don't work with your sister's mate, just because she happens to like fashion. You need people to communicate your vision, as you will not want to re-shoot if you're unhappy with the images.
Investing in product shots is another good tool for press. These will be useful for publications that don't have time or budget to shoot samples, and all they need is a flat image of an item to be featured.
Keep your house in order
Lastly, once you have finished your first season, you will notice how much paperwork and administrative work you have piled up over six months. Investing in a production software is a key tool to develop your collections over time. These programmes deal naturally with seasons, sizes, fabrics and colours and will organise your production, sampling, and sales. For a small investment this will save you time, money and minimising errors. It will keep all information in one place rather than on multiple spreadsheets. Order confirmations, deliveries, commercial invoices, linesheets and a client and supplier database that can be quickly accessed. These software progammes exist for as little as 100 pounds per month, so see which one is right for you.
Next up: How to grow your business
Image: Richard Nicholl Studio