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Tips on Starting a Fashion Design Business

Becoming a Fashion Designer. Tips on Starting a Fashion Design Business.

We get hundreds of visits from Fashion designers at Vogue Fabrics Warehouse. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a few dozen of them personally and I have come to learn a few things about what they do well and what mistakes they make. I have especially learned that fashion design and having an apparel line is not an easy business. But once you learn the tricks it can bring a lot of satisfaction, purpose, esteem, fame, and hopefully- profit.
Recently, we were visited by a young designer who was just starting her business.  After working with her for many hours we were able to fill her inventory needs. At the end of her visit, we both agreed she had made the right choice in visiting us instead of making dozens of appointments with vendors in other cities' garment districts. Our access to several dozen fabric types, constructions, and styles, some with continuity and some novelty, ended up being our strongest advantage as a source for fabrics. 
Undoubtedly, she could have saved a little money per yard buying directly from these textile houses, but would most likely have spent more in overall costs.  Taking into consideration that many mills have large order minimums in yardage or dollar amount, require reseller certificates or business licenses, and only carry select collections that are specific to that vendor, she would have had to visit and order from 8 different vendors to replicate what she ordered from us in one afternoon.
But, before you jump on a plane to visit us or drive to NY City fashion district to start your new business as a fashion designer or clothing manufacturer you should have a basic understanding of the industry you’re going to be working in.

First and foremost, if you are thinking about starting your own fashion line, opening a boutique, launching an e-commerce site, or becoming an apparel wholesaler you must be into fashion and have a passion for not only designing apparel but being a businessperson. You can’t be successful without a mix of both passions, they will compliment each other.

In addition, all successful fashion lines have a few of these things in common: competitive prices, a great selection of clothes and accessories, attractive marketing, or a niche. They must also have a catchy name, brand, or tag line.
Top Questions to ask Yourself before you Begin
As you begin your new business you should be able to answer a few initial questions:
What type of clothing line you want to create? 
Who is your target client base?
Where are you going to sell your line?
How are you going to promote your line?
How are you going to create product?
Where are you going to get your fabric and accessories?
How will you distribute your inventory?
Where are you going to keep your inventory; either fabric or finished garments?
Is your focus for selling your fashion line going to be wholesale or retail?
Will you have your own workspace or will you hire a workroom?
How much money do you have to start your business? How will you start funding this business? Where is the money coming from?
What type of business will you have? Sole Proprietor? Partnership? LLC?
Do you know how to create a legal business and apply for all the correct business licenses and permits?
Do you know how to trademark and copy write your creations, logos, and brands?
Where will you locate your business? How is the competition in your area or apparel focus? Should you re-locate to a less competitive market?
If you can foresee and address some of the issues that new apparel businesses encounter, you can better manage your fledgling business and that will increase your chances of success. Since you’re a start up, your resources will be limited. Your mistakes can be your downfall.
Begin with a solid Education
Getting an education in any career you choose is always a plus but is not absolutely necessary. It will give you the skill set, knowledge, and a leg up on your competition. Ultimately, if you can prevent or avoid some mistakes, you’ll save time, money, stress, and resources. Here are some resources for fashion design schools:

Create your portfolio - Define your style!
Once you're ready to start your business, you’ll need to create a portfolio and get approvals and comments on your work from your network of family, friends, customers, as well as experts. Simply put -- start designing.  Have real people wear your clothes. Get their feedback on the fit, design elements, what worked for them and what didn't when they went out into the real world. It's one thing to look good on a catwalk at school, but it is entirely different when you need to sit, stand, be out in the elements, wear the garment to business meetings or shopping at the mall.

The next step would be to decide if you want your clothing design mass produced or to start with a few pieces. This goes back to what type of line you’ll be creating: one of a kind pieces; limited in quantity runs; or a line that is mass produced in the hundreds or thousands of pieces.

Vogue Fabrics truly shows its strength as a supplier of fabrics, notions, trims, elastics, corset supplies, dressmaking supplies, and tailoring supplies.
This is where your supply chain becomes crucial to the success of your business and is the focus of this article. You are only as good as your supply chain and your supply chain is only as good as your ability to manage it. Your source for fabric will be dependant on your needs. You will be able to buy fabric from various sources. The types of fabric suppliers are mills, distributors, jobbers, and fabric stores. Very little fabric is actually sold by a retail venue. The one exception would be quilting fabrics. Most fabric is produced for use in clothing and home decorating by manufacturers. There are advantages and disadvantages in dealing with each type of supplier.

Operate within your means! 
The last bit of advice and probably the most important that I can pass on to you as you start your apparel company is to not get over extended. Only buy enough fabric and supplies for your current circumstances, business model, and demand. I have seen it more than once that a up and coming business buys too much inventory, and the line doesn’t sell as well as expected. As a result there is no money to continue onto the next line, because all the money is in their unwanted inventory. Excess inventory can be the anchor preventing you from moving forward and succeeding. In some horrible events, I’ve had to buy designers' inventories at closeout prices, and they take a huge hit to their profitability. Under no circumstances should you buy larger quantities of yardage if you don’t have orders.  Also, make sure to keep a reserve of money as well to get you through the lean months. Make sure to budget money to fund a campaign to promote your line.

Different sources for fabrics:
Textile Mill: A textile mill is a manufacturing plant where textiles are created, dyed, or finished. Textile mills can be found in operation all over the world, although only 5% of the textiles are created within the United States. At a textile mill, raw materials for textiles are turned into thread which than are woven or knitted to make textiles. Many mills specialize in a particular type of raw material such as silk, wool, polyester, cotton, rayon, nylon, acrylic, or blends of these fibers. They are either woven or knitted into a particular construction. The mill will also include facilities for cleaning, processing, finishing the raw material. These fabrics will also be processed by being dyed, printed, or embroidered. These finished fabrics are than sold to the public, clothing manufacturers, converters, or fabric stores.
PRO’s: Mill direct pricing. Custom colors. Own the artwork. Fabric availability.
CON’s: Pay up front. Large minimums. Customs. Duties. Freight Forwarders. Little recourse for damages. Foreign countries. Language barriers. Connections. Lack of direct control or contact. Trademark/copyright infringement issues. Limited Selection of material.
Fabric Distributor/Converter: These are wholesale fabric converters or distribution companies. This basically means the company buys fabric collections from several different mills based on type, construction, fiber, patterns and colors. They may have artists on staff that create a print or pattern stories to be printed by a mill. The fabric is then sent to their warehouse which is then sold to fabric stores, businesses, or clothing manufacturers thru sales representatives, fabric trade shows, or visiting their show rooms.
PRO’s: No importing hassles. US based representation. Smaller minimums than mill. Quick delivery times.
CON’s: Limited collection selection. Back orders. No fabric in stock. Higher prices than mills. No fabric or pattern exclusivity.
Fabric Jobber: A jobber is a fabric reseller who buys over-runs, odd lots, closeouts, workroom leftovers, and discontinued collections from converters. There are also jobbers who only deal in seconds and damaged fabrics. There is a market for every type of textile. So you’ll need to ask what condition the fabric is in when you buy it. When working with a jobber, always ask if the fabric is firsts or seconds (firsts being the best  and cleanest, while seconds have damaged areas that you need to work around). Fabric jobbers sell goods to individuals, independent designers, small manufacturers and fabric stores. Jobbers generally have very small minimums. There is usually nothing wrong with doing business with a jobber. They buy their fabrics from legitimate sources and can save you a lot of money in acquiring your fabrics.
Jobbers get their fabric from several sources. Knowing where they get their fabrics will elevate some apprehension in doing business with them. A jobber will buy and sell fabrics bought from “odd lots”. These can be fabrics that a show room, manufacturer, or cut-and-sew operation has in stock but no longer needs. Reasons for this excess can include out of season goods, canceled orders, sample yardage from the mill, or they over calculated their yardage needs. These are generally one of a kind rolls that are left over’s due to these various reasons, or they can be yardage ranging from 3 yards to hundreds even thousands of yards. There is nothing wrong with this fabric. It simply was not needed. When apparel manufacturers finish cutting and sewing, they invariably end up with extra fabric. It is impossible for them to accurately estimate their yardage needs. Manufacturers sell this surplus fabric to fabric jobbers. A jobber may also buy and sell mill ends, also called over-runs. These kinds of fabrics come from textile mills or clothing manufacturers. Over-runs are the leftover goods that a fabric mill produces for which they don’t have any orders or the buyer ended up canceling their order before delivery of the goods. In other words, mill ends are excess fabric inventory over and above that for which they had orders. Jobbers sometimes will pick up their lots when a distributor cleans out their sample department. These pieces are generally 5 to 60 yard cuts of their previous seasons fabric collections.
The price advantage you’ll get when working with a jobber can be substantial. When the jobbers sells their fabric, they put their markup on the below-wholesale close out price paid from their source. Even with this markup, the price should be below the original wholesale fabric price set from the distrubutor or mill. It is here where the increased profit can benefit you as a start up designers. If you price your garments on what the original cost of the fabric would be, you’ve got a built in profit margin. Or you could take this savings and reduce your garments' retail prices to be more economically and competitively priced.
PRO’s: Lower prices than mills and converters. Quick delivery. No importing hassles. US based. Smaller operations. One on one service. No minimum orders.
CON’s: Limited inventory. May sell Seconds. Limited selection depending on jobber size. No inventory consistency.

We are a jobber in addition to being a distributor for many mills and convertors.
As a result we are able to offer competitive prices and low minimums for our customers. We also have a greater range of products to offer. 
Of course, if you are going to work with a jobber or distributor, I would recommend Vogue Fabrics Warehouse/ www.WholesaleFabricsStore.com as your source. Not only are we one of the only Chicago based jobbing operations, but we work directly with hundreds of different jobbers, distributors, mills, and convertors to supply our stores, websites, catalogs, and wholesale warehouse with top quality fabrics. We are able to supply yardages in a retail and wholesale quantity, and have all of the supplies, interfacing, linings, trims, sewing notions, and elastics you’ll need to complete your line. As a result, we are like a supercharged jobber. You may pay a little bit more for continuity on some fabrics, but you’ll be able to get all of your textile needs at one place. We have a library of hundreds of available fabrics from most of the converters in the country.
Remember, not all suppliers are created equal.
I will not go completely into other aspects of becoming a fashion designer. There are many other resources and articles that have more knowledge and understanding of other facets of this business. Some of the websites, books, and articles I have found helpful and informational are;
Putting it all together.
You've got the venue, pattern, and fabric. Now you need to create product. There are many online sources that list or promote different cut and sew operations located in and around the Chicago area. We have work with and recommend:

Y S Apparel, 3701 N Ravenswood Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60613-3553
Gil Sewing Corp.,3500 N. Kostner Ave., Chicago, IL 60641
To find other's I recommend looking at the following website.
Finally, I highly recommend the HBO documentary about the textile industry called Schmatta .
I hope this essay has been somewhat informative. My ultimate goal is to increase your knowledge base. By making you a smarter buyer, you’ll be more successful. By being more successful the home sewing, apparel manufacturing, and textile industry will continue to survive and thrive. I will continue to revise and update this essay as my education and knowledge increases, stay tune for updates and revisions. If you wish to continue the dialogue I encourage you to contact me on our facebook page. Good luck.

Copyright 2011 Sean Sussman
Owner/Buyer for Vogue Fabrics, Inc