I am not sure if working in the fashion supply industry since 2008 makes me an old battle-axe, but it certainly gives me a little room to speak my mind. I want to give you a few insights as to what it really takes to become a successful fashion designer.I have had a bird’s-eye view in this industry through working my business at Roxwell Waterhouse, and I have had lots of opportunities to mingle with many hundreds of successful and would-be fashion designers.
The first thing I need to explain is that you absolutely, positively must develop a super-tight business and marketing strategy in order to survive in this brutal commercial environment. The sophistication that is needed isn’t just for the fashion industry-this is true for any creative industry. In fact, it is crucial for success in any industry. The real mistakes I see people make is remaining stubbornly in the creative mode, and thus failing to develop their practical business side for dealing with the brutal realities of this industry.
For starters, you have to get your clothing or accessory fabrication, cloth labeling, and supply issues all sorted out. If I were a small start-up in these times, I would keep my ambitions in check, and only produce small quantities in the beginning. Indeed, most of my clients are cottage industry sorts, creating maybe 500 pieces at a time, often divided up into many designs. However, if you’ve been a fashion designer for a while, then by now you surely understand how to interview and critically evaluate domestic and overseas suppliers. My advice with respect to this is to shop around and see what the prices look like at the domestic supply houses in your home country.
If working locally bursts apart your bottom line, then you’re going to have to look at overseas manufacturing in a low-cost country. My recommendation is to interview at least 50 places. I have had tremendous luck at alibaba. However, your mileage may vary. Just talk to a lot of them and pay close attention to how they respond to you. You’ve got to keep your overhead costs in check, or you will very quickly become insolvent and will be forced to close operations. A non-domestic supplier can make or break an enterprise.
The second part of this equation is your marketing and sales strategy. I know this will land me in a lot of hot water, but you want to be careful about the trade shows for which you shell out your hard-earned money. I am not dissing all trade shows, and I am not saying this is an absolute. I am just saying that I have done the exhausting, freaking expensive, big-city trade shows circuits. A lot of the vendors come out in the red, and this includes me in that crowd as well. Depending on how far you have to travel, you could be out anywhere from three thousand dollars on up. You can leverage that money more effectively in many cases.
I want you to think long and hard about your digital and client outreach strategy. Do you want to supply department stores and Mom-and-Pop boutiques, or do you want to sell straight to the client? You’ve got to get very clear with this, because in this economic climate, you cannot waste a penny on marketing and sales strategies that are not working for you.
For instance, if you are just going to be a supplier for other sellers, then you can put together a fairly basic website, and have a PDF catalog that you can make very inexpensively to send to purchasing managers or the business owners themselves. However, if you are selling straight to the client, you need to develop a full-blown e-commerce site with a shopping cart and an efficient merchant payment system. The B2B site requires only the basics, while the B2C involves developing user experience and security mechanisms if purchases are made on your website from debit or credit cards.
I recommend that you get together an extensive list of potential business clients, starting with the small outfits if you’re not in expert mode already, and just cold calling and emailing until they tell you to get lost or express interest with buying. I find that the good folks over at salesscripter have a lot of free and extremely informative videos that show you in fine detail how to do cold calling and emailing. Developing practical cold-calling skills is absolutely, positively going to be your cheapest way to get orders. Unless you have a unique product that has been featured extensively in the media, it is doubtful that potential buyers are going to come to you without heavy marketing or outreach. You will have to go to them, get your foot in the door, and educate them as to why they need to buy from you. You will need to be persistent as hell with this process.
Furthermore, before you start squandering thousands of dollars on paid digital advertising, whether it be through the common search engines and social networks, paid newsletters, or digital banner advertising, I suggest that you get your website optimized for search engine optimization, otherwise known as SEO, in order to capture as much free traffic as possible. I know that this is a lot to take in, but there are a lot of good educational videos and sites out there that can tell you how to do this. Try to do this yourself and learn as much as you can before you sign a contract and pay big money to a digital marketing firm. You will find that you can do a lot the actual SEO tasks yourself, thus saving a lot of money. That way, if you still need to contract out to one of these outfits, you will know what the heck they are talking about and you won’t get taken advantage of. Just like mechanics and hairdressers, there are good ones, and there are bad ones. You want to be savvy with executing your digital marketing campaign.
Concerning your website, you want to make sure that it adheres to the rules of optimum user experience. For instance, the above-the-fold content includes the top part of the landing page of your website that shows immediately on-screen when loading. This part needs to have value statements and calls-to-action. Many of my clients copy one another’s landing page styles and put in a bunch of lovely photos on a white background with very little explanation as to what their product is. This is true for any type of merchandise, and not just for fashion or sewn products. You don’t make your potential clients work to try to find information and to spend money. You give them easy ways to navigate and to buy with an easy-to-use shopping cart right there. You also want to make sure that they can contact you easily, so you need to put your contact information in conspicuous places.
Be sure to have some way to capture emails, as you want to touch base with that list of emails at least once a month if possible. If you start spamming them every couple of days, then you risk alienating them and having them press the spam button, which spells doom for your email campaign. The more clients mark you as spam, the less likely you are going to get in their inbox, much less in their junk mailbox.
I know that I’m just touching upon the highlights of everything here, and I know I’ve left that a lot of detail. However, in this economic environment that we are in, you have to learn to be Lean and Mean. If you can combine your creativity with some solid business acumen, you’re going to be ahead of at least 95% of the competition. It breaks my heart when hard-working and creative people with great products fail, so don’t fall flat because of preventable mistakes. Good luck!