Why Fashionista Is Wrong About What It Takes To Launch a Fashion Brand

Woman Buttoning Her Shirt

The other day I read an article on Fashionista called “What Does It Really Take to Launch a Fashion Brand?“. I didn’t like it.

Not that the article wasn’t well written or didn’t make some good points, or that everyone isn’t entitled to their own opinion, but it’s that overall I found it to be a rather narrow view of the definition of a “fashion brand”.

The author made the argument that designers need: “Talent, yes. Connections, most definitely. But more than anything: a lot of money.”

My issue with this is the “a lot of money” part. It only addresses a certain kind of fashion brand launch; the traditional kind, where the designer follows a predefined “roadmap” instead of their own creative path.

I’m not arguing that designers don’t need money. Of course you need money to create a product. But what I am arguing that you don’t need “a lot of money” to launch your brand.

Things like fashion show venues, expensive consultants, and the best photographers are not a necessary part of launching a fashion brand. Even things like lower minimums can be negotiated or creatively solved by keeping collections tightly edited.

Below, I’ve gone ahead and pulled the quotes that didn’t sit well with me and discussed why I feel the way I do.

Connections are important…Then there’s luck. But ultimately, it’s a very expensive proposition. It really is a rich man’s game.

No it’s not. It can be, sure. But it doesn’t have to be.

A designer needs $2 million to $3 million to get a ready-to-wear company off the ground. That money goes to hiring a support staff, renting an office, travel expenses, public relations, not to mention the actual production of the collection.

All of this is applicable only if your goal is focused on the “tried and true” approach. It’s the “ready-to-wear” reference — the traditional fashion brand outlook and goals– that I think makes this article so limiting. I have seen so many new brands with a few thousand dollars, a clear vision, and a penchant for asking for help build businesses for themselves that make them happy. No, they’re not yet making millions, but they are supporting themselves, loving how they spend their time on this planet, and enjoying the process of growing something from scratch using their own creativity and a support system of other designers and industry folks.

Let me let you in on a little secret. Many moons ago (like 5 years) I worked with a variety of “bigger” fashion brands like the ones described in the Fashionista article. They had their million dollar investment, they put on a fashion show, and you know what? They were still negotiating 25yds of cotton for a production run!

Not all of them, of course. But that’s my whole point. There is not one way to launch a fashion brand. You can’t make a blanket statement like “you need a lot of money” and imply that without it, you simply can’t have a label.  I mean, you can make that blanket statement, but it’s bullshit.

You need it for some kinds of labels but not all.

Now, this point wasn’t completely ignored in the Fashionista article. It does say…

Sure, there are labels that are founded on less. Many designers do it by taking six-figure consulting jobs on the side and funneling that money back into the business. Others work out of their apartments, trying to keep the label afloat collection by collection…You get enough money just to make the collection possible, and hope it sells. It’s the least capital-intensive way to do it, but it’s not a business strategy.

I disagree. It’s not a traditional business strategy but it’s a strategy. If everyone waited to do things until they had the capital or until they were sure it was going to work, nothing cool would ever happen. You have to try. If bootstrapping and hoping that all of your efforts and ideas and creativity will help to sell the collection is the only way it’s going to happen, then do it!

Then there’s this question…

Why bother, then? Well, most designers don’t. They spend their careers working for other people, and often make a fine living doing it. This topic speaks to a greater issue that is arguably plaguing our society today: Is it too hard to catch a break if you’re not a rich kid?

Sentences like this give people the out they’re looking for. And honestly, if you’re looking for that out, then maybe you shouldn’t be starting your own business anyway. The rich kid reference doesn’t fly with me.

Like the author, I too come from a middle class family that didn’t have the funds to hand over to me to test out my idea. But if I used that as an excuse to get a “real” job and forget about what made me happy, I wouldn’t be living the life I live now- the founder of a successful company, traveling the world while building the business with my virtual team and enjoying every single second of a life that goes by too quickly. I built this business with $2,000, a skill set, a determination to learn what I didn’t know, and a support system of people who saw my vision and were willing to offer their feedback, expertise, and advice.

I was happy to read this bit at the end of the article…

“The goal, for most creatives, is not to build an empire. Designers need to figure out what they want: Do they want to be the next Michael Kors, or do they want to run a small business with a robust roster of private clients?”

…but it only lightly touches on taking a different path, it doesn’t stress what a difference  it makes in the you-need-a-lot-of-money argument.

Overall, my issue with this article is that is communicates a one-track approach to what a fashion brand is. It’s so narrow in its outlook that a designer considering launching a business comes away from it feeling deflated and hopeless because they can’t envision where in the world they will be able to access all this “necessary” money.

I’m not saying that the Fashionista article doesn’t have some truth to it.  It’s just that the truth it speaks applies only to the traditional (Dare I say uninspired. Yes, I dare)  approach to launching a fashion brand.

Like we’ve said before, and will say again, you don’t have to follow all the rules. You decide on your path and create the business you want.

Nicole Giordano

Nicole is the founder of StartUp FASHION, an online resource and community supporting for independent designers around the world with building their businesses. A deep love for the craft of fashion paired with an adamant belief that success is defined by the individual, led her to found StartUp FASHION, where she helps independent designers and makers screw the traditional fashion business rules, create their own paths, and build businesses they truly love. More than anything else, she’s in the business of encouragement and works every day to remind makers and designers that they have something special to offer the world and that they can, in fact, do this thing!

  1. Kristi

    Love this article. It’s totally possibly to launch a fashion brand without a lot of money in the internet age. There are so many venues to promote your product, and test concepts. The traditional fashion ‘seasonal’ collections are on their way out as consumers change the way they buy. We’re a startup fashion brand who has done quite well on our own, self-funding until recently. It’s possible, so if you want to, don’t let articles like that Fashionista one scare you off. Passion though, is important — this is a hard industry — but persistence will pay off!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Thanks for your comment, Kristi! It’s always so great to hear about more brands to challenge the traditional approach. Congrats on your success!

  2. Ivy

    The traditional 21 piece womenswear collection to enter the marketplace is dead. Anyone who still adheres to that way of thinking needs to get with the program in the 21st century. You can enter the marketplace with far fewer pieces but offer multiple colorways or fabrications.

  3. Jason

    I’m from the software world. It really starts with an IDEA. Money is a resource, a really great tool but you also miss out on learning how to do certain things. In my world, they fund people who have a great track record, people who graduate from Stanford, and those with great ideas. If you’re not the first two, then you need to spend some time proving that it’s a great idea. Sometimes it takes a PO of $1m, sometimes it takes a fundamental shift in the market, but it always requires hardwork. Lucky breaks help too!

  4. pip

    I completely agree with this. Currently I am working on a start-up fashion line with a $750,000 investment, that ensured we could design the line, have the samples created and then take it to a larger distribution site that places a PO of $1million. That PO was enough for us to then have a line of credit with the manufacturers and bobs your uncle. The distribution site also assists with marketing and PR of the product so its win-win…

  5. Holly Henderson

    LOVE THIS, so true! “If everyone waited to do things until they had the capital or until they were sure it was going to work, nothing cool would ever happen.”

  6. emily

    If a designer wants to start a brand – most just do it without giving a thought to the risk or potential loss. In this day and age, it comes down to if you are a “brand with fans” and if you’re not – then good luck to you. I think the author giving an angle to where there are many. I have consulted with designers for 15 years and even with all the advice I can give, new designers do what they want as they think they are right and lessons learned after.

    If a new brand wants to be successful they have to:
    – do their homework
    – do more homework
    – keep your dayjob until your business is making enough for you to live on
    – talk to buyers
    – walk tradeshows
    – research your competition
    – don’t think you are better than anyone
    – recognize that your product is meant to be worn and it isn’t a Van Gogh to be hung on a wall
    – do some real analysis on pricing and realize that you should make your product competitive
    – realize you can’t be a luxury brand overnight
    – realize you shouldn’t go overseas if you have no orders
    – understand how to produce domestically and take a smaller margin so when you do go overseas, you are ready with pricing
    – don’t hire a publicist
    – don’t hire a sales rep
    – learn everything from your market from the inside out before you even start
    – make sure you can afford what you are doing or don’t do it
    – have a good website and use social media to the fullest
    – keep your dayjob

    Funding or not – one can do this but it will cost you.

  7. Zeeq

    Love these sentences. ” If everyone waited to do things until they had the capital or until they were sure it was going to work, nothing cool would ever happen. You have to try. If bootstrapping and hoping that all of your efforts and ideas and creativity will help to sell the collection is the only way it’s going to happen, then do it!”

    I’m literally bootstrapping all the way but of cause not all processes are able to bootstrap 100%. Yes there are some designers who are lucky enough to have great networks and tons of cash to ‘burn’ but at times spending so much doesn’t guarantee immediate success. And success couldn’t be achieved overnight. Anyways, great article.

  8. Laura Diaz

    Thank you so much for this article! I’ve always known that it is possible to build a business by thinking outside the box. Truthfully there are many ways to go over, under or around that sucker (the box). I’ve known this in my heart. But it makes a huuuuuuge impression to see it written in an article like this one. It’s external confirmation of what I feel on the inside. I’ve just started recently but I plan to take it all the way. Thanks again!

  9. ONYII Brown

    Thank you so much Nicole for sharing this. It is ever so true that you don’t need a bunch of money but a creative vision and a hungry determination to win. I started my brand with less than $200. After 2 years I generated nearly $30k through online sales. I do it because I love what I do. I love watching women feel beautiful in my cloths. It all started with 1 skirt. Now this spring I have 10 new garments in a collection working a strategy with amazing people. I believe Onyii & Co. will reach $175k this year. It can be done! I am grateful!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Hi Onyii! First, congratulations! That’s an amazing milestone to hit. It’s so inspiring and exciting to hear stories like yours. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  10. Taylor

    I’m producing a line on very little money, manufacturing locally, sourcing domestically, going against everything I’ve always been told! You’ve reiterated everything that I believe. Thank you so much for writing this!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Hi Taylor, that is so awesome to hear. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to get comments like yours. Keeping doing what you’re doing, try new things, work hard for what you love, and enjoy every single second of it!

  11. Kelly

    I agree, money is helpful – but having loads of it is not essential to start your brand. You can start your brand in the most finite way, and still be making a start. Building, growing your customer base and networking organically are essential and no amount of money can cut that out. You can start small, create a little following and use that for bigger opportunities. There are also blogs now, which change a lot about the fashion industry by giving regular people like you and me a voice and a powerful voice at that.

    xoxo – Kelly

  12. Debra

    Thanks Nicole. I read the original article and felt discouraged by it. It does seem that, when you look carefully, so many of the well-known designers have connections in the industry AND tons of money to burn. This is one of the reasons why what you are doing with StartUp Fashion is so important. We independent (not independently wealthy) designers need to unite, stick together and support each other. You help inspire us and make that possible. Thank you!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Thank you so much Debra for the kind words. IT really makes me happy to know that we’re actually helping. 🙂 Hope the business is going well and I get to see you around the community again soon!

  13. Paula

    I totally agree with you Nicole, and specially love the part where you recall how important is to “build businesses for themselves that make them happy”.
    The modern economy with its Internet and social media is helping enormously with the line “and I hope it sells” as Kelly and Jay pointed out.
    More and more fashion companies are now selling directly online and showcasing their creations in social media. Both strategies are inexpensive and quite effective.
    Thank you for this powerful and clear article!

  14. Jay

    True, true, and true! Thanks for crafting such a great response to this article, Nicole. My co-founder and I have been bootstrapping our women’s clothing brand on a few thousand dollars and ecommerce has been our only sales channel. And we hope it stays that way. The online retail world is changing everything!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Thanks Jay! Love hearing things like that. P.S. Checked out your site, love that shirt dress! And the Beauty Box is brilliant.

  15. Taline

    Their article is very discouraging to young designers.

  16. Kelly

    I definitely agree with you as I’ve built my brand on a few thousand bucks. You don’t need a fashion show or expensive PR team when you’re just starting out. You’re usually better off working your way up and building a reputation before you pay for those things anyhow. The internet has certainly leveled the playing field and made it easier for small brands to build a following. It also gives you more freedom because you don’t have to follow the traditional fashion calendar. It’s certainly not easy to bootstrap, but it is possible.

  17. meredith

    I’d be interested to know if you think wholesale buyers are becoming more open to this non traditional brand that isn’t everything for everyone right out of the gate….very well written inspiring post Nicole!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Great question, Meredith. I think boutiques seem to be catching on, though not all of them. It seems like the shift will take time catch on. I’d say that if a designer is depending mainly on wholesale as a revenue stream, it will be a little more difficult but not impossible. Department stores won’t buy into it, but independently owned boutiques will.

      So I think non-traditional labels will need to spend some serious time on their ecommerce. I know this is a tough one for a lot of designers because of brand awareness taking time. But there are things you can do. Actually, I wrote a blog post that will publish in a few weeks about how to make your ecommerce work for your brand… I’ll post it in the community now so you guys don’t have to wait until it’s published on the blog.

  18. KD

    Another reason why I unsubscribed from their site. #narrowminded

  19. Billy Bones

    I completely agree with you. I think the article is referring to the traditional way of starting a fashion line, but there are many innovations within the industry which make it cheaper to start a line. Also, there are concepts now that are readily accepted that weren’t as popular before such as crowd-funding designs before they actually are being made. Great read!

    • Nicole Giordano

      Thanks for your input, Billy! I agree – I know the author was writing about the traditional path. But I think that’s my biggest issue with it. It makes the reader feel like it’s the only path. Which just isn’t true anymore.

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