What To Know Before Starting A Sustainable Fashion Company: A Story with Amy Onyx
Proudly sponsored by Amy Onyx
Most of what we see in fashion is the end product (often shown in beautiful photos on beautiful models), but fashion is an industry with notoriously long (and often complicated) supply chains and an immense (and often unnoticed) amount of work behind it. Add to that fashion’s glamorous and frivolous reputation and it’s often easy to forget that starting a fashion brand – much less a sustainable fashion brand – is immensely challenging, so when Amy Onyx approached me to help promote their brand new vegan, Made in America, woman-owned line, I was intrigued – it takes guts to launch something like this.
Throughout my career I’ve worked with big (and small) fashion companies, started and maintained Bead & Reel, and now frequently consult with sustainable businesses in all stages of their growth, so I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide variety of how things are done, what works, and what doesn’t, and the one constant across company size and company values: no matter what you’re making or how you’re making it, creating and continuing a fashion company is hard, hard work. It requires patience, dedication, and resilience (and probably a small-to-medium amount of delusion), but if that doesn’t deter you, here is what you need to know next.
What needs to exist (or, exist in a better way)? That's a good place to start. But don't get too excited yet, that's not quite enough. It’s important to be educated and realistic about what is already out there and be aware of what is actually needed in the market. This will require some research but it's important: I promise you that we do not need one more basic organic t-shirt option. We do not need one more recycled polyester legging. We do not need more fair trade tote bags. The experts are already doing these, and doing them well.
What impressed me about the Amy Onyx concept is that the styles are very unique for sustainable fashion, which is often dominated by basics, colorful prints, or aesthetics in the minimalist or boho realms. Amy instead chose to focus on something more edgy and alternative, and this fresh perspective has a much better chance of succeeding than something that’s already been done a hundred times.
Make sure you’re very clear on why you want to create this product and company. “To make money” is not a great idea (since, very few sustainable fashion brands will ultimately make money and there are far easier paths if that’s what's important to you), nor is because you “really like fashion” (there are plenty of easier and less stressful ways to enjoy fashion, trust me!). Your motivation needs to be something really strong, and really personal, since there will inevitably be days (perhaps many many of them) where passion for what you are creating will be the only thing that keeps you going through the challenges.
I recommend spending quite a bit of time putting into words your "why" so you can clearly articulate it to yourself and others.
One of the most challenging (probably because it's often not very inspiring) things for us creative types is the more….dry…business side of any company, but it’s also one of the most important.
There are a variety of business models within fashion and you’ll need to plan ahead for what your company structure will look like and how you will ultimately monetize this innovative, passionate idea of yours.
Some things to consider:
Structure: what kind of corporation will you be? LLC? S Corp? C Corp? B Corp? What state will you be incorporated in, and what are the pros and cons to each option?
Strategy: will you be selling directly to your customers (either online or in person through a brick and mortar or pop up shops) or will you be selling wholesale to established stores? Or both? These different routes require very different strategies as well as price points.
Fulfillment: where will you store your products, and who and how will you ship your products?
Budget: how much will you need to do all of this for the first year, second year, and beyond? (because... see below)
It doesn’t matter how much you love your idea or how much passion you have, without a strong funding strategy it will be nearly impossible to progress or succeed (and keep in mind that starting a fashion company will likely cost significantly more than you might realize!).
Funding can come through your own resources, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, or investors. There are pros and cons to all of these options (that could be an entire blog post in and of itself), and no matter what you decide you will likely need to do several rounds of fundraising for your company over time if you plan to scale and grow (and sometimes even just to hold steady).
I’ve been told it takes a traditional fashion business 3-5 years to break even (meaning, you need to be able to sustain yourself for up to 5 years without this venture giving you an income, either through investors/loans, or through side jobs), and for a sustainable fashion business you might plan on 10 years (yikes, I know). Based on my own experiences and observations there is a lot of truth in this, so, plan accordingly, and make sure to have a strong funding plan in place.
I’ve noticed that most people starting sustainable fashion companies haven’t gone to fashion school – which is totally okay! But designing and manufacturing can often have a steep learning curve (even for those of us who did go to fashion school), so whether you lead it yourself or hire someone else, to make a product you will need to consider:
Sourcing: finding all the fabrics, buttons, linings, interfacings, and every single thing that will go into your creation. Finding responsibly-made ones can be even more challenging, so allow plenty of time for this step
Patterns: fit issues are a significant challenge both in design and sales, so unless you are quite skilled in patternmaking you will want to hire someone (really good) for this
Samples: keep in mind that it can often take many rounds of samples to perfect the fit and look of a product, and each sample typically costs about 3 times what the final product will cost, so budget (both time and money) accordingly
Grading: if your product comes in sizes, you will need to create unique patterns for each size you plan to make. Factor in additional budget for patterns as well as fittings
Manufacturing: you'll need to choose somewhere to make your product either domestically or abroad, knowing that unique challenges are involved in each. Finding the right factory can be especially difficult for small and new companies in terms of oversight, minimums, delays, and budget, so allow plenty of time and grace for this process
Once your products are designed and fit and made…I'm sorry to share that you’re still not done!
You will still need to set aside time and money for some key marketing components:
Website: choose your domain(s), your platform, design your site, and implement any apps. Luckily we live in a great time for doing much of this yourself, but you may still want to hire an expert
Photos: you'll potentially want several sets, including lookbook, lifestyle, and ecommerce, depending on your business model
Social Media: secure your accounts and put in place a strategy for what, when, and where you'll post
Marketing Plan: if you build it.... they unfortunately likely won't come. When it comes to fashion, you'll need to bring people to you. Marketing strategies may include internal or hired PR, affiliate marketing, advertising, events, or other forms of outreach
Patience: potentially the most important thing to have when starting a fashion business, since, at one point or anything, everything will go wrong :)
Part of why I am so passionate about supporting independent fashion brands is that I’ve now been through this process both for my own endeavors and helping others through theirs, and so I know how much work goes into all of this, how many sacrifices are made, and the many fears and tears that must be overcome (sometimes daily) along the way.
But, if this is your calling we absolutely need people to lead and grow the sustainable fashion movement so don’t let the challenges deter you. Just make sure you’re realistic about what you’re getting into, and you have good support along the way.