Is it a good idea to start a clothing line (and is it profitable)?

4 Reasons Starting a Clothing Brand Isn’t a Good Idea (and what’s actually profitable in fashion)

Most people think that starting a clothing brand is a really good idea. Curated Instagram feeds make it seem like having a clothing line is glamorous and profitable and all the awesome things. Big name celebrities poop clothing lines out on the regular. It looks cool AF.

With all that hype, it’s no wonder you think starting a brand is a good idea worth pursuing.

But I’ll tell you that what you see on IG and in the media is a far cry from reality.

Starting a clothing brand isn’t worth it.

I don’t want to be a dream crusher. In fact, I had a clothing line of my own that “on paper” was wildly successful but “on the books” was a huge failure (not to mention I wound up hating the realities of having my own brand). I learned valuable lessons, I just wish someone had warned me about the realities beforehand.

Which is why I’m here to tell you what it’s really like having a clothing line, and why you may want to consider something much more fun and actually profitable in fashion. We’ll get to that in a sec, but first…

4 reasons starting a clothing line isn’t a good idea.

Is it a good idea (or worth it?) to start a clothing brand?

1. A clothing line takes an a$$ load of time to create, build and sell

Most people naively think you can just come up with an idea, get it to market, and your designs will sell themselves. When it comes to your clothing brand, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are all the things you need to consider:

  1. What is your actual idea, and is there a need for it in the market?

    Just because you think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean people are willing to pay money for it. People are stingy AF when it comes to swiping their CC. Which is why you should do in depth market research to figure out your target customer and see if there’s really a need and they’re really willing to pay. For a solid foundation, allot 3-4 months on research alone.

  2. Where will you source materials (fabric, trims, labels, hang tags, packaging, etc)?

    It’s laborious and expensive to find suppliers with the right fabric at the right price in the right quantities. (Many wholesales have really high minimums, upwards of 1000 yards. And that’s just your fabric!) To find the right materials, allot 3-4 months for sourcing.

  3. What sizes will you offer and what will the fit be?

    A professional patternmaker who can ensure your product fits well (so your customers don’t return it) needs time to develop patterns, fit, revise, fit again, make adjustments if the fabric changes (it probably will) and so on. To ensure a great fit, allot 3-4 months for pattern development.

  4. What factory will cut and sew and trim and pack your designs?

    You can find one stop shops that do all of this ($$$$$) or you can piecemeal it. Either way, you have to find suppliers that match your budget, ethos, and are willing to work with you (many are super picky). To find the right partner, allot 3-4 months for factory hunting (and extra time if they ghost you…which is super common).

  5. Who will model and photograph your designs?

    Marketing is everything, and photos can make or break your product. Allot 1 month to plan and coordinate your shoot.

  6. How will you promote and sell your designs?

    Sure, you can do a kickstarter to gain some momentum…but heads up that it costs thousands and takes months of planning to coordinate a successful one. Even then, you might not see the returns you expected. Beyond that, you can’t just put up a Shopify website and hope things fly off the shelf. They won’t. There are 3.76 million live websites using Shopify (Backlinko). You will get lost in the noise. The same is true for Instagram or Etsy. It’s hard AF to get any attention or gain momentum. To actually start selling, allot 12-24 months to gain any sort of sales traction. Sales will actually turn into your full-time job. Guaranteed.

It’s going to take at least 12-18 months to manufacture and get your clothing line to market. 

Most brands take longer. I know because I’ve interviewed tons of startup clothing brands on my podcast.

Beyond this, you’re looking at a solid 1-2 years to get any sort of traction with sales.

You will likely be 3+ years in…and not only will you have no profit and no money to pay yourself, you will be majorly in the red. Meaning you’ve spent way more money than you’ve made. Like waaaay more.

Which leads us to the second reason starting a clothing line is not a great idea…

2. It takes a sh!t ton of money to start a clothing brand.

No matter how you fund it…starting a clothing line is a super super super expensive endeavor.

If you’ve done any amount of research, you’ve probably come across tons of blog posts and YouTube videos telling you how to do it for free or $5. I’ve even interviewed someone who touts this strategy on my podcast. But this is hardly a clothing brand – you’ve created some graphics and screen printed them on t-shirts. You’re a graphic designer. (And this market is flooded even MORE than the actual clothing brand market. It’s still hard AF to sell enough to make your time worth it.)

So what does it take to start an actual clothing brand? 

One where you’ve designed some products and have them customized and made from scratch? The numbers are dismal…

There are parts of this process you can do yourself depending on your skills, and some costs (like materials and sewing) will vary tremendously based on your design, but let’s look at some high level general costs to starting a clothing line:

  1. Customer research: $2,000-$10,000
  2. *Design: $1,000
  3. *Patternmaking: $1,000-$3,000
  4. *Technical design: $1,000+
  5. Sourcing: $1,000-$3,000
  6. *Materials: $10-$100+ 
  7. *Sampling: $10-$100+ 
  8. *Cut / sew / trim / pack: $10-$100+ 
  9. Photoshoot: $2,000-$5,000
  10. Website: $250 to $5,000
  11. Ads: $1,000 to infinity and beyondddddd!

*Indicates price per piece. The more you manufacture, the better price breaks you’ll get. A t-shirt may cost $10 to cut and sew if you’re making 100, but you’ll spend $25 each if you’re making 10 (if you can even find a factory to do those minimums). 

The list goes on, and there are a million tiny expenses along the way. You don’t know this because none of the experts out there talk about the harsh truth and what it really takes to start a clothing brand. 

Without making you do any math, your clothing line investment costs will be at least $20,000 – $40,000 just to get your first product or two to market. That’s before you’ve even started to try and sell anything. From there, you only have so long to push and promote the same product before your small audience wants something fresh and new. 

It’s hard AF to recoup enough of that initial investment to have money leftover to start investing in new products. 

Most fashion brands don’t start to turn a profit until 3-5 years in. 

And most fashion brands don’t ever make it that far. (It just becomes too painful to keep burning cash.) From my 15+ years in the industry and the 100s of clothing brand founders I’ve interviewed and I personally know, I’d estimate less than 5% make it to year 3 and less than 1% actually turn a profit.

3. Starting a clothing line isn’t glamorous at all. (In fact, it’s a bloody painful hot mess.)

You’ll spend less than 10% of your time designing and doing fun things like photoshoots and runway shows and 90% of your time doing painful business sh!t like:

  • Emailing
  • Putting out fires like who’s responsible for the 100 units that don’t fit – the factory or the patternmaker?
  • Emailing more
  • Trying to promote and sell
  • Coordinating all the moving pieces and parts like fabric and trims and cutters and sewers and patternmakers and shippers.
  • Emailing some more
  • Trying harder to promote and sell
  • Crying into your pillow at night when the “perfect” factory you found after 3 months of searching ghosted you. Again.
  • Sending a few more emails.
  • Trying hard AF to sell something. Just one thing.
  • Schlepping your product to markets and pop up shops to desperately get those first few sales.

If you didn’t get the hint, the bulk of your time will be spent on general coordination, communication, and selling. It’s not fun. I’ve done it. I know many others who have. It kinda sucks.

You’ll get a few IG worthy pics from the champagne popping exciting stuff like runway shows, but only after you’ve dropped $5,000-$10,000 on that show and don’t have a single sale to show for it. (Because it’s sort of an industry insider secret, but fashion shows cost a boatload to put on or be part of, and all you get is a few glamorous pics.)

4. A clothing brand isn’t a very profitable business.

Most people think you’ll make a kajillion dollars and be well on your way to overnight stardom. But the reality is that the profit margins on clothing are notoriously low.

According to industry analysts, you’re looking at 4-13% profit margins. That means for every $100 you invest, you get $104-$113 back. And that’s if, IF, IF(!!!) you make it to profitability. Which most brands don’t. 

Let’s look at a realistic scenario where you design a jacket that you plan to sell direct to consumer (DTC). Development costs aside (customer research, patternmaking, technical design, photoshoots, etc), we’ll look at the cost of goods (COG – meaning the physical hard costs for each jacket including things like materials and labor).

Jacket COG: $100
Factory Minimum: 50 unit
Total COG investment: $5,000

Now we look at how much you can (hopefully, luckily) sell:

Full Price Sales: 20 @ $200
Discounted Sales: 20 @ $100
Total Sales: $6,000

So, where do you stand?

You made $6,000 which is $1,000 more than your $5,000 COG. Cool, right?

Not. So. Fast.

You’re up $1,000, but you haven’t taken all the other costs into consideration. The design and development stuff we mentioned earlier set you back thousands. And you haven’t paid yourself for any of your time.

My friend, you are in the red. You are running an unsuccessful business. In other words, you have a very expensive hobby.

And it kinda sucks.

You’ve got some sexy pics to share with friends and family and fans on IG, but behind the scenes you’re eating 25 cent ramen packs and stressed AF wondering how you’ll make next month’s rent.

It’s brutal.

So, what’s a girl (or guy) to do?

I’m not here to tell you whether you should start a clothing line or not.

I’m here to tell you the harsh realities of what it actually takes (that a lot of experts don’t talk about). 

And I’m here to tell you that if you want to be really strategic, you won’t go all in on your clothing line without some sort of other “hustle.”

Which is where I’ll now tell you that…

The best way to have all the fun AND profit in fashion is by being a freelancer.

Is it profitable to start a clothing line?

Let’s talk about what it looks like to freelance in fashion and why it’s better than starting a clothing line.

Investment and startup costs are practically nothing (compared to tens of thousands for a brand). Depending on what services you offer, you can get away with an Illustrator and Excel subscription for less than $40/month.

You can quickly find clients and start making money in a few weeks (compared to years for a brand). And it doesn’t matter where you live, you can work remotely with brands around the world.

You get to pick and choose what parts of the process you do (compared to a brand where you’ll either DIY it all or have to pay $$$ to hire someone). If you want to just do the fun stuff like design and trend research? Have at it.

Profit margins are insanely high (compared to a brand where – if you’re lucky – you’ll hit a few %). Since overhead is low (you’ll wind up paying for some software but otherwise, it’s just your time), most of your income goes straight into your bank account. You can make some serious cash. Cha-ching.

Beyond this, if you do decide to freelance on the side while you start your clothing line, it’s a double win from every direction.

You’ll have extra cash to fund your clothing line. As you know by now, there’s never enough money to dump into your brand. #winwin (This is exactly what some of my podcast guests have done, like Mat Booth and Christina Yother.)

You can double dip on certain parts of the process. As long as it doesn’t infringe on your client and you’re freelancing for brands that are complementary and not competitive to yours, you may be able to use the same resources, suppliers and factories. #winwin

You can learn from their mistakes. You are essentially getting paid to avoid painful trial and error. A lot of freelance opportunities are with smaller, independent startup brands. Which means you’ll get an unfiltered behind the scenes peak at all the parts of the process to see where things go wrong. Priceless. And of course #winwin.

So, what’s freelancing in fashion like? 

Freelancing in fashion gives you the best of both worlds. You get to do the design or the creative parts and don’t have to worry about the money or business side of things.

As a freelancer in fashion, you can do any part of the process you want and say “no thanks” to things you don’t want to deal with. You can get started without experience or a fashion degree, even as a total beginner, and it doesn’t matter where you live.

Also, your earning potential is limitless. #forreals

I’m not making this stuff up or painting a fantasy dream. It’s how I built my $100k/year career working just 25-35hrs a week and traveling 6-8x a year whenever I wanted (without worrying about packing and shipping orders or asking for PTO).

And it’s how hundreds of students in my Freelance Accelerator: from Surviving to Thriving (FAST) have created lives they love.

Like Arya from India who got 6 clients in her first few weeks of freelancing, even though she had no experience and no fashion degree.

And Katerina from Macedonia who outearned her previous FT salary after just one year as a freelancer.

And Brittany who never got her big break after fashion school but landed her first client in her first week as a freelancer (without any experience).

And Alexandra who earns more in one day as a freelancer than she did in two weeks at her full-time job.

And Alison who makes 75% more as a freelancer than her previous full-time salary.

They all get to do work they love in the fashion industry without the pain, sweat and massive investment it takes to start a brand.

Working in fashion can be super fun and rewarding. But it’s not by having your own brand. It’s by freelancing.

I’d love to help you get there.



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