What Experts Don't Tell You About Launching a Fashion Line

What Experts Don’t Tell You About Launching a Fashion Line

There’s a lot of dreamy advice out there about launching a fashion line. There are a lot of courses and experts and coaches telling you how you can make your fashion dreams come true and:

  • Magically launch and fund your fashion collection with Kickstarter
  • Gain a loyal following on Insta by posting daily and using the right hashtags
  • Launch an e-commerce shop with beautiful photos of your designs and do Facebook ads

These “experts” spout off inspirational quotes like:

“Just follow your passion!”
“Keep going, don’t quit, you got this!”
“Your dreams can come true!”

And listen. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration. I have stickers that say “doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will” and “get shit done” and “you are beautiful” on my MacBook Pro:

Sew Heidi's MacBook Pro Computer

(Follow me on Insta. Ha, I just mocked that.)

But what they don’t tell you is all the nasty and tricky and horrible stuff that comes with launching and running a fashion brand. Now, I’ll be brutally honest about something here. You could listen to any one of my Successful Fashion Designer podcast episodes and think:

“This fashion thing sounds like a fantasy!”

Because most guests (or people in general) aren’t transparent about their journeys.

Instead, they paint this perfect picture of what we want to see. Or more accurately, what they want us to see:

  • They skip over the grueling timelines of how long things actually took.
  • They conveniently forget to mention how much money they’ve spent.
  • They never share actual sales numbers or how much profit they haven’t made.
  • And then they quietly disappear…

I even personally know a designer (let’s call her Jenny) who, on the surface, looks like she’s absolutely killing it with huge international press coverage in magazines like InStyle, Marie Claire and has been interviewed by New York Times. She got her designs into Nieman’s and worn by celebs.

But behind the scenes?

Jenny’s told me first hand, off record, that it’s a rat race. It’s all smoke and mirrors. She’s struggling to give the impression that her business is way bigger than it is.

But really? She’s a one woman show.

Jenny – the acclaimed designer, founder and CEO of this “huge” company – is the one doing customer service, fulfilling orders out of her apartment, and managing the books (just like I was).

And after 7 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested by friends and family, she finally barely started turning a tiny profit.

She told me she’s just exhausted.

For a lot of these designers, things looks good from the outside! They have huge followings on Instagram – 10k or even 100k+! And their photos get thousands of likes!

But too bad you don’t make ten bucks for every like or follower on Instagram…

They have press coverage in huge media outlets like Vogue and W, show at New York fashion week and seem to be living the dream.

But when you really dig into their journeys (like I always try and do on the podcast and like some guests are willing to talk about), the truth isn’t always that pretty.

Here are 3 different behind the scenes stories from Colleen, Billie and Susan about what running a fashion brand really looks like.

I interviewed Colleen on the show about her wildly successful Kickstarter. She raised $16,660 of her $10,000 goal. But here’s what she said is really going on:

“It can look so cool from Instagram, but I wish more designers would talk about how they’re funding. It’s been a hustle this last year. The thing about starting a fashion company is it is a full time job, but you’re not getting paid for it. Everyone’s like “oh your Kickstarter is amazing, it’s at $10k!” But I’m not going to take any of that money, it’s all going into production! And I’ve probably put in $30,000 into this company over the last year. It’s super embarrassing to be honest about the numbers because a lot of people don’t ever know how much money went into all that, the prototypes, and hiring out the designers, the photographers and videographers. And it’s the scariest thing when your savings are just bleeding as you’re putting money into something like a prototype that went wonky and you’re like “ahhh, I just spent $500 bucks on that!”

Billie Whitehouse of NadiX told me about how she sought investors for her legging collection. She took 140 meetings before she found someone to fund her business. And that was with 5+ years of industry experience and having done fashion partnerships with huge brands like Fox, Durex (yes, the condoms) and Oakley. She had contacts, relationships and a network, and still, in her own words, had to take “a shit ton of meetings.”

Taking a shit ton of meetings…I was at an event once and there were people there who had taken 140 meetings before they found one person who committed. I haven’t ever quantified how many meetings I’ve taken, but I’ll tell you it’s around the same amount. I have been shut down many many times.

Susan Lazar is a womenswear designer who I recently heard interviewed. She sold her line at Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and Saks. But even after building it up to 8 million dollars, she was still losing money year after year and shut it down.

“We grew the business to about 8 million dollars. It was very hard to make money in that business, and we were losing a little bit of money. And even though it was a dream and it was successful on so many levels, it wasn’t financially successful. We grew it and grew it and grew it and the numbers doubled or tripled every year. But the overhead kept growing and it spiraled out of control a little bit. So I ended up closing it.”

Listen. I’m not trying to be a dream crusher. And if that’s how you feel, then my deepest apologies.

I am trying to be honest. I am trying to tell you the cold hard truth that other fashion industry experts won’t tell you.

Yes, some brands succeed and are profitable.

But most don’t. Most start up, show you this beautiful story on Instagram, and then quietly disappear.

And no one out there who’s trying to help you fund and launch your own line is going to tell you any of this.

No one talks about the failures and the realities of having your own fashion brand.

And whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, you know this.

Like this comment someone recently posted on my FB page:

Which is why I’m going to.

Because I think it’s the right thing to do.

Because years ago when I was launching my fashion line, I wish someone told me.

Below, we’re going to dissect 6 common strategies experts will tell you to use to launch your fashion brand and the real truth behind each of them

Ready? Let’s go.

STRATEGY #1: Launching a fashion line on Kickstarter (or other crowdfunding campaign)

There are a lot of people out there teaching you how to do this, some specifically for the fashion industry.

But here’s the thing with Kickstarter.

Chances are, you won’t get funded. As of 2016, there have been 14,536 fashion projects launched on the platform and 75% of them failed.

Fashion Brand Launches on Kickstarter Funded vs Failed

And if you do want to be one of the the 1 in 4 successes? Launching a fashion line on Kickstarter isn’t free.

It can take up to a year of planning and thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to do it right. You need prototypes, professional videos and photos. You need strategy and promotion and marketing.

Even then, there’s no guarantee for success, so you could be out all that cash and time.

And let’s say you do succeed? Here’s what most of those 3,634 funded campaigns were stuck with:

You don’t account for fees and taxes and the $20,000 you raised can quickly shrink to $16,400 or even $9,600 (less than half!). It’s not exactly free money as Cathryn points out.

And if you miscalculated like artist Kat did? You wind up in the negative having to fulfill orders out of your own pocket.

And then, unexpected production costs and delays come up (because they always do), you can’t deliver on time and wind up with a bunch of angry customers and negative reviews like Baubaux, the world’s best travel jacket, did.

Instead of strengthening the relationship with your audience, you can ruin it.

Instead of launching the fashion brand of your dreams, you can leave yourself in debt.

And no one ever talks about these stories. All you hear is “oh, your campaign made $10k!” like Colleen did who shared her story on the SFD podcast.

STRATEGY #2: Get investment from friends and family

Borrowing money from family is tricky.

Without going into detail, borrowed money shook my family up for 7 years.

I was not the lender or borrower, but I witnessed the long and messy aftermath first hand. It tore people I loved apart. There were years of tears, upset stomachs, sleepless nights, nasty emails, hateful words and tense get togethers.

Because when you can’t pay your friends and family back, it’s not like when you can’t pay the bank back. (Although either one is a really bad situation.)

Even if you’re prepared for the worse case scenario (doing irreparable damage to your relationship with loved ones), I think this is a terrible idea and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

STRATEGY #3: Get VC (venture capital) funding like a lot of startups do

Congratulations! Now you don’t own your own business and you don’t call the shots!

Because when investors give you money to launch your fashion line, they don’t just do it out of the kindness of their heart. They’re buying a piece of your company. And bam, just like that, you’re answering to them.

You have to keep them up to date on all income and expenses and depending on your arrangement, they can even have control over what you do and don’t design.

And it can feel like that terrible boss from your previous day job is breathing down your neck again.

I didn’t think that was what you wanted. Or did you?

It’s also hard AF.

STRATEGY #4: Get a small business loan (or put it on a credit card)

Ok, the credit card advice is terrible, so let’s disqualify that one right away. Because do you know how quickly credit card interest adds up? INSANELY QUICKLY.

And no matter what you think, you won’t pay it off during the first year no interest. No one ever does.

Rates vary depending on your credit, but BankRate.com defaults to 18%, so we’ll use that.

Here’s what borrowing $5,000 can cost you:

Here’s what borrowing $10,000 can cost you:

And here’s what borrowing $20,000 can cost you:

The numbers do not work in your favor, so just don’t do it.

But what about a small business loan?

Yes, you can get a much lower rate, even as low as 5%. But to land that deal you need what’s considered “great” personal credit (650+) and there are loads of hoops and paperwork to jump through.

And since fashion isn’t known for being profitable (whether you make it to $40k like me or a whopping $8 million like Susan Lazar did), it’s going to be hard to pay that loan back (if you can even get one in the first place).

And the next thing you know, debt and credit collectors are calling at all hours of the day, what small assets you may have in your business are being seized, and they can even foreclose on your house.

Just writing that makes me nauseous and uncomfortable and gives me the willies.

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t go this route.

STRATEGY #5: Grow slow and only spend what you have (whether it’s $500, $5000 or $50,000)

You hear these stories all the time. That’s what I did. I didn’t splurge or borrow or crowdfund to launch my fashion line. I saved pennies from my $9/hr receptionist job and within 3 years I had built a business that grossed $40k.

But from that $40k business that I ran out of my basement selling $14 earrings that only cost me $1 to make? From a business that I kept as low of overhead as possible?

There was still only $8k left in profit. Because marketing and trade shows and selling and labor and inventory cost money.

And that $8k/year was all I had to show as a paycheck. Which isn’t enough to live off.

No matter how much you double or triple sales, your expenses double and triple too. And it’s hard to keep up or stay afloat. And things spiral out of control.

It’s why you hear all stories all the time of companies reorganizing or filing chapter 11 like Betsey Johnson and Nasty Gal.

Because fashion brands are expensive to run and you need absolute precision and strategy and expertise to make it work.

Because fashion is a really fucking hard industry to get it right in. And that’s why so few brands actually succeed.

STRATEGY #6: Bootstrap it with savings

I met a person a couple years ago in New York whose story of launching a fashion line stuck with me. It was at a Successful Fashion Designer shindig I threw at Houndstooth bar in the NYC Garment District. They’re pictured here, so for anonymity, we’ll call them Person X:

Sew Heidi Successful Fashion Designer Party

Five of us stayed late into the wee hours of the night and closed the bar. We drank beers and talked about careers in fashion.

The conversation was inspiring, humbling and raw. Man, was it RAW.

Person X shared their honest and 100% transparent story of having their own fashion line. They poured their heart, soul and family savings into it. They spent 3 years building up the brand and earned some pretty high bragging rights like hanging in Saks Fifth Ave and Bergdorf’s.

Their dream had come true.

But the cost was steep. Person X’s fashion brand bankrupt their family. They literally filed bankruptcy.


There’s another story about a guy I did contract design + development work. His dream of launching a fashion line was to have an outdoor apparel brand. He re-mortgaged his house and pulled money out of his 401k.

After 4 years, he was so desperate to get rid of inventory, he started driving for Uber and trying to sell product out of his trunk to his riders. I’m serious.

After 5 years, he dissolved the company, selling off inventory below cost to recoup anything he could and was desperately searching for a job.

I got this message on LinkedIn:

He left some of my vendors high and dry, owing them thousands of dollars.

A year and a half later, he’s still working hard to do the right thing and pay those people back. Which makes me have mad respect for him.

Just a few months ago, I was copied on this email:

As part of his effort to resolve unpaid invoices from 2014 and 2015:

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t sleep at night if I was in that situation. If I was sitting on boxes of inventory I couldn’t sell I would be an anxious wreck. If I owed people thousands of dollars for years it would tear me apart internally.

Even watching other people go through this tears me apart and breaks my heart.

And telling you this and feeling like I’m a dream crusher tears me apart breaks my heart too.

I contemplated over and over whether I should write this. And once I wrote it, I contemplated over and over if I should send it.

But no one else is saying this stuff.

And it’s stuff I wish people told me years ago, so even if I did continue to pursue my dream, I wasn’t in the dark about how this industry really works. About how things could really end up.

And I’m not saying that every brand results in bankruptcy, but it’s no secret that a lot of them do.

If this is your dream, I’m not telling you not to go for it. But I’m telling you it’s a long, expensive and insanely hard journey. People can be amazing designers and still struggle with the financial, emotional and physical uphill battle of launching a brand.

Most never make it to the top of the mountain. Most come crashing down battered, bruised and beaten.

Like I did.

Which is why after my exhausting 5 year fight and tens of thousands of dollars spent to have my own collection, I quit.

I gave up.

I said “I can’t do this anymore”.

And it’s why I knew I had to figure something else out.

By now, I bet you’re feeling the same way.

You’re probably asking yourself “what can I do to follow my fashion design dream if it’s not launching my own collection (or being an employee like I talked about yesterday)?”

And I’m glad you asked.

Tomorrow I’ll be sharing a strategy with you that works a lot better than these. One that doesn’t take three or two or even one year to get off the ground. One that doesn’t cost any money to start (not a single penny).

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post – you’re going to love it.

I promise it’s full of rainbows and unicorns (literally, there is a unicorn) and shiny dream come true stories.

I promise, no more dream smashing.

P.S. I know this topic can be pretty controversial. Again, I am not here to crush your childhood dreams. I am here to tell you the truth no one else will. The truth I wish someone told me years ago.

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