How These Entrepreneurs Started an Apparel Line With No Experience

When I think of all the things I wanted to be as a little girl, fashion designer was not on the list. But when my wife and I took a sabbatical from work and travelled around the world, we came up with the wild idea of starting a fashion business. We have always gravitated towards the clothes in the men’s section, but were always frustrated because they didn’t fit. So we thought, “why don’t we start a ready-to-wear clothing company that caters towards women who are looking for menswear-inspired designs?”. The only problem was, Kelly my wife was a teacher, and I was a marketer in the healthcare industry, so what made us think we could get into the fashion industry? We had already taken a leap of faith to quit our jobs and travel, so starting a business in an unknown industry no longer seemed as daunting.

Navy Gingham and Light Blue Chby White background

Our first step was to validate our hypothesis that there was a significant market for women who wanted the same type of clothes as us. We developed a short survey and sent it out to approximately 50 people we thought fit the bill. Then did some follow-up interviews to dig deeper into their desires and frustrations. The jury was no longer out. We weren’t the only ones who had been yearning for clothes that combines the aesthetic of menswear with the fit for a woman’s body. With that knowledge in hand, we dived in full force and started writing our business plan for Kirrin Finch, and looking for resources in NYC to help us make our business idea a reality. Many people are afraid of the business plan, but I believe it is essential to starting a business. It lets you gather all your ideas and thoughts in one place. You can use it as a document to review with business advisors and investors. And it can become a living breathing wealth of information that you can share as you bring on employees. Even though it has been a year since we finished our business plan, I still refer back to it, when sending synopses about Kirrin Finch, or need to refer back to our customer or competitive research.

Since Kelly and I had no fashion expertise, we knew we needed help. I had heard of technology startups joining accelerators or incubators. I figured there must be something similar for fashion. After scouring the internet, I came across an accelerator program, called the Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator (BF+DA), which was started by the Pratt Institute to help businesses incorporate sustainable practices. We knew we wanted our collection to be more environmentally friendly, so it seemed like the perfect fit. We applied and after a rigorous interview process, Kirrin Finch was accepted.

Sketches

Prior to being accepted into the accelerator, our goal was to create a collection of menswear-inspired button-up shirts, but we had no idea how and where we were going to get them made. We had been e-mailing with some tech pack makers and patternmakers, but they were not located in New York, and that seemed really logistically challenging for fashion newbees. Fortunately for us, the BF+DA had a sample room with patternmakers, sewers and other in-house experts.

BFDA Sewers

With zero ability to sketch or use illustrator, we developed our designs using images from magazines and the internet, and scoured stores for shirts that fit us well. We ended up using the best fitting shirt as the foundation for our first muslin shirt. Using ourselves as fit models, we made tweaks to the original shirt pattern (removing darts, adding more buttons, optimizing the length, etc) and after about 2 months of adjustments we had a shirt fit we were ready to move into actual samples. Because fit was extremely important to us, we decided to test our first samples on a variety of potential customers. After a few additional adjustments based on the information from our customer testing, we finally had a shirt we were excited to launch with.

fitting a shirt

We knew that one of the greatest challenges with fashion is determining demand for styles and sizes. If you get it wrong, you can be left with thousands of dollars worth of inventory that goes to waste. To help avoid this, we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. The decision to launch a crowdfunding campaign is not a small undertaking. It takes months of planning, requires a solid pitch video, and a long e-mail list. But if you get it right, it can be a great way to generate awareness about your brand, as well as gauge exactly which styles and sizes people want. We generated just over $36,000 in pledges that went directly towards production, and had information from each backer about what size and shirt style they wanted. Armed with that knowledge we are creating inventory that we believe is more closely correlated with what customers actually want. We are currently in production at our factory in Manhattan, so it is unclear whether our strategy will pay off, but it at least gives us a fighting chance.

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So if you are someone who has an idea for a fashion business, but doesn’t have expertise, don’t fret. There are plenty of resources and people out there to guide you along the way. The single most important thing is passion and dedication for your idea. I believe everything else can be learned.


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  • Nancy Nix-Rice

    Thanks for sharing your experience – both informative and inspiring.

  • http://www.ebatotes.com Emmaly Knecht

    It takes time. Took me two years and we just launched, today actually. But with all the mistakes you learn a lot of lessons and you get to experience and figure out exactly what type of business you want to run. Both fun and very tough. Good Luck!!

    http://www.ebatotes.com

  • Stella Lucchi

    Inspiring! Thank you.

  • Taryn Show

    I just came up with a really good Idea and I am doing a lot of research right now! I am hoping it goes smoothly. What other resources would you all recommend?