Starting a successful clothing brand can be done. But does it take a disruptive idea or is it more right time, right place?
“Why should people support domestic manufacturing?” Nearly every interview I take part in features that question, or some semblance of it. My answer to that is, you shouldn’t expect them to. If you aren’t saying something new or doing something unique, you need to re-examine your plan.
Building a Brand from the Ground Up
I figure I should probably back up at this point and give you some background. I make clothing in Chicago. Well, I don’t personally, but the company I own does. My company, Stock Mfg. Co., is a men’s lifestyle brand that designs, develops, and manufactures every item of clothing we sell in America, the vast majority right here in our Chicago factory. Our factory is over 40 years old, and was started by the parents of one of my co-founders. Our founding team’s backgrounds consist of design, sourcing, development, retail buying, sales, marketing, and of course, manufacturing.
I’m not just a fan of the Made in America renaissance going on right now, I’m a very active participant and advocate, and one who has spent a large portion of his life over the last 2.5 years inside an actual factory. I’ve seen firsthand what it takes to start and build a clothing brand from the ground up. I’ve stayed overnight QC’ing shirts for an on-deadline shipment. I’ve dealt with die sets breaking snaps, fabric showing up damaged, buttons getting lost, and operators calling in sick for a week in the middle of a rush order (they’re all rush orders). I know the thrill of having a huge day of sales, and the crushing disappointment of just one customer having a bad experience.
Working out of a factory has also given me an upfront view of how many people get into this industry with absolutely no clue what it’s going to take to build a brand that is even remotely successful. Blaming ignorance isn’t entirely fair…we had absolutely no clue how hard it would be either. However, we started Stock with a clear reason of what differentiated us, why people would be interested in buying our stuff, and how we would go about selling. This is a step that I see a lot of aspiring makers skip.
Of course, things have changed and we’ve evolved over these two years, but the core mission of the brand has remained the same. We offer premium men’s clothing that is entirely made in the USA, and by bypassing traditional middlemen we offer it at a price point that is competitive with brands like J. Crew and Bonobos. We recognized that vertically integrating with a factory was a huge asset to us from both the branding and business sides of things, and we put a strategy in place to build a leading menswear brand on top of the history and heritage of our factory. For us, Made in USA was a differentiator, but not the sole defining characteristic of our brand. We knew there had to be more to our story than “We’re Made in America” if we wanted to build a brand that mattered.
What I’ve seen more of, even more than people wilting under the pressure of actually executing on the day-to-day grind of starting and building a brand, is people that think just because they’ve decided to start a clothing brand and slap a “Made in USA” label on there that they’re going to start selling hand over fist. The fact is, there’s a million “makers” out there doing the same thing as you, and most consumers are more inclined to shop at a fast fashion store, or spend big on a name brand. If your plan is to sell $195 oxford shirts, $150 leather wallets, or $90 polos with a bear embroidered on them because everyone on your lacrosse team called you Grizzly, you better be well connected, well funded, and really damn good. Or really lucky. Don’t underestimate luck.
The fact is, its very, very difficult to start a business, any kind of business, that even sniffs success. It’s a lot harder to start a clothing brand that isn’t really saying or showing anything new. Just doing what other people are already doing and hoping that’s going to be enough rarely ever is.
Disrupting America’s Retail Industry
We started Stock a little over 2 years ago because we recognized that the ever-changing retail industry was on the cusp of a seismic shift, and we felt that we had something unique to add to the conversation.
Starting in the late 2000’s, Bonobos blazed the way for men’s clothing brands to go directly to their customers, and proved to everyone that you could build a viable, thriving business almost entirely online.
Then, a couple years before we came along, Warby Parker and Everlane took the idea of selling online and radicalized even further, transparently cutting out the retail middleman entirely, and offering designer-quality basics and accessories at truly disruptive price-points.
I bring these brands up because there is a common thread running between them. They all offer something unique and useful to their customers, and it’s that innovation that has led to their success. They created a compelling hook, identified their initial target market, and did a great job telling their story in a concise, compelling way.
What it Takes to Successfully Compete
That’s not to say in order to be successful you need to have disruptive price points, or a Stanford Business School Grad running the show. Brands like Rag & Bone, Engineered Garments, Todd Snyder and Junya Watanabe have gotten big based off a combination of killer design, hard work and great connections. It’s possible to just start a clothing brand, be really good, work hard and be successful. Just be aware, you need to be REALLY good, work REALLY hard, and that your odds of succeeding are MUCH better if you were previously a designer at a big fashion brand, or have a bunch of friends at GQ. But, even with all those variables in place, the odds of success are extremely tiny, and there are very few people in the world that have a meaningful combination of all those advantages.
Potential designers and makers shouldn’t be discouraged from following their dreams. The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to make a living off your brand, you can’t simply be. Don’t just learn how to sew a wallet, write a business plan too. After browsing Hypebeast, spend some time reading Fast Company. If you want to make things in America, that’s fantastic, but remember; you’ll be selling to, and competing against, other Americans. America is a country born of innovation and capitalism, and at no point in American history has someone truly succeeded by just doing what everyone else was already doing.