How to Start a Successful Clothing Brand: Luck or Innovative Product?

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.

[ctt tweet=”“If you want to make a living off your brand, don’t just learn how to sew a wallet, write a business plan too.” @Makersrow” coverup=”Aud09″]

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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.

[ctt tweet=”“Many people get into this industry with absolutely no clue what it’s going to take to build a brand that is remotely successful” @Makersrow” coverup=”qKg29″]

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.

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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.

[ctt tweet=”“You better be well connected, well funded, and really damn good. Or really lucky. Don’t underestimate luck.” @Stockmfgco via @Makersrow” coverup=”p_1b7″]

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.

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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.

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[ctt tweet=”“@Warbyparker and @Everlane took the idea of selling online even further by transparently cutting out the retail middleman.” @Makersrow” coverup=”4a643″]

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.

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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.

[ctt tweet=”“@Bonobos proved to everyone that you could build a viable, thriving business almost entirely online.” @Stockmfgco via @Makersrow” coverup=”6dckb”]

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.

[ctt tweet=”“It is possible to just start a clothing brand, be really good, work hard, and be successful.” @Stockmfgco @Makersrow” coverup=”_pYNR”]

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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.

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[ctt tweet=”“At no point in American history has someone truly succeeded by just doing what everyone else was already doing.” @Stockmfgco @Makersrow” coverup=”Q420f”]

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.

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  • Vince Cachero

    Great article Jim

    • https://www.stockmfg.co/ Stock Mfg. Co.

      Thanks Vince, much appreciated.

  • CYNTHIA HICKS PADILLA

    Great info! Thank you!!

  • http://blog.domesticgood.com George Arbogust

    Awesome to see you guys take a US manufacturing business with 50 year old roots and turn it into a modern relevant business.

  • Jen

    I feel like this article is really negative and has heavy emphasis on the “success” of companies like Warby Parker and Everlane. I’d just like to point out how long both of those companies have been around (5 years max). That means NOTHING in the fashion industry. Building a brand takes a long time and it’s definitely a difficult industry but you definitely don’t need to be doing something “disruptive” (HATE that terrm) or something crazy different. There are a LOT of successful fashion brands out there that *guess what* are making money doing basically the same shit as everyone else. There’s nothing NEW in the fashion industry – it’s all been done before. Everlane is a perfect example of this – a smug Bay Area company drinking the cool aid thinking that they are so revolutionary…but guess what, their stuff is made in China and they are just a modern day LLBean (or any other mail order catalog from the 80s). They are not a fashion brand – they are a bunch of tech people with the afterthought of making clothes – that’s why their stuff is made from cheap fabric and fits horribly.

    My advice to people wanting to start a business is to just DO IT. There are a lot of people out there doing it that are truly not very creative or innovative and somehow they are making it work! Everyone’s experience will be different. Throw a bunch of pasta at the wall and see what sticks.

    • Shanice Brette

      Hi Jen,

      I definitely agree that each designer and entrepreneur’s experience is completely different! I also agree with your idea on success being driven by making it work and just getting out there! I think the author also agrees that you don’t have to be disruptive to be successful. I believe he was taking an analytical overview when he spotlighted contemporary American brands.

      This article is also based on the author’s experience first-hand while building his brand, which ties back to each entrepreneur’s experience being different.

      Thanks for the interesting comment, it really made me think!

    • Kenogi

      TOTALLY AGREE!

    • Jason Maderight

      I think the evolution of branding has changed, and Warby Parker/ Everlane are good examples of the newer successful brands. Everlane revolutionized the marketing for their commitment to transparency – which I agree is a more of a marketing and sourcing choice than actually physically stitching differently. The engineer/MBA take on clothing is to really dig in, and try to make the best version of something, repeatedly. I would no longer correlate countries to how “well” things are made. I think as a global citizen, it is selfish to think that we Americans are the best at everything. Everything Jeff Daniels’ character said in the first episode of HBO’s Newsroom is true. If you go into a J Crew right now, pick up a USA Made J Crew Painter Tee and go into their basics tee section to compare. I can guarantee you with pictures I took just yesterday, the stitching is totally off on USA Made. But we’re carrying it because people want it. There’s a reason Japanese car companies win the automobile reliability awards every year, they make more reliable cars. But in America, somehow there’s a culture to try it, try it differently, and try to do it the best. I think you have that completely right.

    • Rik

      I agree…

    • Kevinj

      Agreed, good point. If you have a business you want to start, work on starting it and not takin people so seriously that try deterring you by saying “how hard” it is. Business is hard, business is competitive, that will never change. Period. Everlane is not “disruptive” at all. Make a few google searches and you have an idea of what it costs to make something. They also say their t-shirt is a “$45 t-shirt”. It does not have near the quality of a high end t shirt and is worth about what they sell it for, $15. After 5 years in business, their cuts are inconsistent, fabrics mediocre and collars tend not to hold their shape.

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  • Linda

    Online Store is all depend upon the trust of customer. People often visit website but only trust on those which are user friendly.

  • Mario Andres Rojas

    Great article!

  • Jon M

    Everyone, don’t be misled by the author’s over-dramatic comment that “at no point in American history has someone truly succeeded by just doing what everyone else was already doing”. This is not true at all. In every industry we see one company develop something, then others come in and do the exact same thing, and they can and do succeed. Hewlett Packard making desktop PCs in an already crowded computer market is one quick example. I think he’s trying to say that innovation will move you farther or easier, than following what others are doing.

  • Thibault

    Great article! I have been working with a great company, called: Merchandise Essantials! They have an e-book that helps you with the start of you’re own brand, in few easy steps! This is the link! http://www.merchandise-essentials.com/brand/

  • Thibault

    It’s quite a good article, but you should show some company’s that are good in it, and that can help you in the way you want! For example :http://www.merchandise-essentials.com/brand/
    This is company is specialised in making a brand for you! They help you from the first step until the last one!

  • Jay Baxter

    if anyone has a eCommerce site for their clothing brand, check out this Reddit sub its for new clothing brands or for people who simply want to shop and checkout what these new brands have to offer.
    https://www.reddit.com/r/IndieBrandsFashion/

  • http://www.yourretailcoach.in/ YRC

    To begin with a successful clothing brand you must have manufacture best quality clothes and be creative or innovative.
    get more details for Retail Business here http://www.yourretailcoach.in/