what you need to know before starting your own fashion label
In the third part of a series of articles created in association with 1 Granary and Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation Philip Rouse, founder of Paris-based showroom Not Summer, talked us through the tough reality of commercializing your label
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
How do you set yourself up for a chance of commercial success after you graduate from fashion school? You might've learned all the technical aspects of design, might have honed your creative vision, but no matter how big a fish you think you are, you're in a small pool filled with sharks.
Especially if you consider that finding a showroom, contacting buyers, and choosing the right retail location are not topics that are often discussed in fashion school. To help young designers navigate these real-world complexities, 1 Granary hosted a series of talks at Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation. Last week, they invited the founder of Paris-based showroom Not Summer, who shared his insight into the life of a buyer.
Starting a brand straight out of fashion school can feel like jumping into a very expensive and totally unknown world. In the main fashion capitals, the pace of production and the consumption of images, ideas, and clothes is ever-accelerating, which leaves little space to stop and think. Approaching industry insiders seems impossible, and the internet — whether it's Instagram or Facebook — may not be enough to break into the industry on your own.
It's not enough to be the best creatively or the most commercially minded. When you're starting out you need both. Rouse explained: "Think really, really strategically. Not in a way that inhibits creativity, but in a way that enables it. If there is no cash, you need to get really creative business-wise to be able to put a product out there that is going to resonate with people." Strategic thinking and planning is a crucial element in getting the work out there with success. "First: do I have a viable product in terms of range planning, pricing, and point differentiation?" Rouse wants designers to ask themselves a good number of questions before even considering to start designing. "Do I have the human and financial means to produce it? And third: do I have some kind of strategy or intentionality that is going to carry the business forward?"
Think really, really strategically. Not in a way that inhibits creativity, but in a way that enables it. If there is no cash, you need to get really creative business-wise to be able to put a product out there that is going to resonate with people.
One of the first and most important things to consider is to create a product that is engaging and that resonates with your audience. "What I have learned in these couple of years is that I cannot guarantee a sale. What I can guarantee is engagement," Rouse said. "So it's my job to get people in front of the brand and really vibrate with the product and its story." In this sense, more than focusing on sales, it is fundamental that designers create products that will make people excited, and that they think carefully about who they are designing for, where those people are, and what are they interested in. This mindset is too often missing from young designers, Rouse felt. "I think that there is an enormous disconnect as designers, as brand owners, as showroom agents, between the actual end user and the developer." The person making or selling the garment often can't relate to the one wearing it, let alone actually being the wearer.
However, perfecting your product isn't even half the job. Finding someone willing to represent your brand or carry it in their store is the next step. Philip admitted: "It's hard because there are too many brands and too many products in the world. If the buyer you're trying to contact works in a department store, they will be travelling for 80% of the time, and the amount of emails people get in a day is crazy. I've heard a buyer saying that if they see an email has an attachment, they just delete it because they don't have the time." Thus, a designer needs to think about an unique approach if they wants to stand out from the crowd and catch the attention of industry insiders. Philip Rouse suggested simply "putting your work out there in the same way that you're trying to get a job or a new flat. I think you might get a lot further if you look at your brand and hassle it in the same way that you'd trying to get an apartment." He also highlighted the importance of taking initiative: "I do still have the romantic idea of being actually able to engage with people on a personal level, and being this kind of this travelling salesman, I've talked with people about this before. Take the budget that you might be spending on this and actually go out to a store, travel, and see things."
There's all sorts of ways to make your collection on a shoestring budget, but there's no way of getting around making a production on a budget, at least at any scale. There's no getting away from the fact that growth costs money.
Going out is crucial. Many designers can point out their dream stores and know exactly where they would like to sell their collections, but in reality there needs to be a strong vision behind how that work actually fits the space. This is why it is important to go and visit the store or showroom, observe, and understand the customer. "When I talk to the designer I usually tend to asks, 'what are the references, and what is the positioning in terms of aesthetic practice?' because it encourages them to think about the ways in which other people are doing it, and then they can choose from the way things have been done."
Not less relevant but on a more personal note, Philip Rouse stressed the importance of building positive relationships with the people designers work with. It seems that, after all, it's not always about the numbers. From a buyer or sales professional's perspective, this can determine whether you do business or not. "If you're not excited about the environment you're in and the people you are interacting with, it doesn't really matter how cool the brand is," Rouse explained. "And I think that if I stop working with a brand, it's actually a matter of relationships rather than the brand not working."
At the end of the day, personal relationships and real emotions seemed to matter above all else. The fashion industry might project a glamorous image, but the reality of starting up your own label is oftentimes more bleak. Rouse underlined the importance of realising what you're getting into, and making your lifestyle a conscious decision. "There's all sorts of ways to make your collection on a shoestring budget, but there's no way of getting around making a production on a budget, at least at any scale. There's no getting away from the fact that growth costs money. You can be five years down the line in your business, and think, 'oh, I'm making a profit!', but are you paying yourself, are you living the life you have imagined for yourself, are you paying your team?" Thus, he advised young designers to prioritize one feeling above all else — their personal happiness.
The Sarabande Foundation was established by the late Lee Alexander McQueen to create opportunities for artists and designers who are creatively fearless. The foundation offers scholarships to seven of the top Universities for art & design in the UK and houses 15 subsidised artist studios & large exhibition space in their HQ —a converted Victorian stable block on Regent's Canal in East London. Applications are currently open for studio spaces to occupy in fall 2017. For more information, visit the website.
Text Maria Viera Lopes
Photography Mitchell Sams, Wales Bonner spring/summer 18