how to take the plunge and launch your label
As part of ASOS' "Making It" we look into the best way to launch your label.
When the Business of Fashion published Why You Shouldn't Launch a Label Straight Out of School a few weeks ago, there was a kind of collective "oops" that could be heard in fashion circles, especially in London, where the scene is very much driven by designers who do launch straight from school. But don't mistake this response for sheepishness - it was rather one of positive defiance.
While there were undoubtedly several valid and valuable takeaways from the BoF article, there are more success stories than the cautionary tale would have you believe, because, for one, maybe it's not solely about making shitloads of money and/or lording over an empire. Having a label is an intensely intimate labour of love, and perhaps the unparalleled creative stimulation, personal development and emotional satisfaction gained from it simply proves enough.
But if we take a look at designers who immediately took the plunge by launching a label straight from school, a "lack of experience" actually lends itself naturally to fearlessness and ingenuity. Take Hannah Weiland, who launched Shrimps armed with an art history degree and diploma in textiles from the London College of Fashion. She came across a sample of the latest faux fur technology and the rest is brightly hued history. On starting a label, she said in i-D's Coming of Age issue last autumn, "Don't be scared about failing because you will always regret not trying. And if you do fail you will have gained so much experience, it will always be worth it." In the same feature, Molly Goddard, a designer who left the MA course at Central St Martins and instantly made a mark at London Fashion Week with her presentations, would tell any student, "Go for it! And not to worry about being on schedule or following the traditional route. I feel like we have learnt more in the last 10 months since starting than all of school and university."
Speaking to Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding of palmer//harding, Levi pointed out one of the biggest advantage of launching out of fashion school was simply that, "You have nothing to lose, so it's less of a risk." Not that it wasn't scary and difficult. "That's why we decided to start with just a singular product [shirting]," said Levi. "It gave us a unique position as a young London label and was a lot easier financially. For example, for our first collection we only had one roll of cotton to work with."
But let's not be naive, fashion is indeed a business and structures need to be put in place to at least survive. Livelihoods are at risk, after all. I'm just not convinced that launching fashion labels with a one-size-fits-all approach to business is a good idea - much like O/S clothing itself. If all aspiring designers heeded the advice of Anna Wintour, a business mogul, a management consultant, et al, changed their minds about launching their label, started working for an established designer instead, dutifully gaining experience, and then started a label, would the industry be as thrilling? Progressive? Innovative?
It certainly would not have given us the likes of Vejas, the up-and-coming label from Toronto-based Vejas Kruszewski and 2016 LVMH Prize finalist who couldn't even be bothered with design school. One imagines a disapproving look emanating from 1 World Trade Center, but the label's pieces and promotion of inclusivity has in just a few seasons garnered critical praise and the attention of influential retailers. Let's also remember that Helmut Lang was an autodidact, too.
The Canadian designer is candid about what he calls an adventure: "So far I have learnt from experience, trying to listen to people from all aspects of the industry, ask questions, read articles, etc. I have made many mistakes and had to face a lot of financial realities and limitations with my business thus far," he admits. "It's stressful, but at the same time, I think dealing with the realities has helped me mature a lot faster."
There are other routes designers can take in launching a label, most notably by not doing time in a fashion label. Raf Simons famously started out as an industrial designer. Thom Browne has a degree in economics, tried out acting and worked as a salesman at Giorgio Armani. Meanwhile, Hiromichi Ochiai, the mastermind behind cult Japanese label Facetasm, spent eight years developing textiles for labels such as Comme des Garçons and Undercover after graduating from Bunka Fashion College, all the while holding down a job at the design firm NGAP. When making the leap into fashion design, Hiromichi chose to go his own way right away. "I did not want to lose my originality," he said via email, plus, "It was a natural thing, I always wanted to start in my 20s." He copes with the business side of running a fashion label by having a showroom look after the overseas sales, but crucially, all Facetasm garments are made in Japan, which makes production much easier to manage for him.
On the other side of the world, Virgil Abloh trained as an architect and engineer, but left a firm in his native Chicago to become Kanye West's creative director and eventually, via the now-defunct label Pyrex Vision, found OFF-WHITE. He told i-D last November, "If you really want to do what you say you do, leave this conversation and do it. Go and print that T-shirt today, and by today I mean in the next 30 minutes. If you don't do it, that's your problem. If I hadn't sat on Illustrator and gone to the screen printers to make it a reality, then it wouldn't have happened. Pyrex, OFF-WHITE, LVMH Prize nomination, my spring/summer 16 womenswear show, it all comes from a moment that happened four years earlier in which I took an idea and got it made. It might be obvious, but for anyone reading this, finish it and then make shit happen, give it your friends and then boom, you've entered the domino effect phase."
So you're thinking of launching of label? Good for you. You're taking a stand, it would seem, for yourself, but also against being another cog in the all too well-oiled machine. Will it be hard work? Hell, yes. Will you become mortal enemies with Excel? In all likelihood, yes. Will the word cashflow strike fear in your heart? You can bet on it. But the opportunity to successfully contribute new ideas to the fashion conversation and personally make an impact can happen now, fresh out of school or fashion college, or even after a stint outside of the fashion world. And for all the immaculately laid-out business plans, marketing know-how, accounting acumen, etc, doesn't a prosperous fashion label still come down to product first? Specifically, good, desirable products with a soul?
Some last bits of advice from those who are making it: "Get as much help as possible, pester people you respect to meet with you to look through your designs and fabrics (bribe them with free clothes, artworks or money). Take advice, listen, make sure your life is in a good place to start working non-stop on something so personal," said Claire Barrow last autumn. "The pain will be worth it, don't let your ego lead your business decisions and be careful when deviating from what makes your brand special," say palmer//harding. And finally, this gem from Christopher Kane that was in i-D's 35th birthday issue, "Always go with your gut feeling and never compromise. And you get better with age."
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Text Sabrina Shim