Do you want to turn your fashion hobby into a highly profitable clothing business?
In this post, I’m going to show you how you can start your very own clothing business in 5 simple steps.
Hi, my name is Mei and I help makers, artists & designers create a consistent income selling their handmade products online. I’ve been selling handmade jewelry for 14 years and I haven’t looked back since the day I was able to turn my hobby into a full-time income. Today I want to show you how you can do the same.
Why Start a Handmade Clothing Business?
First, let’s talk about why starting a handmade clothing business is a good idea. You might be thinking the industry is oversaturated but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The global fashion industry was worth $2.5 trillion in 2017 alone, and the numbers have only grown since then.
People are always going to need clothes, so with a little market research and a fresh perspective, there’s no reason you can’t find some wiggle room for your handmade business in this huge industry. It’s totally possible for you to have a slice of that pie.
Lots of people buy from handmade or independent clothing designers, so don’t worry about competing with mass-manufactured, fast fashion brands.
Here are 4 simple steps to get started.
1. Find Your Fashion Niche
This goes without saying, but you need to drill down on a specific fashion niche.
Even the big name brands cater to specific audiences. As a small business owner, this becomes even more important for you, especially if you want to stand out from the crowd.
Ask yourself what audience you want to sell to.
- Are they into a certain lifestyle?
- Where do they usually hang out?
- What jobs do they have?
- What materials and colors would suit them?
- Are they looking for apparel with a practical purpose or is it all about the design?
- Do they need it for a special occasion or activity?
- What specific items are they looking for – Jackets, dresses, pants?
Once you know the kind of shoppers you want to appeal to, you’ll be able to create a whole business plan and marketing strategy that is tailored to them.
An awesome success story is Jac Vanek, who at 15 years old gave up a place on her school’s cheerleading squad to devote more time to her bracelet business.
She started her company with a $200 loan from her parents and started selling bracelets with the words “RUTHLESS” at music festivals.
She catered specifically to the music festival crowd and look where it’s gotten her. At 29 years old, she’s now the CEO of a clothing brand that’s worn by celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.
Not bad for someone who started out with just bracelets.
Her products may not be the most creative, which proves the point that the most important thing you need is a niche. FAnd for Jac, she chose the music festival audience.
It’s super important to think about what your customers want. That’s the reality for being successful in business, making products you know people want to buy. However, you need to be passionate about your designs as well, or you won’t be able to stick with your business in the long-run.
A healthy balance of the two is what you’re ultimately after.
2. Choose Products for Your Opening Line
Once you've decided on a niche, step two is to choose the initial products for your opening line.
If you’re tempted to jump in and start selling everything, it could mean the end of your business before you even kick things off properly.
When you’re starting an online store, it’s always smarter to start with a small line of products you think your customers will like and branch out as you grow.
Take a look at Bali Elf for example. This brand started out with a few handmade leather bags, and once they saw initial success, they branched out into making leather shoes, sandals, and eventually even started selling colorful dresses that can be worn with their leather line.
Over the years, the brand has built a loyal following and are now thriving off just online sales, proving that you don’t need an excessive line of clothing designs to be successful.
You’re better off starting small until you find a few winning products. Before you know it, you’ll be able to build on your initial success by giving your customers more of what they want and eventually introducing complementary products to your clothing line.
Another great example of this is The North Face. Over the years, they’ve branched out into complementary products like hats, gloves and bags, but we all know it started with the initial success of their jackets.
Let’s say you’ve decided to open an online clothing store aimed at buyers who are conscious about the environment and the materials they wear. Instead of putting out a bunch of different items that are ethically produced, isolate the must-have products that you think are most representative of your brand.
Starting with too many products can cost you a lot of time and money up front–– and not just in terms of buying the materials and investing time in designing everything.
Just think about all those extra photoshoots and product descriptions you’ll need to write. Not to mention, the complexity you’ll be adding to your business which can further affect the quality of customer support you’re able to give your buyers.
Having focus is super important and valuable, so don’t over complicate things for yourself.
Something else to think about is whether your products are seasonal or if they’re wearable all year round.
Aside from changes in season, you also want to prepare for changing styles and shifting fashion trends. Big brands will jump at any occasion to come up with new clothing lines for their buyers.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider whether you want to start out with something that’s very niche and trendy and needs constant updating, or whether you want to stick with a more timeless clothing line that will adapt better to the quickly changing landscapes of the fashion world.
Both can work, it’s just something worth keeping in mind when choosing your first products.
Alright, I think I’ve beaten this point to death, but the takeaway here is that it’s smarter to start with the basics and get off the ground quickly, while keeping an eye on your end destination as you grow.
3. Ordering Your Materials
You’re going to need a steady and dependable supply of materials. The term cut-and-sew is for clothing that’s been customized from raw fabric, rather than bought from a third party supplier and then modified or printed on.
If you make cut-and-sew apparel, this will allow you to create very unique designs that can truly set yourself apart as a clothing designer. However, this does require a bit of upfront costs and you’ll need to factor in some extra material to make room for errors. That’s why it’s a great idea to start out with a simple product line.
Typically, the more variety you order, the more you’re going to spend.
A nice way to save money is to see if you can reuse the same materials for multiple types of products. There are literally thousands of suppliers to choose from and who you choose will depend on the type of products you’re making, but some great online pattern-makers and suppliers to get you started are Clothier Design Source and The Pattern Makers. Also, check out Maker’s Row for a whole directory of manufacturers you could work with.
4. Set Up Shop
Assuming you’ve got your first products ready to sell and you’ve taken some good product pictures, it's time to set up shop both offline and offline.
You can get into wholesale by reaching out to local boutiques, which is a great place to start because they already have a proven customer base. All you need to do is offer them a good price, usually store buyers will expect 50% of your retail prices, and they’ll take care of all the marketing, sales and customer service––which is a pretty good deal.
However, the core of your business should be your online presence. Even the largest brands with retail stores are getting more and more of their sales from online customers these days. While some people would get discouraged at the idea of competition, I’m here to tell you it’s an opportunity.
Online commerce, otherwise known as e-commerce almost completely levels the playing field between you and some of the biggest brands out there, allowing you to build a loyal customer base at a fraction of the cost.
If you’re ready to start building your online presence and make the bulk of your sales from the comfort of your own home, I suggest you get started with an e-commerce platform like Shopify. And depending on your type of product, you’ll want to consider whether it’s worth selling on marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy.
The funny thing about Amazon is that although it’s one of the largest apparel sellers in the US– second only to Walmart– most people who buy clothes on their site say Amazon isn’t a destination for fashion. People are more likely to turn to Amazon for basic and casual apparel, and especially because it’s convenient with their Prime shipping and all that other good stuff.
But as a handmade seller, you may not get your money’s worth for your unique designs on a site like Amazon. You can always look into it later to diversify, but I don’t suggest most of you guys get started there.
Etsy on the other hand is a great marketplace for up-and-coming designers who want to dip their feet into the world of e-commerce. Unlike Amazon, Etsy is a known marketplace for handcrafted and unique goods–– meaning people are looking for creative designers just like you. Although Etsy is a lot better suited for independent designers, I still don’t recommend making any marketplace the core of your online business.
Firstly, because they will always be the ones in control of your customers and secondly because sites like Etsy and Amazon are constantly updating their policies and making changes that could negatively impact your business.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t diversify your income streams by getting on other platforms, I just suggest you don’t rely on them to be the main income source of your business.
Instead, focus on building your own site. That’s going to be the best long-term solution for a successful online business.
5. Promoting Your Products
There are tons of ways to do marketing out there and some are more expensive than others.
Instead of diving right into paid advertising, I highly suggest you look into media outreach, especially if you’re just starting out.
There are thousands of influencers on sites like Instagram and YouTube who have millions of followers that buy the products these influencers talk about or recommend on their platform. And that’s not even considering other platforms like blogs and websites like Stylecaster or Refinery29, and print magazines like InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire and so on.
Getting your products in all these places is considered media outreach.
Now you may be thinking media outreach is expensive, but that doesn’t have to be the case at all. While it’s true that many of the big influencers, especially those on Instagram, will expect to be paid for promoting your business, I suggest you start working with micro-influencers who will often do it for free.
These are people who already have a pretty good following–– so something between 10,000 and 50,000 followers–– but are still at the start of their journey.
Before you reach out to social media influencers, make sure they have really good engagement. I usually only reach out to people who get several thousands of likes per post on Instagram, and an average of thousands of views on YouTube. These guys are always looking for new and awesome products to introduce to their audience.
Also definitely reach out to print magazines. There are two routes to appear in a magazine, and that’s by paying for an advertisement which can cost thousands of dollars, or you can reach out to an editor for free for a chance to be featured in a product roundup, which is super valuable for your business.
I was featured completely for free in Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine and that feature made me $20,000 in sales in just one month. That’s not counting the residual sales I kept getting months and years later from that one feature.
Compare that with a paid ad in that magazine, which I’ve seen can cost around $20,000 for just one ad!
To get featured for free, all you need to do is find the right person to get in touch with, and with their permission, send them a free product. If they love what they see, and they probably will, then they’ll be happy to introduce your work to their readers and followers.
Remember, you’re helping them out as much as they’re helping you. These influencers and magazine editors need to find interesting content to share with their followers, and it can be a constant struggle to source that. You’re helping them do their jobs.
Media outreach is so powerful. This is how I grew my own handmade jewelry business and coaching business and it’s the same strategy you’ll see used by many other hugely successful brands online to get to where they are today.
There are so many more ways you can promote your products from paid ads and SEO to doing social media and blogging, but media outreach is really one of the easiest and most effective ways to get started especially if you’re low on budget.