Three women who did it share the designing, manufacturing, and building a business model for an exclusive collection.

By Alexa Erickson
July 16, 2020
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Alistair Berg / Getty Images

sHave you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

A vision is what first inspires the fledgling designer. It begins with sketching designs and producing a first collection, before dominating today's department stores nationwide. However, while many people dream big, it's having the passion and drive that fuels an idea into an iconic brand. The truth is, the fashion industry is not for any entrepreneur. You need to be open to criticism and allow it to drive you toward greatness. You need to have patience, and trust in the process. And perhaps, most important of all, you need a solid grasp of branding, in-store retail, e-commerce, online marketing—everything that it takes—to create a lasting business.

We tapped the brilliant minds of three women who have started their own successful clothing lines, so you can learn the dos, don'ts, and goings on of the process from their perspective.

Define your brand.

With so many apparel lines out there, it's critical to find what sets yours apart. For Oma the Label creator Neumi Anekhe, that was representing the underrepresented. "I created a brand on the basis of a genuine need for brands representing people of color," she says. "The first step was to figure out what specifically sets my brand apart. I advise anyone before starting a brand to find out what purpose it serves to your ideal consumer and focus on how you can tend to their wants and needs."

Identify a need in the market.

Once you know what makes your brand special, refine it. Phoebe Kunitomi, founder and CEO of the intimates brand okko, suggests welcoming outside council. "My recommendation is to start off refining your idea by gathering insights from real people, particularly your target customer base," says Kunitomi. "For okko, that meant that I interviewed over a hundred women across the demographic spectrum. These answers not only informed our product design, but also assisted with better understanding how women talked about their undergarments."

Develop a business plan.

After you refine your concept, Kunitomi recommends crunching the numbers. "At a high level, I always knew that I wanted okko to have diversified revenue streams to avoid being overly dependent on a single channel," she says. "That meant from day one our two main sources of revenue were direct-to-consumer via our website and wholesale. My business model then detailed exactly how I planned to acquire customers in both of these areas." Kunitomi recommends memorializing your business model in a business plan using a working document that outlines your business model, customer acquisition strategy, sales forecasts and budget, hiring strategy, and so on.

Still, don't get ahead of yourself. Anekhe suggests finding the beauty in starting small. "In the beginning, I remember having so many ideas of pieces that I wanted to make and I wanted to produce them all at once," she says. "Instead, I focused on only a few pieces and worked on creating the best product and allowing my customer to get to know me first before introducing a new product."

Design your first collection.

Elizabeth Spiering, co-founder and CEO of Flora Dancia, suggests creating a line plan. "Our collections are very fabric and print driven," she says. "Once we decide on which fabrics and prints we are going to use, we design into them. We create a line plan outlining the number of styles, which also includes number units, fabric cost, production costs, sample costs. A working document that is constantly referenced."

And always prioritize quality over quantity. "Personally, I focused on every detail of the product and tried my best to execute those well," says Anekhe. "It didn't really matter how many pieces I had on my site. I focused on the product quality versus the product quantity."

Understand manufacturing operations.

Next, it's time to turn those sketches into a product. Anekhe found it helpful to find a manufacturer with a small minimum quantity orders (MQO). "It allowed me to add on more styles to my collection as I grew to understand my customers more," she says. Kunitomi, who recalls her experience, suggests getting references from the manufacturers' other clients, along with visiting the facility yourself to see working conditions. "Hire a consultant with experience in this area to advise you," she says. "Think strategically about the manufacturer's location, which can have implications on your costs and lead times."

Otherwise, as Kunitomi emphasizes, it could cost you: "I know, because I picked a bad manufacturer, and it cost a six-figure amount to fix these early mistakes."

Build your brand's presence online.

In the age of Instagram and e-commerce, it's imperative that your brand has a solid presence online. "A company should create a website that is inviting, luring the customer to want to explore the product extensively," says Spiering. "You have to have a good understanding of all the creative assets required: photo shoots for product lay-down shots, photo shoots on the model, and lifestyle images for landing pages. Then, there's navigation. You need to make the shopping experience as easy as possible for the consumer."

This extends to the brand's social media presence, as Anekhe explains. "I thought about who I wanted to wear my pieces," she says, "and what type of website and Instagram they would potentially be attracted to." As part of that brand alignment, Spiering suggests tapping into the power of influencers: "It is important that you align with the right partners that truly love and believe in the product as much as you do."

Lean on your network of support.

"I personally did not want to focus on outside investments early on, but rather keep reinvesting whatever little money I made into OMA. But something we all tend to forget about when we start a business is asking our family and friends for help," says Anekhe. "It might not be the most comfortable thing to do, but present it in a professional manner and you never know what you might get out of it. This way, you might not have to give up ownership of your company early on to an outside investor, because your family member might only require that you pay them back their investment."

Welcome the challenges.

Starting a clothing line is a lot of work, but if it's your passion, you'll know it's worth it. "Be intentional about everything you do when it comes to your brand and allow yourself to fail because that is how you learn what works for you and what doesn't," says Anekhe. "I hope more women who are sitting on an amazing business idea find the courage to take the leap—what is the worst that can happen?" Kunitomi agrees. "My mentor once told me, 'You have a dream, and you need to follow it,'" she says. "For everyone else out there with a dream to become an entrepreneur, go out and do it. With more small businesses and diverse founders, the world will be a better place."

Spiering encourages you to remain confident. "You must have confidence, and believe in yourself and your product," she says. "Don't listen to those who say you will not succeed. Starting your own business is expensive, and stressful, so you need to be committed to it! The rewards definitely outweigh the stress. When you see your final product, it is an extraordinary feeling."

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