I was recently talking to Buf Reynolds, an Omaha-based designer who is the Designer Coordinator for Omaha Fashion Week and currently featured on the cover of Encounter Magazine. I've always admired Buf's willingness to seek and receive feedback, which is something that influenced me when I was a fashion week designer for several seasons. As she works with the OFW team to judge applications for the next season's show, she reached out to me (and many other past designers and industry people). We spoke about how designers can better position themselves for success with retailers, and I'm eager to share a few points from that discussion with you, for anyone who wants it.
1. As a designer who wants to be carried commercially, you have to know something about the retail world. Spend some time thinking about what kind of retailer you want to work with. Is it Macy's? Is it ModCloth? Is it an indie boutique? Take a night and actually learn about your target market--not just the consumer who is the end buyer, but the businesses that you hope will carry your line. If a judge on a fashion week panel, someone in the press, or a potential buyer asks "Who buys your clothes," you should have an answer and a plan.
2. Think realistically about your price point in terms of what retailers will be able to sell. You can learn more about this by going into shops you like or looking at comparable stores online and observing what else they sell. What price points do they typically carry? That's the range you need to stay within. If you're far above their price point, you might not be a good fit and an ask may be a waste of time.
3. And when I talk about retail pricing, keep in mind that's with a wholesale markup. For example, if you're planning to have a dress retail at $100, you need to be able to sell it to a boutique at $50. To make a profit from that sale, you should be able to design and produce that dress for around $25. That's just an example, markups vary, but this is about what your retail partners will expect at the low end. Many retailers will look for a 2.5 or 3x markup, in which case you'd have to manufacture each piece for $15-20. (No wonder it's hard to compete as an independent designer!)
4. This markup is a good reason that many indie designers (like the ones in independent fashion weeks) want to venture out on their own, market their own private label, and not work with retailers. This can work, but then you have to run your own business which takes a lot of time away from design. Learn about designers who have done it this way, too--Clare Vivier, Rachel Antonoff, Dusen Dusen, Heinui, Family Affairs, Corey Lynn Calter, Samantha Pleet, there are so many. Whichever route you choose, there are many pros and cons.
5. Any retailer you approach will expect to see a "linesheet" and a "lookbook." A lookbook can be a .pdf file that shows professional photographs of all the pieces in your line. It helps when there are photos taken straight-on that show how the clothes look, and then more styled editorial photographs that show how the clothes move and help the buyer make an emotional connection to your line. A linesheet can be an excel file or another .pdf that simply shows the prices of each piece, the sizes you can produce, your payment and delivery terms, and your order minimums. A typical linesheet would show the name of each piece, the sizes, and the wholesale and retail prices. It would also give an order minimum--sometimes it'll say the buyer must carry a minimum of five styles, and sometimes it's a value minimum like $500 or $1000. Sometimes pieces come in "pre-packs," meaning a set number of each size, and sometimes collections are "open sizing" meaning the buyer can get as many of whatever size they want, which is typical when pieces are made to order. Hello Holiday won't typically work with designers who can't give us a linesheet and lookbook, and that's not unusual.
6. Keep your branding and packaging consistent and expensive-looking. Vistaprint.com and Moo.com are great resources to get hang tags, postcards, etc. on nice thick paper, PaperMart.com, Uline.com are good places to get plastic bags and hangers, and all of them often have sales and coupon codes. The branding and packaging can add value or remove value from your collection, and sometimes that's the deciding factor for a retailer who is considering your line. We just can't carry something with an ugly tag. I dunno.
7. Designing one or two low-priced, well-designed, interesting accessories is a great way to get your foot in the door with retailers. Sometimes retailers want to try out a more inexpensive piece before committing to a big order of clothing from your line.
At Hello Holiday and throughout my brief experience in the fashion design and blogging world, I've been asked a few times about advice for beginning designers who aspire for more exposure, whether through traditional retail or through their own channels. There are many ways to reach your goals, but nothing beats hitting the pavement and building your own support and PR network because the truth is that no matter what anyone else has done, there is no formula you can copy for success.