6 Struggles of Being an Independent Fashion Designer​​​​​​​

Maybe you’ve given serious thought to becoming an independent designer and you’ve looked into the cost of starting a clothing brand. Whether you are trained, experienced or a happy amateur with a flair for fashion, there are lots of inspiring stories of others who have succeeded in setting up a successful independent label. Tiffany Rose started her UK-based and manufactured maternity wear line, from her kitchen table, with just £1,000. 15 years later, it’s a global success story. But for every Tiffany Rose there are many more who did not make it.

Building a fashion brand is a wonderful dream but it’s never easy. Here are some of the key challenges you will face.

1. Wearing different hats

One of the most notable differences in being an independent designer is that you have to wear several different hats. You’re not only a designer, but often you need to act as an accountant, developer, IT specialist, marketer, project manager, promoter, and salesperson.

It’s important to outsource as many of those support tasks as soon as you are able, so that you can focus your time on what you are best at and what makes your company unique: your designs. Platforms like Fiverr and Peopleperhour can help you to connect with other freelancers quickly and efficiently.

But driving forward your company means that you will have to develop a business as well as a creative mindset. Those are not as incompatible as you might initially think. Designers are natural picture thinkers – in business that’s known as ‘big picture’ thinking and it’s seen as a sign of successful leadership.

As an independent you’ll need to be designer who is a good negotiator and a solid communicator. Or, you’ll want to keep your sketchpad on you for when you have to travel for a meeting with a client. Don’t ignore the importance of some of these other hats, no matter how unnecessary or foreign they may seem.

2. Building an authentic brand

Brand is what will enable your designs to cut through. That means having a clear vision and values and consistently applying them to your range. A brand is what you’re known for, so if that is Streetwear don’t confuse your customers by bringing out a formal wear range. Brand is about reducing choice and making things simple for customers, so fight the urge to complicate.

Your brand also needs to cut across every element of your business, including marketing, packaging and the way you communicate with people. So if you want to be known for environmental values, for example, make sure that’s reflected in the fabrics you use, packaging and transportation.

Once you have established the brand ethos, your design skills will help you to apply it to your business image. If you’re starting with a tight budget there are some fantastic, low-cost tools to create great looking websites and marketing and social media materials.

3. Getting known

Cutting through in a crowded marketplace can be the greatest challenge. You can have the most fabulous range there is, but that doesn’t matter if no-one knows about it. Social media has changed the rules of the PR game for many brands. Getting key influencers to wear and talk about your products has provided the break through for many. Just a shout-out on Twitter from Simon Pegg, propelled  start-up label Dark Bunny Tees sales by 80%, while we’re now seeing brands reach billion-dollar turnovers through Instagram.

Quick hype never lasts for ever though. You need to have a solid product beneath it and follow through with impressive delivery, packaging and customer service. Process design is just as important as your product design skills.

4. Knowing your numbers

Despite the fact that there is beautiful maths in garment construction, many fashion designers go blank when it comes to the financial numbers in their business. You can’t afford to take that chance. Profit margins in the fashion industry are typically just 4.5%, so it will not take much to push the business into the red.

You’ll probably need an accountant, but don’t delegate responsibility for keeping on top of those key numbers. Staying on top of the figures at all times is a lot easier these days with online accounting software. Your overall Profit & Loss and Cashflow forecasts are crucial but just as important is monitoring performance inside the business (eg. individual product sales and stock control) so that if there are any trends you can see the signs early enough to make adjustments.

5. Finding funding

Lots of businesses can be started with little or no money. But independent fashion design isn’t one of them, unfortunately. You obviously need equipment, materials and space. You’ll probably need funding.

It’s important to do as much market research as you can before you invest too much. Test designs out on Instagram; likes are not enough though, the only real proof of demand is actual sales. You could also try a pop-up stall or shop. When you have evidence of demand you can approach funders. The government’s Start Up Loans scheme is a good place to start. You can borrow up to £25,000 at a reasonable rate of interest and they will provide a mentor to support your business too.

6. Going it alone

If you’ve worked as a designer previously, you’ll be used to working in a tight team. When you start your own label you’ll more likely be working remotely, with a dispersed team of freelancers and online resources.

The autonomy can be exhilarating. You don’t have to have a meeting before a marketing campaign or before a major project if you don’t want to. You can manage your own time exactly as you think best. While you’re likely to spend more time than ever on work, it will be much more focused and much less frustrating.

Make sure you take steps to stop alone from being lonely. Join relevant networks, online and in person, and make time for friends and family. Turning your fashion dream into a reality is an amazing thing and even better if you have people to share it with.

Start now…

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