A behind-the-scenes look at starting a fashion brand
Meet Kat Rosati, the founder of Apparel Booster. After years in the fashion industry, (doing everything from design, to production and sourcing, to marketing), she realized that many fashion brands or aspiring entrepreneurs have the vision and the enthusiasm to succeed, but they need someone to guide them through the process. So, she created an agency that does exactly that.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek, through her eyes, at the industry and some of the potential challenges that new entrepreneurs face within it.
Finding the right problems to solve
Kat started her business after running into her own obstacles within the industry. After working as a freelance fashion designer for a while, she was hired by a local supplier. There weren’t a lot of jobs in the industry close to where she lived, and at first, she thought the job would be a perfect fit—the owner talked a lot about being value-driven and prioritizing ethical manufacturing.
After working with him for a few months, however, Kat realized that he was grossly overcharging his clients and many of his practices were blatantly deceptive. For example, he’d go to Nordstroms, buy garments, cut off the tags, and then pass them off to clients as “factory samples.” He didn’t really have any factory connections, and he wasn’t being truthful about his (lack of) experience in the industry.
She couldn’t stomach working for someone who took advantage of people like that, so she quit.
“I just called my husband and I was like, “I quit. I know that’s not ideal for our family right now, but I can’t keep working for this guy. There’s got to be a better way because I know what brands need—they need someone to show them the way.”
She created Apparel Booster to fill that need. At first, she primarily did design and development, but she slowly started building her team and expanding her services. Now, her team works with fashion brands through nearly every stage, from aspiring entrepreneurs with a great idea and not much else to established brands who need help solving a specific problem.
Most of the problems Kat solves for her clients center around marketing, production, or both. Here’s a handful of her tips on each.
Laying the foundation for effective marketing
When Kat is working with early-stage entrepreneurs, one of the first and most important steps is to identify a target market and conduct market research. In fact, she stresses this so heavily that she’ll send clients away if they haven’t taken this step yet.
Sometimes people come to me and I have to say “You’re not ready to work with me yet. You need to go do some market research and go through a couple of other steps. Once you’ve done that, come back and we’ll talk.”
Market research, Kat says, is commonly overlooked but it’s an essential first step because you need to confirm that there’s a market for your product before you invest a lot of time, energy, and money into manufacturing it. If you learn that there isn’t a market, that’s okay—you can always adjust your strategy based on your research. But if you move forward without verifying the market, you might find yourself stuck with a lot of a product that you can’t sell.
So, now that we’ve established the importance of market research … how do you do it? Kat has a guide to the first steps, expressly designed for the fashion industry, on her blog.
Once you’ve done this initial research, you need to build upon it by refining your message and your brand positioning. At this point, you might already have the product figured out—you just need to show potential customers why they should buy it. This is challenging for a lot of business owners, and Kat says it can be especially difficult for mission-oriented, sustainable brands.
A lot of times, the business owner is really caught up in what they’re making and the greater good that they’re trying to create in the world. But at the same time, these clients often don’t understand why people buy their products. They’ll make their pitch about the impact they’re trying to make in the world, but when it really comes down to it, most people buy fashion because they like it, and the feel-good aspect is secondary. We help these brands find the right audience and position their product.
Once you’ve identified the right target market and brand positioning, it’s a lot easier to create an effective, on-budget marketing campaign.
Problem-solving and prevention through production
As a new fashion entrepreneur, one of the most challenging tasks is figuring out how to get your vision into production. Whenever you’re manufacturing physical goods with factories, the stakes go way up. This is especially true for premium fashion brands, where the manufacturing costs are typically high. So, naturally, this is another area of focus for Kat and her team.
One thing we do really well is finding creative ways to get into production for premium brands—finding unconventional ways to get their product made on time and within budget.
Managing production, Kat says, requires research, a little skepticism, and some basic knowledge of the industry—otherwise, it’s easy to make expensive mistakes. Here’s just one example, from Kat, of where and how things can unexpectedly go wrong.
A couple of years ago, I worked with a premium line that had been around for a couple of years. They had built it up to a three-million-dollar company on their own, which is impressive and awesome since they had no experience in the industry.
They were working with a manufacturer in China, and what they didn’t realize is that usually, a factory specializes in certain types of garments. A lot of times, if a factory is hungry for work, they’ll say yes to anything, so it’s really up to the person who’s managing the production to know what the factory specializes in since you don’t want a factory that specializes in knits to do jeans.
Well, that’s exactly what happened here. The brand got samples and the samples were great, but there are specific steps you need to take during manufacturing when you adjust sizes up or down from the samples—otherwise, the garments won’t fit right. My clients didn’t know this, so they ended up with like, $50,000 worth of jeans that they couldn’t sell because every size other than the sample size didn’t fit: the pockets weren’t where they should be, the waistbands were too tight, the hips were too wide … I helped them streamline and standardize their whole production process, and helped them get the right manufacturer for their bottoms so they don’t run into that issue again.
That’s not the only horror story that Kat’s encountered. She also worked with a client who had their factory finish developing the designs and Tech Paks (which are basically blueprints for their garments). Everything was fine for a time, but when the factory unexpectedly closed, they had to basically start the design process over again from scratch.
Careful planning and management of the production process can prevent a host of common—and potentially devastating—issues like inconsistent quality, improper sizing, or high costs. This is definitely an area to take your time, do your research, and avoid cutting any corners.
It’s also important to build relationships with suppliers you can trust, and to understand that even good suppliers might not have the knowledge or experience to do everything you need. That’s when personal experience or a seasoned production manager comes in handy.
The takeaway? It takes a lot of work, foresight, and planning to start a business within the fashion industry. That’s part of the appeal for Kat, she says, because “I have this insatiable desire to solve the puzzle.” It’s true for many other new-or-aspiring entrepreneurs, as well, because it’s an industry with a lot of room for creativity and innovation.
With the rise of direct-to-consumer brands, crowdfunding, digital marketing, new eco-friendly materials, lean manufacturing, and a host of other new technologies and practices, the puzzle is more complex but the potential opportunities are more exciting than ever.
Starting a fashion brand is a lot of work, but with diligence, careful planning, and the right relationships you can work through the obstacles and create something beautiful.
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