How to Start a Clothing Line

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Are you always the first to know about the latest fashion trends? Do your friends come to you for fashion advice, and are you known for putting together head-turning, perfectly chic outfits? If so, you might have the makings of a fashion designer. Starting a clothing line and a fashion design business of your own can be an empowering move that lets you put your talents to work. Whether you have your sights set on getting your designs to the runway or want to create a line that you can sell to the public yourself, learn more about how starting your own business could start you on this exciting journey.

Business Overview

The fashion design industry is a large and varied industry that rapidly changes and evolves. It’s the creativity of fashion designers that generates the garments and accessories that support and sometimes influence fashion trends. Designers may specialize in different types of fashion, including haute couture runway fashion or styles that are popular in larger retailers and that are more accessible to the everyday buyer.

Designers may start a clothing line of their own, releasing multiple complimentary pieces that all appeal to a single audience. Some designers partner with larger retailers, coming to agreements where the retailers release and sell the designer’s line. Other designers take a more independent route, designing, producing, and selling their own clothing. Thanks to technology and the ability to sell clothing online directly to consumers, designers no longer need to rely on an agreement with retailers. Today, designers hold more power in their businesses and are able to sell their designs themselves, retaining not only creative control but also building their own design and retail businesses.

Industry summary

According to IBIS World, in 2019, the fashion designer industry brought in $2 billion in revenue. There were 23,974 businesses in operation, and they employed 31,263 people. IBIS World predicts that the industry will continue to grow from 2019 to 2024. That growth will be driven by the fact that fashion is becoming increasingly accessible, resulting in increased demand for new products and style. An increase in disposable income levels leads to consumers seeking out apparel that makes a status statement. Designers collaborating with mass retailers also offers an economic boost to the industry, and if these trends continue, the fashion industry will continue to thrive.

Industry trends

Many trends are shaping the rapidly-evolving fashion design industry. According to CB Insights, one major trend is an increased demand for sustainability in design and garment production. Socially conscious consumers, especially millennials, are looking to designers and brands to use sustainable materials and to invest in ethical labor and transparent manufacturing practices. These shoppers are more likely to purchase products made with materials like vegan leather and organic cotton.

Brandwatch reports that the movement toward revival pieces is likely to continue. Pieces that evoke nostalgia have become more popular, and brands and even the entertainment industry are focusing on the value of nostalgia to evoke powerful emotions and buying responses in customers.

Technology is also certain to continue shaping the clothing line and fashion designer industry. Technology is nearly everywhere in this industry. We’re likely to continue seeing pieces that embody technology, like in the emergence of digital fashion, where buyers can download digital garments that are never available for sale in real life. Technology will also continue to influence fashion design, with more programs and tools available to designers. Designers must also keep up with the evolving world of social media and digital marketing. Influencers have gained tremendous popularity over the last few years, and social media marketing will probably continue to evolve.

Who is the target market for your design business?

Fashion design and clothing line businesses will have different target markets depending on their business model and brands. Most businesses will define their target markets by age, demographic, style, and income. Some businesses may offer only luxury products and styles, while others may focus on designing products for your typical consumer. A business’ niche, like swimwear, dress clothes, or sportswear, can also help to define its target market.

Skills, experience, and education useful in running a clothing line and fashion design business

Starting a clothing line or design business doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experiences can increase the chances of the business becoming a success. 

Design and sewing experience. The more experience a business owner has in design and sewing basics, the better. While designers can hire companies to produce their products, a knowledge of sewing and design will help when producing samples.

Knowledge of fashion trends. A knowledge of fashion trends can benefit a designer in many ways. A designer can ensure that their lines are in keeping with current trends, but they can also use those trends to help generate new and different ideas and styles.

An eye for detail. Designers rely on attention to detail not only in creating designs, but in selecting materials, controlling the quality of their products, and in monitoring sales and inventory for their businesses.

Creativity and originality. Often, highly creative and original ideas that push the envelope are some of the most successful. Designers who can rely on their natural creativity may be able to surprise and delight consumers, launching their brands in the process.  

Costs to Start a Clothing Line Business

Clothing lines and fashion designer businesses can be started out of the home for only a minimal investment in equipment and supplies. You can start a smaller fashion business for around $5,000, while a larger business can cost $50,000 or more to start.

Common startup costs for a clothing line or fashion designer business include:

  •     Equipment and supplies
  •     Inventory of fabrics and materials
  •     Website
  •     Signage

Steps to Starting a Clothing Line Business

Step 1. Write your Business plan

After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a clothing line business plan.  Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.

How to write a business plan
Free sample business plans

Step 2. Form a Business Entity

A business entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation and LLC.  Each type of entity has its own pros and cons such as liability exposure, costs and administrative requirements. 

Related: Comparison of Business Entities

Step 3. Select your Location

A smaller business can operate out of a spare room in a home, but larger design businesses will need rental space or even a storefront. Rental costs will depend on the size and location of the property. Properties in high-traffic retail areas carry higher costs, but they can deliver walk-in traffic and help to build public awareness of the business. Thanks to the availability of sites like Etsy and Poshmark, it’s possible for businesses to operate without a storefront at all, potentially saving on rent costs.

Related: Choosing a business location

Step 4. Apply for Business Licenses and Permits

There are no special clothing line business licenses, but there are some common local, state and federal registrations this type of businesses may need include a sales tax permit, Employer Identification Number, Occupancy Permit among others. 

Related: Common business licenses, permits and registrations by state

Step 5. Find Financing

Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a clothing line is another.  Funding to start a clothing line business can be difficult.  In order to get a loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and be able invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs. 

Related: Finding the money to start a business  

Step 6. Get your Marketing Plan in Place

Fashion businesses need to market continually, and brand development is particularly important in this industry. A fashion business needs to invest in marketing that accurately represents its brand and reaches its target audience. There are nearly countless ways to market a fashion business, but some of the most popular include social media marketing and online advertising. Marketing costs will depend on the type of activity that’s performed.

Related: Low-cost ideas to market a new business

 Step 7. Get Insurance

A fashion business needs several types of insurance for full coverage:

  • General liability insurance protects the business if customers are ever injured while on the business’ property or because of the business’ products. This type of insurance can cover expenses like legal fees and medical bills. 
  • Commercial property insurance protects the business if its supplies and inventory are ever damaged or destroyed during an event like a fire.
  • Workmans comp insurance helps to cover expenses like lost wages and medical bills if an employee is ever injured while at work.

The cost of these insurance policies will depend on factors like the business’ location and the value of its equipment and inventory. To get the most accurate idea of what to budget for insurance, it’s best to request quotes from multiple providers. When comparing the quotes, don’t just base decisions off of the different policy costs. It’s important to look at how other important factors, like coverage limits, exclusions, and deductibles, compare, too.

Step 8. Hiring Employees

As a business grows, it may be necessary to bring on additional staff. PayScale reports that assistant fashion designers earn an average salary of $41,975, though salaries do range from $34,000 to $54,000. A designer may also choose to hire a personal assistant; according to ZipRecruiter, personal assistants earn an average of $39,692 per year.

Once your business is off the ground, you may be able to entice college students to intern for your company.  This is a great idea to get fresh ideas for not a lot of cost. 

In addition to the cost of employee salaries, a business will also need to budget for other expenses, like paid time off, health insurance contributions, and workmans comp insurance.

Related: Hiring your first employee

How much can you potentially make owning a fashion business?

It’s difficult to predict the potential outcome of a fashion business because these businesses vary so greatly in size and success. Glassdoor reports that fashion designers earn an average base salary of $60,865 per year, though salaries can range from $40,000 to $86,000. Income will depend on how the business is run, its specialty, and the overall success of the designer. According to Forbes, a 29-year-old fashion designer with a massively successful business earned $1 million in revenue. While his success isn’t typical, it does demonstrate the variations that can occur within this industry.

Things to consider before starting a fashion business

The fashion industry is highly competitive, so it’s important for designers to find new and creative ways of making their mark in the industry. Rather than taking a broad approach, focusing on a niche can allow you to build a brand with a cohesive, unique feel that can help to attract customers.

It can also be very helpful to build a network of professionals within the industry who can guide you as you develop your business. Professionals who are well-versed in the fashion industry can help you to navigate milestones and challenges like your first fashion show or your first product photo shoot. Finding a mentor to guide you through the various stages of building your brand and business can make the process go more smoothly and potentially save you from some mistakes. This can also be a confidence-booster.

Council of Fashion Designers of America
Fashion Group International, Inc.
Fashion Industry Association
The Fashion Association
United States Fashion Industry Association