In this blog, I want to share a few successes and mistakes I encountered when starting my own lifestyle apparel brand. If you’ve got an idea for a clothing company but don’t know where to start, this is for you. There are a few things I wish I had known when getting started that you will want to avoid or simply pay attention to.
1. First, figure out what will make your brand unique
Before deciding on a name, or even a niche, it’s really important that you do your research. I found this out the hard way, and quickly realized that the niche that I was looking to enter was extremely crowded. This is not necessarily a problem, if you can decide what will make your brand unique. Is your goal to produce t-shirts that are the softest, and most well-made shirt on the market – or will you rely on good designs? My personal preference is to always to choose quality of material. After all, a great looking design won’t matter if the garment completely falls apart after two washes.
For me, I spent a lot of money on shirts that were good, but nothing special. Eventually, a few designs I created after about $300 just never sold. Whether it’s your slogan, colors, material, or designs, make sure your clothing is different than anything else’s on the market. In some way, in some form. Being different is the best way to create a market.
2. Start with T-shirts
T-shirts are what the majority of lifestyle apparel brands start with because of their low cost and wide availability. I personally prefer a softer, form-fitting t-shirt like the Next Level CVC. You can find them on Amazon in a bunch of colors. I order from Amazon to test designs in certain colors since I can order smaller quantities. One thing I would not suggest is going to a screen printer to have a bunch of one design made to start with.
Until you start actually finding out if there is any demand for your designs, you need to test the market first. For beginners, I would recommend fulfilling orders on-demand using a heat press. In other words, order a bunch of professional plastisol transfers with your brand’s designs on them, cut them out, and then you’re ready to press them onto your garments once an order is placed. For more information on printing methods, check out Heat Press vs Screen Printing vs DTG: What’s Best for Your Budget?.
3. Work with a graphic designer you can afford
To be honest, if you’re not a graphic designer, the most expensive part will probably be getting a logo created by someone who is proficient in Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop. One thing you might want to consider is finding a college student who is looking for a few extra dollars instead of hiring a professional at least to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, your logo is the most important part of the design process, so you will want to use someone who knows what they’re doing. To get an apparel brand off the ground, you don’t have to have dozens of designs, but 4 or 5 would be a good idea.
If your logo you have envisioned is rather simple, this should be a pretty easy task for a college student to tackle in a weekend (for example). There are websites where you can work with designers online like Fiverr.com or Upwork.com, but do so at your own risk. Keep in mind the quality may not be what you’re hoping for and it can be hard for someone you’re not verbally speaking with to understand your vision.
4. Get online with a basic e-commerce store
If you’re starting a lifestyle brand, it goes without saying that being online is essential. The good news is that you can get started for about 20 bucks per month through e-commerce providers like Shopify. There are plenty of e-commerce vendors you can use, but Shopify is probably the easiest option for beginners. It’s really easy to use, and you can start promoting your products within a week. Even if you’ve never built an e-commerce website before, Shopify has great documentation for setting up a domain, adding products, and fulfilling orders.
5. Plan a photoshoot with friends
Product photography is expensive if you’re looking to outsource. Once you have a couple of samples made, find a friend who is familiar with photography and have a photoshoot. My advice would be to go into the city, the country, or whatever setting fits the lifestyle you’re going for and take some photos of scenery that fits your brand.
You can use these photos for the homepage banner section of your website, and also the product pages. One idea is to buy a white backdrop kit on Amazon like this one to take some photos with a clean, white background. If you don’t want to invest in lighting kits, I would recommend taking all photos outside. This way you don’t have to worry about lighting or shadows.
6. Test your market
This one is big. One of the mistakes I encountered when starting my first apparel brand, was that there just wasn’t enough interest outside of friends and family. It’s important that you take a few samples to a swap meet, flea market, convention, rally, or really anywhere where you can sell your brand to complete strangers. Your family and friends will almost always support what you’re doing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have created something the market is wanting and will pay for. Some ideas I thought were worth a million bucks, and turned out to be complete busts. Others I thought were good, not great, but turned out to be my most popular sellers. Being able to test designs on a budget is key.
7. Create a social presence and consistently post
Instagram is probably the best place to get feedback for new design concepts and getting your message out. Take photos of the production process, your photoshoot, unboxing your inventory, and share it with the world. Being authentic is something that is not stressed, especially on social media, but is crucial for setting your brand apart online. Don’t do what everyone else is doing, and don’t be afraid to post images that are people in real life, wearing your brand in real settings.
With so much clutter on social media, do your best to send a message that’s different. What is likely to attract the attention you want? Figure out how to engage with the audience you are going after, and post often.
8. Find a place to store inventory
Once order start coming in, you need to have an efficient process for pulling orders. I personally prefer using a storage unit, but if you’re just starting out, you may be able to store everything in a garage or spare bedroom.
One idea is to label an old bookcase or storage rack with a system that allows you to find inventory quickly. If you’ve got multiple shirt blanks in different sizes and colors, you need to make sure things don’t get lost and you have an accurate count.
For ideas on coming up with an inventory system, check out these 3 steps for setting up a simple inventory system for small businesses.
9. Do your research
It can be tempting to assume you only need a couple of t-shirts and a few designs to get going, but do your research beforehand. You don’t want to pick a subpar shirt, and be stuck with a bunch of inventory that you don’t want to sell. Be sure to order a couple of samples before you get started, no matter if it’s t-shirts or button downs.
Also consider your sales strategy, where you plan to sell your clothing, and what your online sales channels will look like. Many brands like Crocs and Under Armour sell directly to consumers on marketplaces like eBay, so this may be a good option to help get the word out. Any social network or marketplace like eBay (that already has traffic) is a great idea to leverage to begin with. Building and growing website traffic can be extremely difficult at first, so you need to use every sales channel available to get your products in front of as many people as possible.
10. Set a budget you are comfortable with
Costs can really skyrocket if you aren’t careful. From ongoing website hosting, to printing samples, to building out an inventory system, set yourself a budget before getting started. If you are planning on starting with T-shirts, around $500 is a good starting point that should allow you to launch your brand.
Keep in mind, starting a lifestyle brand requires re-ordering, maintenance, and paying taxes on any profits you make. I recommend saving every receipt from day one to prepare for this at the end of the year. Once you begin selling inventory, I would consult with a CPA to figure out how to keep track of everything and what business structure you may want to consider. Taxes don’t have to be as difficult as many people make them out to be, and small one-person operation often times only require filling out a Schedule C at tax time. Again, make sure you consult with someone before you get over your head.
11. Wear your own brand & find influencers
When you’re growing a lifestyle brand, you are the face of the brand at the end of the day. Are your designs something you would want to wear? Do your designs represent things you are passionate about? Once you have a website up and running, wear your gear in public as often as possible. It’s free advertising, and you will actually begin to see website traffic (from personal experience).
Also, understand that you will need to be willing to give away a few samples to friends, family, and influencers that you choose. Don’t go overboard with this, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Vistaprint.com has some great advertising options like business cards and postcards that you can order to get the word out. I like to post these on bulletin boards at coffee shops, college campuses, and other trendy hangouts.
At the end of the day, it’s not as simple as just getting a few designs out and becoming the next Supreme or Vineyard Vines. Building a lifestyle apparel brand takes time, but can be done on a budget if you take small steps and have determination.