New Fashion Designer Musts!

We are fortunate in Vancouver to have six schools constantly adding to our pool of fashion design talent.  I would conservatively guess that over 200 graduates hit the streets every year.  The statistic given me once was that only 5% of those will actually go on to be designers of their own line.  A large percentage of those that stay in fashion for the long haul work in the industry for other designers or fashion houses.  The rest move on to different careers. 

I have no idea if the 5% is an accurate figure or not, but it's probably a pretty good indication of reality.  I would have put it at an even lower figure.  It takes a combination of so many strengths to stay the difficult course of having your own line.  Talent, vision, confidence, a finger on the pulse of where fashion is heading, strong business sense and MONEY are just the tip of the iceberg.  I know designers who were carrying enormous debt loads after those first few years because of the long lag between first purchasing fabric and the time at least a year later when you start seeing money come in from retail sources.  Nerves of steel are a necessity.

Everyone tries to start the same way - by cutting corners - but the reality is some corners can't be cut if you want to effectively attract quality stockists.  Here is my opinion on what I see as necessities when you are starting out.  If you don't have the money to do it right, it might be worth waiting a year until you can launch properly.  Always remember, it never hurts to negotiate.  The fashion industry is well aware of the difficulties facing new designers and many have a bit of flexibility in their fees for those first shoots.  You will be expected to follow that up by paying proper rates in the future, but there is a wide variance out there. Trust is all important, so when you find the right people, I would suggest sticking with them.

1.  Website - I cannot stress enough how important a proper website is.  When I hear a lead on a new designer, the first thing I look for is a website to see what they're doing. If you don't even have a website, I assume you are not established enough to be featured.  In 3-1/2 years there has only been one exception I know of.  The website can be very simple, but it needs to look professional, have some concise background information, a clear idea of the garments you produce must be shown (how many times have I looked images on a site and had no idea what the line was about), at least a short bio and my number one pet peeve - I WANT TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE!  In this global world, figuring out where a business is located is like a cat-and-mouse game on most websites.  If I can't figure it out, I leave.

2.  Photography - The photography on your site is your calling card.  You wouldn't go out with a bad haircut, so take that same mentality when presenting your collection.  Paying for a proper photo shoot with hair, make-up and stylist needs to be a priority.  You don't have to hire the most expensive in town, but you do need someone experienced in this area with samples on their website to prove it.  Ask for some names from other designers with great look books, check out local publications (in Vancouver there is Vancouver Fashion eZine, TLC, String Magazine, The Fashion Guard and more that have a wide variety of photographers who submit).  Pick two or three that have a style that works with your aesthetic and then check out their website.  Look for consistency and quality in the work presented.  What you need first is a quote to shoot your lookbook and I would ask for a package deal - one price that covers it all.  The price will partially depend on the number of garments they need to shoot and the cost of the model used.  Eventually you will need to pay for a few editorial photos that can be used by media or included in press releases, but in the beginning, what money you have available should be focused on a having a great look book.

3.  Professional Quality Look book - Every designer needs a great look book to show to potential stockists.  Unless this was a part of your student training AND you have a talent for it, there is no shortcut for having a professional create this for you.  If you hoping to sell in local boutiques, you can take your collection in, but it's always nice to have something for the buyer to look at afterwards.  A professional looking product translates into sales.  Printing is another huge expense, but I think this can be bypassed at the start by having electronic versions available.  They can be emailed to buyers you already met as a follow-up, they can be sent to stockists in other areas and you can burn a few CD's as to hand out.  As your business grows you will need to have printed versions, but in the beginning the focus should be on excellent photography and a well-designed look book.  Electronic pdf flip books have opened the doors wide open on this market, offering a really appealing email version of your look book that looks just like a printed product.

4.  Model - SIGH!  There are a few talented and beautiful freelance models working the area, but please do not ask your best friend to step in. You never know - you might luck out.  But you are putting out who you are as a designer and you need the very best images possible to represent you. If you want to use a freelance model, you have to do your research carefully.  A safer choice is to use an agency but that does not mean you have to book their top, most experienced model.   Agencies always have new talent in development.  There are also several that specialize in fuller figured models and alternative models if that's your cup of tea.  The right photographer can be a huge help in this area as long as they fully understand the look you are going for. 

5. Sourcing Agent - A new professional I was not aware of until recently was the sourcing agent.  This person works on an hourly rate to save you money by helping you access the level of quality required and hooking you up with the best sources and manufacturers at the lowest prices.  They will also negotiate contracts and oversee shipments to make sure they are timely. Most are also available for market research, organizing collection launches and travelling on your behalf.   We are fortunate to have a very experienced one locally - Geneviève Duthé of Gesource.  Although the main focus of her business is to work side-by-side with designers and fashion houses, she offers a two-hour consultation for those just out of design school to help them understand the steps needed to launch their first collection. No sources are given here, this is an overview of how to get from start to finish - the launch of your first collection.

6.  Other - I would like to end with two other things I think are important to be successful.  First, make sure you have a solid knowledge on business basics such as:  how to write your business plan, how to apply for business loans, basic accounting and how to structure/run a business.  Even if your school touched on these things, there are several great courses available to suppliment what you learned in class. Most designers end up spending 90% of their time on business and 10% on designing, so you can never know too much in this area. Last but not least, a few internships working in the industry under established designers can be a real eye opener as to what is needed, provide business acumen and put you in contact with resources - all things that could make the difference between your future success or failure.

I am privileged to be a part of the Vancouver scene and have the opportunity get to know some of this new talent.  Hopefully we will see a few of them rise to the top and achieve international success.  If you would like to keep an eye on fashion artists that are entering the industry in your area, just check out the graduation fashion shows at any of your city's local fashion design schools.