Fashion mentors: free & good advice to start a clothing line

Circumstances dictate revisiting what mentoring means, and how to get good and free advice in starting your clothing line. As an aside, I thought “free” was implied in a mentoring relationship but that seems to be evolving. A lot of people market themselves as mentors but then expect you to pay for it. Call me crazy but that sounds like consulting to me. For our purposes, we will assume mentoring is free -and this is critical.

Mentoring is oversold in some respects; judging from what you read on the internet, mentoring is so great for mentors they wouldn’t want to do anything else. It can be true that a mentor is helping you for warm squishies but they have to be selective because there’s a much larger pool of protégés (colloq. “mentees”) than mentors. You know, supply and demand. More yous, less mes. So let’s talk about that -you can’t be picked unless you know what you’re up against.

If a mentor is any good, they’re quickly drained and tapped out unless they set boundaries because everyone wants a piece so a mentor becomes selective or dies. Literally. Only a paid mentor has time to be everyone else’s dream machine; all other mentors must carve out time to eat, sleep, earn a living to care for their families, and even time to relax and regenerate. So let’s say a mentor has one hour a week to devote to grooming the industry’s next star -you. Why should that mentor pick you? It is very very easy to know who is worth the investment of our limited time -we pick people who are resourceful. Meaning, skip the pitch -we pick you by your questions. It’s not what you tell us, it’s what you ask us. Resourceful means asking good questions and following through because to the right person, a single word can be sufficient. At the same time, asking too many questions is a red flag and so I’ll explain how to attain tasteful balance so your mentor doesn’t think you’re trying to take advantage.

How to get a mentor interested in you:
The single most important thing you can do to get a fashion mentor interested in your clothing line project is to have read their work beforehand. Developing well formed and specific questions based on their analysis and conclusions is the surest and quickest way to get them to help you -even if they have no time (trust me on this). It is not necessary that you agree with their analysis or conclusions but you must invest reading and study time in your project (google is not research, it’s a passive index, not analysis or content). If you do the research, you may discover this person has already answered your question in great detail. If not, your questions should cite conclusions from your research and explain how it contradicts or compliments information from other authorities or that of your own analysis.*

If you don’t have enough research to pull from, the best strategy is to request reading recommendations. The key to making the presentation of your problem compelling is by explaining what you have already done. That doesn’t mean saying you’ve sketched and sketched till your arm hurts or that you’ve done the research and this product does not exist anywhere (the kiss of death). No mentor is going to answer an open ended question because it takes too long -and you don’t want the recipient to get the impression you expect them to do your homework for you. And even if they don’t think that, someone won’t want to give you inappropriate information but without a summary of work you’ve done so far, no one will know what to feed you. Context is everything.

How to get a mentor to ignore you:
Now I’ll tell you what doesn’t work in asking questions. The first time you ask me a question, I’ll explain the answer in detail, what to do next and where to get more information. You know, what a resourceful person needs to get off and running.

The second time you ask me a closely related question –which would have been answered if you followed through on what I told you the first time-, I’ll give you the answer, maybe explain a little but follow through with resources for you to solve the problem yourself (resourceful, remember?).

The third time you ask me a question –that would have been answered if you’d been resourceful enough to follow the advice I gave the first two times-, I’m becoming annoyed and starting to wonder why you’re asking me but I’ll respond, mostly for the benefit of others who may be following the conversation but weren’t privy to the ongoing situation.

The fourth time you ask me… I’m left with a tangle of unanswered questions as to the suitability of our match but the unavoidable conclusion is that you don’t respect me. I will bail because the situation is illogical – why continue to ask me questions if you don’t respect my advice sufficiently to have followed it yet? Will the fourth time be the magical number and you’ll listen to me now when you didn’t before? I really don’t know what it is but with only one hour to groom the industry’s next star, I need to move on to someone else who is resourceful enough to use my time more efficiently.

Minimally, a resourceful person is someone who -once they gain the ear of an authority- respects the time and advice they’ve asked of a knowledgeable person. Respect means following the advice they have solicited on various occasions before expecting a second, third or fourth serving of it.

How to repay a mentor:
Although a traditional mentor is free, there is a payback in the relationship or you can’t make any more withdrawals. Luckily, paying a mentor is super easy: Do what they say! As someone reminded me today, people know they don’t know but they don’t know how much they don’t know. Their default is to assume they know better than an authority when said authority tells them something they didn’t want to hear. So that’s pivotal right there -good advice is typically not what you wanted to hear but what you needed to hear. It takes internal strength and resourcefulness to switch gears and revise your idea of how your fashion empire unfolds. You don’t have to do what a mentor says all of the time but good grief, don’t come back for a fourth helping if you’ve not followed any of their previous advice. That said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who can reassess and re-engage.

Some aspiring protégés think they are repaying the mentor by asking them more questions as “an opportunity to contribute” and get “exposure”. However kindly intended, don’t assume an authority is struggling in obscurity because you’ve never heard of them (you’re out of the loop) or that they want “exposure”. If your friends are like you, it could mean being exposed to still more people who also don’t follow advice but ask more questions, the answers to which they also don’t intend to apply. I think it is better to for an individual to become better and more exposed themselves by joining the mentor’s community. The best way to get exposure for someone you admire is by being a role model, an example of what they teach.

The conclusion is, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. If your teacher hasn’t come, you’re not ready. Get ready and then they’ll be crawling out of the woodwork.

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*My best source for information is buried in bibliographies.

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