The secret to starting a successful children’s clothing line
Today we have a guest entry from Caletha Crawford. For eight years, Caletha was the editor in chief of Earnshaw’s magazine, the leading business publication for the children’s apparel industry. In that role, she advised designers and retailers on industry trends, best practices, sales insights and fashion cycles. Her readership and contacts spanned independent start-up brands to multimillion dollar design houses. She’s attended countless trade shows and market events both here and internationally.
Today, in addition to consulting with brands to help them better understand the industry, communicate their positioning and grow their market share, she is a professor at Parsons The New School for Design. There, she teaches students of the tools needed to successfully launch their own clothing lines. Whether it’s in women’s wear, men’s apparel or kid’s clothes, the basic principles apply. She has many real-world examples based on what she’s witnessed in the kid’s industry—including both missteps and achievements. I’m sure you’ll agree that the breadth of her experience will be invaluable to us too.
Know Before You Go: Success in the children’s wear market means understanding the industry and your place in it. By Caletha Crawford.
When Kathleen suggested I write a post about the common mistakes that children’s wear designers make, I jumped at the chance. I think Fashion-Incubator is an invaluable resource, one that I refer people to often. I was also eager to participate because I genuinely hate to see entrepreneur designers make unnecessary mistakes that will surely cost them time and money and maybe their entire business sooner rather than later. It’s disheartening to turn up at a trade show, step into the booth of a first-time exhibitor and realize immediately that this poor soul—who has plunked down lots of good money to travel and exhibit there—is ill equipped to make their dream a reality. They’re always very nice, always very eager and always headed for heartbreak. I might see them at another show or two but often, that’s it for them. Why? Usually they’ve put the cart before the horse. Sadly, it happens all the time. Just ask a trade show organizer how much of his floor turns over in a two year period, and if he or she is being honest, the percentage will surprise you and hopefully serve as a cautionary tale.
First before you put pencil to drawing board or even consider making samples, you have got to do your research. Research, ugh. At the very mention of the word, I can just picture your eyes glazing over (That is those of you who didn’t immediately slam your laptops shut!). You don’t have to admit it; I’ve seen this reaction countless times. Research isn’t fun, sexy or creative. But it is essential. Quite randomly, I recently met someone who holds a patent for a juvenile product design. She enthusiastically told me about her product and then asked for my advice. What did I say? Well, buzzkill that I am, I suggested she do some market (wait for it…) research to determine what’s currently out there. To which she groaned. Out loud. To my face. Somehow I managed to hide my exasperation when what I really wanted to say was, “I’m sorry for trying to spare you boatloads of money and time only to find out there’s no market for your product or conversely that there is and it’s proven by the over saturation of the category.” Honestly, her unwillingness to even discuss doing the legwork saved me a lot of energy. Needless to say, I didn’t offer up my contact information. Even though I’m a consultant and therefore always open to new clients, I want to work with people who are serious.
I’m picking on this poor woman, but honestly she’s just the latest would-be business owner to want to just dive right in without checking first to see if there’s any water in the pool. Understanding the market is vital in order to design marketable products, packaging, marketing and advertising plans and sales goals. Got an idea for a collection? Great. Who’s your target market? How large is that consumer pool? How much do they make? Where do they shop now? What’s their price resistance? What other brands do they already buy? What makes yours different but still appealing? The questions go on and on. Do not let the first time you exhibit at a trade show be the first time you’ve ever been to one. Just walking the aisles of an event like that can impart so much knowledge about what’s happening in the industry. First and foremost, is this a good time to launch? While downturns do afford smaller companies greater advantages in some ways, if the aisles of the shows are deserted, that might be your clue that the segment isn’t thriving and therefore may not be able to support another collection.
Scoping out the other products on the market is extremely important. Honestly, if one more aspiring designer tells me they plan to launch a baby line that purposely omits pink and blue, I’ll scream. Yes, when you go to the big-box baby stores or even your local mom-and-pop shop, you’ll likely be assaulted by a deluge of those two hues. But it’s not for lack of imagination. Guess what? Those are the best sellers for that age group. While there are a handful of thriving brands that sidestep pink and blue for baby—at least in the sweetest shades—it’s pretty unrealistic to think your infant line will take off without them in one form or another. So the next time you think, I can’t find X or Y at retail, stop and ask yourself why that might be before you develop your whole business model around filling that void. It could be that you have in fact hit on a niche that offers tremendous opportunity, or it could be that you’re about to sink your savings into a category that many before you have tried and failed because it’s not viable.
How are you, a newbie, supposed to know the difference? Chances are, you won’t be able to, which is why you need to seek out advice from industry professionals (before you launch!). Oddly enough in my eight years in this industry, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that new design entrepreneurs set up meetings with me (or my senior staff) to glean some industry insight prior to taking the plunge. And sadly, even those few were unwilling to deviate from their initial vision based on our feedback because even though they hadn’t officially launched, they were already wedded to their concept. Veteran business editors, trade show coordinators, sales reps… we’ve seen it all. Why not tap into those resources? Remember how I told you that I could tell almost immediately upon entering a booth whether the wide-eyed novice was at the start of a successful trajectory or about to be chewed up and spit out by the machine? That’s because I know what I’m looking for in terms of the size and quality of a collection, the inspiration behind it, the person’s ability to articulate where they fit into the industry, the price points, their sourcing and production capabilities, the terms they’ve developed and whether they spent more time designing a trade show banner and coordinating T-shirt for themselves than they did in any market RESEARCH.
Speaking of the whole pink and blue thing, we had a very nice couple, who was wise enough to call us up out of the blue, seek our advice on their bamboo infant line. Unfortunately they had samples made already but they did seem eager to learn and interested in avoiding common pitfalls. They met with me and the head of sales and showed us their concept. Unfortunately, what they didn’t understand is that the eco market had evolved passed the point where simply having bamboo (not strictly an eco fabric, I know) or organic fabric was a selling point. By then, as is the case now, the line had to be just as fashionable as a mainstream collection and comparably priced. We tried to encourage them to add more flair to their collection, which included simple bodies with a small embroidered logo. Also, you guessed it, they were not intending to use either of the two biggest selling hues in their product category. Everything was the crunchy, oatmeal color that no one has purchased since the dawn of the eco movement. While they took some of our advice, (they did add pink and blue options) ultimately they were too invested in their original vision to evolve the line to where it needed to be. It’s too bad because they were very nice and seemed to have some business acumen.
Telling people what they don’t want to hear is a thankless task. I recently interviewed a rep who has been in the business for decades and who also owned retail stores at one point. She expressed the same bewilderment about why her clients don’t pick her brain more. She’s more than willing to help, even going so far as to give them her cell phone number in case they have questions. But the phone never rings. Other reps have similar stories. They lament the fact that they obviously can’t make their brands do anything. They can only make suggestions—suggestions that are based on years of experience vetting new lines and listening to retailers’ requests and complaints.
The question is, do you want to build a business or is this simply a vanity project? If your collection is just something to do on the side, that’s one thing. If you’re really interested in growth, however, you have to be open to change. Talk to veterans who have owned their companies for years (Please do, they’re another wealth of knowledge.) and they’ll tell you they constantly reevaluate the market and their offerings, poll their retailers and customers, and make the necessary tweaks (and sometimes major changes) to maintain their go-to brand status.
I just read a blog post by a designer who had found success selling on etsy and she said something that is very true: if your product isn’t selling, you have to revamp the collection sooner rather than later. Early in her career she had a line she loved and that retailers snapped up only to have it languish on the shelves. Eventually she realized it was time to rethink the concept. Though it was a tough decision to make because she personally loved the line, ultimately it made all the difference. Whether your problem is sell-in or sell-through, you can’t stubbornly cling to your original ideas (the ones you hatched with no research, remember!), unwilling to listen to advice or respond to the market.
Basically, (and this will make me hugely unpopular, that is if me harping on research hasn’t already done so) working through the elements of a business plan is invaluable. I know that people say business plans are passé and no one does them any more. Maybe, but what writing the plan will force you to do is think about the market and your place in it. Who are your competitors? Why have they been successful? What does that say about the market? What’s your competitive advantage? Is your pricing realistic? Can you source and produce and still hit that target price point? Who are your target retailers? How much of your type of product do they purchase? How often? When…? It’s an exhaustive, and exhausting, exercise but it will help you find the holes in your concept and hopefully set you off on a path to success and not the poor house. Ultimately, I hope this post has inspired you to retool your business model. I look forward to seeing your well-thought-out, dazzling designs at the next show.
—Caletha Crawford is a lauded authority in the children’s apparel, accessories and gift industries. You can learn more about her and see her work on her website or contact her directly. Thanks Caletha!