When Sarah Donofrio collected her fashion design degree, she stepped into the real world with the same question that plagues creatives of all ilks: what now?
Fashion school taught her about pattern grading, sewing, drawing, and draping. She could drop a mean french seam. She could tell you everything about fit. Her education, however, didn’t prepare her to actually start a successful clothing line. These were skills she learned over the past 11 years while she worked for other clothing brands, and through taking risks.
To go from business idea to creating your own clothing line, and making it in the frenzied world of style takes a specific set of skills, plus a generous dose of creativity and business savvy. It takes guts and a lot of drive.
photo via itsbooyeah
Sarah is one of my best friends, but her role in the making of this post didn't spawn from nepotism. She’s actually the perfect case study for this how-to guide to starting your own fashion business: Sarah has lived and worked in two countries and her experience spans design, production, teaching, ecommerce, wholesale, consignment, and pop-up retail.
I’ve watched her struggle and thrive, sometimes simultaneously, over the last few years.
This year, Sarah was a contender on Project Runway’s 15th season. She recently re-branded her clothing business, launching her online store on Shopify and opening her One Imaginary Girl pop-up shop in Portland.
In this post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of starting a clothing line from scratch—education, design, the manufacturing process, and getting the word out on social media—using Sarah’s inspiring story as the running thread.
Skills and training for starting a clothing company
Designers like Vivienne Westwood and Christian Lacroix found massive success, even though they were self-taught. And they started their careers pre-internet. We live in a time of access, where rebuilding an engine or tailoring a t-shirt can be learned simply by watching a YouTube video.
It’s possible to skip school and still make it in the fashion industry, but formal education, whether in a classroom or online, has its merits: learn the latest industry standards, get access to resources and equipment, make contacts, and get feedback.
While Sarah owes much of her success to learning professional skills in a classroom, much of her education was gained in the real world. She left school and worked in the corporate world in retail buying and product development roles for large companies like WalMart and Jean Machine.
“At Jean Machine I had a little more creative freedom than I did at Walmart but still, working in corporate, I knew I was hitting a wall. I didn't want to work for a big company. I didn't want to work for a small company. I wanted to work for myself. But I felt that it was important to get that corporate experience.”
I didn't want to work for a big company. I didn't want to work for a small company. I wanted to work for myself.
While school offered the technical know-how, she’s an advocate for spending a few years learning the ropes from other brands and designers.
“Through those corporate experiences, I feel I received a good spectrum of understanding. A lot of younger people get six months of experience and then think, ‘Okay, great. I'm ready for the jump off to go into business.’ But the experience is so valuable. It took me a long time to be confident enough that I could fill a store with my clothing. I think that I needed the time to grow, and to get advice and experience.”
Sarah completed her education in a 3-year diploma program at a college in Toronto. Many institutions offer fashion design and small business programs in varying formats. Schools like Parsons in New York and Central Saint Martins in the UK are world renowned for their fashion programs.
However, if you have more drive than funds or time, there are a growing number of fast-track and online courses for fashion wannabes. Here are a few places to start:
- Pattern Workshop (Digital pattern making)
- Craftsy (Design, pattern drafting, sewing, and more)
- Parsons Continuing Education (Online Certificates)
- Tilly and the Buttons (Sewing workshops)
- Sewing Studio with Diana Rupp (via Craftsy)
- Burdastyle Academy
- The Business of Fashion’s Education Platform (Buying, merchandising, and business)
Sarah now has teaching credits under her belt and used her platform as a means to teach newbies the important business aspects of fashion that she learned the hard way.
“When I developed a course for Centennial College, it was more business-focused. We were teaching them about retail buying, about manufacturing course, about what goes into each piece. With a blouse, you're not just costing fabric, and buttons, and labor. You're costing shipping, and you're costing heating and rent. You're costing for maybe the dye runs on a piece of the fabric, and so you've lost a half a yard. In hindsight, I think I would have liked to take a course like that.”
With a blouse, you're not just costing fabric, and buttons, and labor. You're costing shipping, and you're costing heating and rent.
Branding and trends in your target market
After leaving corporate roles, Sarah launched her namesake collection while holding down several day (and night) jobs. She pursued her passion in between bartending, DJing, and working for an upscale bridal boutique.
Through her years of developing her brand as a side hustle, she’s learned that while watching trends is extremely important, it’s equally important to focus. Hone in on your strengths and be true to your own design sensibilities.
"When you get out of fashion school, you want to make bras, you want to make evening wear, and you want to make tights. The trick is finding what you’re good at and focusing on that. When I first started, I had maybe twenty-five pieces in my collection. Since then, I’ve done capsules, like three blouses in different prints, so I'd have six or eight pieces and keep repeating those. Now I'm focusing a lot on the prints, so I design five or six prints and put them on the tried and true bodies. But I’m always updating, too. I noticed the other day that the sleeve of one of my blouses was really tight up to the armpit, which was really cool at one point, but now I'm dropping it.”
When you get out of fashion school, you want to make bras, you want to make evening wear, you want to make tights. The trick is finding what you’re good at and focusing on that.
photo via One Imaginary Girl
While her line has a year-over-year consistency—lines in her pieces that are unmistakably hers—she is always watching trends. She says that the key is adapting trends to your brand, personalizing them and making them work for your customer.
"I've always had a really good trend intuition, but it's all about translation. I had to do that a lot at WalMart because I was also working the plus size collections. I’d have to determine what could translate to plus from the main line. Obviously, a tight woven dress with a spaghetti strap might not be what the plus customer is looking for, so maybe you add a thick strap.”
And she still factors what’s happening in fashion into her development.
“Take the athleisure thing that’s happening—don't make tights, I don't make sports bras, but this cool woven crop would look kind of awesome with tights, so there's how I am maybe using the trend."
In the noisy world of fashion, consider finding niches or filling gaps in the industry like these inspiring Shopify merchants:
- Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart launched vegan winter coat brand, Vaute, after finding a disappointing lack of cruelty-free options on the market
- Catalina Girald’s lingerie brand, Naja, was built on empowerment and inclusiveness
- Camille Newman threw her hat in the plus game with Pop-Up Plus
Remember that your brand extends beyond your logo and the design of your collection. Use social media to build a lifestyle around your brand: share your inspiration and process, inject your own personality, and be deliberate with every post.
"The key to social media is consistency. I think you have to post every day, but it also has to be interesting, too. Don't be boring. I mix it up with celebrities, or shots of the store, places I travel. I also play with Shopify stats, like I’ll say, ‘Look at this item that was viewed a hundred times yesterday. Let's put that on social media and keep up the hype of it.’”
The key to social media is consistency. I think you have to post everyday, but it also has to be interesting, too. Don't be boring.
Share your process
Inspiration for new clothing items
photo: Delpozo Inspiration via Elle
Devour fashion blogs and designers, follow the top street style Instagrammers, and subscribe to fashion newsletters to stay inspired and catch trends before they emerge. Here are a few to get you started:
- The 19 Fashion Blogger Instagrams to Follow Now – Harper’s Bazaar
- Top 10 Men’s Street Style Blogs to Follow – The Culture Trip
- The Most Popular Fashion Designers On Pinterest – Refinery29
- Man Repeller (blogger, podcaster)
- Nadiaa Boulhosn (blogger)
- Peony Lim (blogger)
- The Sartorialist (blogger, photographer)
- Vogue (plus podcast)
- Our Style Stories (podcast)
- ModTV (podcast)
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Design and development
Sarah is an advocate of the sketchbook as one of the most important tools for a designer. She’s a millennial but only by technicality (and a year or so), and like me, she grew up with paper.
"I take my sketchbook everywhere with me. As I'm sketching away and doing things, every so often I'm like, ‘Oh, this little drawing would translate really well into a repeat pattern.’ That was the hardest part about Project Runway. We couldn't have anything like that, so I couldn't draw, I couldn't journal. My notebook wasn't with me, so that really threw me off my game a little bit.”
While she’s embraced technology in many ways, she stresses the importance of doodling, no matter what the medium.
"Everything in my life, even an email, usually starts out in a notepad, so everything is all done by hand and then I translate that to Illustrator. It’s always a mix of new technology and notebooks full of scribbles. Right now, I am using Graphic for the iPad Pro. The Apple Pencil has really changed the way I design prints. It's as natural as my sketchbooks and pencils!”
drawing: Sarah Donofrio
Tools for Fashion Design, Drawing, and Pattern Drafting:
- Graphic for iPad
- Apple Pencil
- Adobe Illustrator
- Accumark Pattern Design Software
- Gemini CAD Systems
- Inkscape – free and open source vector graphics editor
photo: Skinny Sweats studio by Matt Wiebe
Although she’s outsourcing most of the production to local factories now, Sarah produces all of her own samples by hand, still to this day.
“I've always believed that you should make your own samples if you're a clothing designer. That way you really understand construction. When you have to send it out to be manufactured, you’ll actually know what's going on. If factories know that you know what's going on, they're not going to try to spin you a yarn, so to speak, or inflate production costs.”
Production and finding a clothing manufacturer
Many up and coming designers do all of their own production. Maybe the handmade aspect is a cornerstone of your brand, and you’ll always touch production even as you scale. Growth, though, is generally dependent on outsourcing at least some of the work.
Adrienne Butikofer of Skinny Sweats still hand sews every item in her collection, but has brought on an intern to free up time, and farms out her dye runs to a factory.
photo: Skinny Sweats studio by Matt Wiebe
If you’re starting out from your home, be sure your studio is set up to accommodate flow from one machine to the next, has ample storage, considers ergonomics, and is an inspiring space where you’ll be motivated to spend time.
Alternatively, combat loneliness and save money on equipment by seeking out co-working or shared studio spaces like Sew FYI in LA or Necessary Arts in Guelph, Ontario. Art Connect has a directory for creative spaces in Germany, Spain, London and New York.
photo: ManufactureNY coworking studio, via Epoch Times
Sarah’s line in the beginning was produced primarily by her own hands but she began outsourcing some elements to local sewers as she grew. Now, she’s working with factories, and taking back her time to focus on building her brand, developing new collections, and growing her new retail channel.
“I do small production runs myself, but generally for me I'm outsourcing manufacturing for next season because that's something I don't have the time to do. I'd rather make the sample, perfect the sample, and give it to somebody else. That way I just have clothes come onto my sales floor, and they're already tagged, and everything's already done.”
Manufacturing your designs can be accomplished in a number of ways:
- One-of-a-kind/handmade by you
- Made by hired staff or freelance sewers: try Upwork or local college intern programs
- Outsourced to a local factory: try Maker’s Row and MFG
- Produced at an overseas factory: try Alibaba
How you choose to tackle production comes down to a few questions:
- How large are your runs?
- Is “Made in America” or "made locally" important to you?
- Are you more concerned with ethical manufacturing or lowest cost?
- How hands-on do you want to be to the production?
For Sarah, closely monitoring the process was important. She also feels that her customer cares about local and ethical production—enough to pay extra for it.
“Obviously American-made comes with a higher price point, but I think that it's worth it to me to get high quality goods. I think transparency is a big plus. People will spend $50 more because they actually believe in something, or know they're wearing something that has meaning to it. It's not just something cheap that you can chuck in the washing machine.”
People will spend $50 more because they actually believe in something, or know they're wearing something that has meaning to it.
When vetting local factories, she believes it’s important to visit each one, to get a feel for their practices. She initially requests samples from the factories to inspect the craftsmanship.
Her experience working in the corporate world taught her not to put all of her eggs in one basket.
“Big companies like WalMart use different factories for different things, so maybe there's somebody who does knitwear better or somebody who does pants better. I try to see the strengths and weaknesses of factories. Then from there I build a database with all of the info I collected.”
Fabric sourcing and textile design
“In Toronto, I knew the fabric market. There were companies out of Montreal where I would order my wholesale fabric. I also worked for a textile agent in Toronto for a year, so I would have access to specific fabrics from Japan. In Canada, it was weird though, because if you get an agent, everyone's using that same agent, so all of the local clothing lines are all using the same fabrics. That's why you have to go to Japan or New York.”
The internet began to make it difficult to have unique prints and fabrics, despite her contacts. Her solution: she began to design her own.
drawing: Sarah Donofrio
“When I got out of fashion school in 2005, you couldn't just go online and go to Alibaba. Now, lots of people I know do that. There are so many more resources, but that being said, you have to weed through a lot more. Another problem is that after years and years of buying these prints from Japan, now other people have access to them, too. That's why I really got into honing my textile design skills. The only way that I can really guarantee that my stuff is one of a kind is if I actually design the prints myself.”
The only way that I can really guarantee that my stuff is one of a kind is if I actually design the prints myself.
A year ago, Sarah moved to Oregon, and found herself rebuilding her network of suppliers.
"People on the west coast in the States go to LA to source their fabric. I've had to go four or five times before I learned where to go, how to order things, what's unique, etc. When I was 21, I was too scared to ask anybody, ‘Hey, can I have your contact?’ You can learn things through a network of other designers without seeming sneaky. Like, ‘I don't want to take your print, I just want to know where I can go to get this type of cotton.’”
Build your network by looking for local incubators, meetup groups or fashion events.
The fashion industry operates on a seasonal (fall/winter and spring/summer) cycle, and working backwards from each season means that development of a collection can start a year out or more.
"At WalMart, we were developing two years in advance. When it comes to corporations, they tend to design faster, so they're doing a lot of trend research and actually designing in advance. Independent designers like me are working closer to delivery dates.”
Your design and development period and delivery dates depend on your customer and your launch strategy, Sarah says. If you’re selling wholesale, buyers will need to see your collection a month before fashion week.
“I showed my spring collection in October but, by the time you show your collection it's already over, so you try to hold back on the pictures online because you still want people to be excited when it actually ships in February. Generally you want your collections for the following season to be ready six to eight months before because you need time to photograph your lookbook.”
By the time you show your collection it's already over, so you try to hold back on the pictures online because you still want people to be excited when it actually ships.
Sarah has the luxury of working very close to release because she’s retail and ecommerce only.
“I'm not wholesaling currently because I’m focusing on having my own boutique. In my case, I can have everything designed eight to nine months in advance, but I can release it when I want to and I don't have to worry about sending buyers a catalog. On a retail level you can work a lot closer. Also, I can be more nimble. Say Ariana Grande wears something with a big bow on the side, I can have four pussy bow blouses on the floor next week because I do my own sample making.”
Fashion dates to bookmark:
- New York Fashion Week, February 9 - 17, 2017
- London Fashion Week, February 17 - 21, 2017
- Milan Fashion Week, February 22 - 28, 2017
- Paris Fashion Week, March 1 - 8, 2017
- Additional Fashion Week dates, including menswear and bridal
- Worldwide Fashion Events Calendar
Seasonality doesn’t have to dictate your collections however. Sarah says she’s inspired to work towards prints that work regardless of season.
"It's always such a shame when I design a beautiful print and I think, ‘I only have this for one season, I only have a six month window,’ but then you look at somebody like Hayley Elsaesser—she has prints that have been around for a few seasons. They're not classified by season, they're just classified as relevant, so the print's still relevant. I feel like I could make these spring prints and keep repeating them based on sales without worrying about the season."
Season-agnostic prints by Hayley Elsaesser, photo via The Kit
Wholesale and consignment
Sarah isn’t wholesaling her line at the moment, but wholesale plays a huge part in growing her brand over the last few years.
When you’re just starting out, Sarah tells me, a lot of stores won’t want to take a chance on you unless you’re open to a consignment agreement, meaning that stores only pay you when an item sells. Wholesale, on the other hand, generally refers to being paid up front for the items.
“Everything is a double-edged sword, but I find if you start with consignment, everybody wins. It's a lot easier for stores to take your whole collection, as opposed to just one or two pieces, because they have nothing to lose. As a designer, it’s not the best scenario profit-wise, but at the same time you get your name out there. You build a brand that way.”
If you start with consignment, everybody wins.
Approaching buyers is a daunting experience, and sarah has worked on both sides of the transaction. Her experience looking through the buyer’s lens helped her stand out when she was pitching her own line. Be prepared, she urges.
“The first time I sold my line, I walked into a store with my twenty-five piece collection, and I had my model with me, and I knew all my measurements, I knew everything. I learned about approaching buyers from my experience at Jean Machine. The owners would go into a meeting with Guess and be like, ‘Yeah, we like this. What's the leg opening?’ So I asked myself, ‘What are buyers going to ask me?’ You can't just have pretty clothes. You have to know every detail.”
You can't just have pretty clothes. You have to know every detail.
Hitting the pavement was a strategy that worked for Sarah when she was starting out, but I had to wonder: does anyone still do anything in person anymore? She thinks there’s still merit in a face to face approach, but suggests finding a happy medium.
“It's so easy to send an email, but think of a fashion editor or a store owner. How many emails a day do they get? It's always going to be good to pound the pavement and knock on the door. As a buyer, I personally didn't appreciate when people would come in and do a kamikaze buying appointment with me—you have to find a middle ground. Walk in, maybe give them a paper catalog, or just leave your card. Or, instead of emailing info@, do a quick Google search Find out who the buyer is and send them a personal message. There are ways that you can approach people without either accosting them or hiding behind a computer screen.”
Ecommerce store and social sales channels
First, let’s open your store. It only takes a minute and we’ll give you some time to play around before you commit.
A professional ecommerce store can serve two purposes: it’s a way to sell directly to your potential customers, of course, but also pulls double duty as your living, breathing lookbook to share with buyers and media.
Learn More: Store Names: How to Choose the Perfect One for Your Ecommerce Site
Choose a Shopify Theme that puts photos first. We suggest these to start:
Fashion is an ideal vertical for social selling. Consider reaching your target audience by selling through these channels and apps:
- Pinterest: sell directly to your followers with Buyable Pins
- Wanelo: get access to the network’s millions of active users, and sell to them with the Shopify integration
- Facebook: enable the sales channel on Shopify
- Instagram: use apps like Foursixty or Showcase to turn your feed into a shoppable gallery
Anatomy of a homepage: One Imaginary Girl
Learn more: The Beginner's Guide to Product Photography
Markets, pop-Ups, and retail
It took Sarah 11 years to be in a position to seriously consider her own retail boutique. But it’s not a leap—it’s a move that she’s been grooming herself to make. Throughout the evolution of her brand, she used local markets like Inland to gain more insight into her customer, test her merchandising, get exposure, and build relationships in the industry.
In Portland, she took the next step, taking her retail experiment to the next level with a three month pop-up, wrapping up this Black Friday weekend.
“I was always afraid of opening my own store because of the overhead plus the rent, especially in Toronto. It just wasn’t attainable. This pop up I have now is in an area that's not too busy in Portland right now. I find myself paying my rent and my bills and still having a profit. That's always the ideal situation.”
I was always afraid of opening my own store because of the overhead plus the rent, especially in Toronto. It just wasn’t attainable.
Through the process, she’s learned that she could use six more hands.
“I realized that especially if I'm moving to a permanent location eventually, I need store help. I hired a girl who is going to fashion design school and she works in the store once or twice a week, so I have at least four days to do my own design work and really develop. Now I have time to develop my own line and prints, while she watches the store. When you have a retail store and a clothing label, as a lot of entrepreneurs do, you just have to learn how to allocate things. It's taken me a long time to learn that, but what I'm paying her to work in the store, my time is worth so much more.”
- Craft Shows & Markets: A Maker’s Guide to Nailing the In-Person Selling Experience
- The Ultimate Guide to Pop-up Shops
- Fleas, Fairs and Festivals: Shopify's Market Directory Helps You Sell Goods IRL
- Models vs. Mannequins: Which Should you use for Your Store?
- T-Shirt Templates: 22 Awesome Mockups for Your Clothing Line
- 10 Print-on-Demand Companies for Creating Custom Products
This is what we’re really here for, amirite?
photo: Denny Balmaceda
Sarah was a contender this season of Project Runway, and since it’s still airing, she can’t share any juicy secrets. Sorry. But the experience taught her a few important lessons about herself and her industry.
While she understands that being reactive in fashion is an asset, she knows she thrives when she has more wiggle room.
“I'm a huge believer in development because of my background, so seeing the work that people could do in that short amount of time, I was like, ‘Wow, that's amazing.’ But for me, it was not a realistic pace at all. It's a shame that my best work wasn't on national television.”
Seeing the work that people could do in that short amount of time, I was like, ‘Wow, that's amazing.’
She also faced one of the scariest things any artist has to face: the haters. She was eliminated in the 4th episode when her swimwear didn’t resonate with the judges. To her surprise, she received more positive than negative tweets from the show’s fans. The lesson: your audience is not everyone.
“The show taught me that everything comes down to taste. No matter what some people think of your stuff, there's always someone else who likes it.”
One Imaginary Girl is a thriving business today because Sarah pursued the dream of it through her lowest lows, and let every misstep guide her next pivot. Sometimes those pivots were risks, but, she says, that’s the only way to grow.
"With time you learn to take risks. I had fabric that was sitting at my house here forever and I was like, ‘I don't know...’ Now, I think, ‘Nope, dive in, cut it up, and do it.’ There's no harm in actually going in and making something and see how it turns out.”