This past week, I was invited to ESSEC Business School to share my journey of starting a fashion business, and the lessons I learned from it. It was a very inspiring experience to be with students, most of whom will soon be starting their own ventures, and the day after I was part of the jury judging the Entrepreneurship Project presentations of the same students. Inspired by the talk I gave at ESSEC, I wanted to share with you the main lessons and guidelines on what it takes to start a fashion business.
Perhaps because I still continue to teach, and consult for entrepreneurs who have started or are starting fashion businesses, I’m acquainted with a great many individuals who want to enter into the fashion industry. It’s an easy-to-enter industry, and it’s relatively easy to start a business, but it’s not so easy to remain successful and grow into a well-known and thriving brand. What are some of the things to watch out for?
1. Know your why. What is the intention behind your desire to start a fashion business? I always start with this question, and while it may seem simplistic I believe it is fundamental, a way to start with the right foundation. If your intention is to start your business because you think it’s cool, sexy, and trendy, and you want your name in fashion magazines, think again. Because I believe that for a fashion brand to be successful, the intention has to be much bigger than that. If we look at successful fashion entrepreneurs, fame came to them as a result of endless hours of hard work, and almost as a bonus. That brings me to the next point.
2. Identify a real need, and provide value. I recently met a designer who works for a well-known luxury brand, and he naturally wants to start his own business. When I talked to him further during our session, I noticed that while he has the clear desire to start his brand, he hasn’t studied the market well, identified a need, or figured out how he can provide value to the customers and key stakeholders who will be part of the brand. Here’s the formula for fashion brand success: identify a clear and unmet need in the market, and provide value for your customers (as well as your suppliers, distributors and any other people who are touched by your business – the stakeholders).
3. The price is right. In my current consultations with young fashion entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed the high markups they immediately place on their products, and often I simply don’t see the reason for those high markups. You can’t just put high prices on your products because you say you want to compete in the premium/luxury category. Your high markup needs to be supported with sound market research and rationale, and your quality has to correspond to the price. If your price point is almost identical to the luxury brand competitors, are you differentiated enough to command this price? Why would your consumer choose your relatively new brand and not your competitor’s in the same price category? If you have a similar price, you need to offer something that is unique and different than your competitor. But even more importantly, my advice is to actually have better quality, a differentiated product, a uniqueness, and then offer that product at a lower price than your competitor. To me, this is a winning formula, rather than a “high price, high markup” formula.
4. Do the right thing, even when nobody is watching. Today, the topic of sustainability has become a buzzword, but for me it means a lot more than using an eco-friendly product. It means doing the right thing every step of the way: from sourcing your product, to interacting with your employees, to the integrity you show as a business owner and a leader. Are you the real (sustainable) deal, or is it just window dressing in order to attract more customers?
5. Adapt to change. The industry is very dynamic. The quote (incorrectly) attributed to Charles Darwin that states the survivors are those who are fastest to adapt rings true for the fashion business as well. If you don’t rapidly adapt, you risk business failure. Take, for example, Charles Worth or Paul Poiret, both of whom were highly influential fashion entrepreneurs of their time, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both these fashion power-houses were around at the same time as Chanel, yet both were unable to sustain their presence because they failed to adapt to changes taking place during and after both World Wars. Chanel, on the other hand, had the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural shifts, and this is what makes her an iconic designer whose brand equity has remained powerful enough more than a century later.
Those with a passion for fashion will find the industry rewarding, but also very challenging. While there is scope for growth—the global apparel market is only going to grow, not shrink—the reality is that you will face many ups and downs, and you will be pushed to your limit. It takes a great deal of commitment, determination, time, and creativity. It’s not about Instagram, and it’s not about fashion magazines, and pursuing the business for the wrong reasons will not make it easy to have a successful fashion brand. So, my advice is to go back to basics, and first start with your why, and your intention.