Once upon a time, I was also a newbie on Google searching “how to start a clothing line with no experience”. Something like that anyway. I started a luxury sportswear brand for men and went through the whole process from ideation and manufacturing to shipping and manufacturing.
Now, based on my experience, if you want to start a clothing line and there is only one thing you take away from this article, it’s this…
You’re in for one hell of a ride.
Apparel is one of the toughest categories in all of ecommerce because there are so many moving parts and things to consider, relative to other categories. Yet, it’s also one of the biggest and most exciting categories to be in. Hence why it’s projected to grow to $1.5 trillion in 2020.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Because I’m going to show you how to start a clothing line with no experience.
Not from the perspective of a freelance writer who just reads a bunch of similar articles and then summarizes all of them into an article for you. Instead, I’m going to reveal the entire process and teach you everything I wish I knew when I started.
So with all of that said, let’s get started.
How Much Does It Cost To Start A Clothing Line?
By far the #1 most important thing to starting any ecommerce business, but especially a clothing line, is the cost behind starting it. That’s when you’re taking the biggest risks with ultimately the least amount of potential return.
Why is this even more important in apparel?
In most apparel categories, you’re not just buying a product. Even if you only start with one product category, you still have to deal with variations like color and sizing.
Now, I’m going to assume you’re starting a custom apparel brand rather than print on demand or private label, because custom is the only real option for long term success, generally speaking. I’m also going to assume you’re starting with only 1 shirt in 1 color with sizes ranging from S to XL. And I’m going to assume you’re using premium materials like Pima cotton and a fabric mill + manufacturer with low minimums.
Assuming all of those things, it can cost anywhere from $1,000-$5,000.
The margins won’t be great, especially if you’re going for smaller minimums. But with the right distribution channels and pricing strategy, it is possible.
If you’re looking for great margins and a full product line with multiple different categories involved though, then it’s going to cost way more. It’s not uncommon to see an apparel brand quickly try to raise hundreds of thousands in VC funding as soon as they’re able too because it’s such a cash intensive business.
Hence why bootstrapping an apparel brand is unlike anything else.
How To Start A Clothing Line With No Experience: Differentiation
Besides cost, by far the hardest part about the apparel business is differentiation. Because it’s such a big market, almost every category has been done successfully. So you really need a strong reason why people should buy your apparel line versus someone else’s.
So to figure this out, we need to start with the basics.
Who is your apparel line for?
Ideally, you’re either going super niche or you’re going after a tight knit community. One example of a super tight niche is creating Japanese themed socks. One example of a tight knit community is creating socks specifically for the crossfit community. Either one works. All you want to do is avoid any direct competition from billion dollar brands like Nike or direct competition with mega popular DTC brands.
Knowing this will feed into your actual differentiation.
Pick one of the options below.
Design is the simplest factor that leads to the sale. The 2 most obvious examples of design based differentiation is the graphic tee business and the yoga pants business. In both cases, the core product materials stay the same, but the design on the actual clothing attracts different people. Such as how TapOut with their hardcore designs became the “official” apparel brand of MMA and how you’ll see yoga pants with the weirdest designs like Star Wars or nature.
The pro is that design is easy to differentiate. Generally speaking, it’s not going to lead to huge startup costs like the other two will. Designs also can be really niche, really easily. So you don’t have to do a lot of branding work to let people know who you’re for. In fact, if design is your only differentiator, you can start off with print on demand until you’re ready for more.
The con is that it’s an easy business to copy. The fact that you can instantly see what makes a design based business different and find a manufacturer or print on demand service that can do the same for a relatively low cost makes it hard to be a defensible brand. This is more of a problem when you’re going for true scale though.
Naturally, the fit/style is the #1 decision making factor for all clothing buyers. Barbell Apparel built a successful clothing line by creating jeans who needed extra “leg space” because they grew their legs from working out. You also have every fashion brand ever in this category as they all focus on seasonal styles to compete.
The pro is that there are still plenty of categories within this space to dominate. For example, clothing for short people or very tall people are both ripe for disruption. This is also the domain of fashion designers who can come up with completely new styles that can then become mainstream. This category has both the ability to be niched or broad.
The con is that it’s a bit more expensive than a design based apparel brand and it requires a lot more knowledge when it comes to style. Unless your own differentiator is the size of your clothing, then it’s going to take you some time to really understand how to make clothing that looks unique from the moment you see it.
Materials are the least common of the three, but it’s an extremely exciting attribute to play with. One great example of materials for differentiation is Mizen & Main, who built an 8 figure dress shirt brand by switching out regular cotton for polyester. You also have Rhone who also built an 8 figure brand by using stuff like anti-stink technology on their sportswear apparel.
The pro for materials is that it leads to extremely strong messaging and positioning, while also allowing for enough flexibility to get into certain markets like sportswear. It’s pretty definitive if you are one of the only brands to sell luxury men’s underwear made with merino wool. Differentiating a clothing line with premium materials is a marketers dream.
The con is the cost. The biggest expense in apparel is the fabric. So if your main differentiator is better fabric, then your costs will blow up relative to the other 2 alternatives. At the same time, it’s a good thing because that means much less competitors you have to deal with. Still, you’ll need much more money to build this kind of clothing line.
How To Brainstorm Your Clothing Line
The exact categories you get into is arguably as important as the type of differentiator you choose, because some categories are naturally much more competitive than others. For example, shirts are much more competitive than pants.
In all cases though, you need to focus on just 1 category.
I know, you’ve probably already dreamed of selling everything under the sun, but that’s the wrong way to go. Do that once you have plenty of VC money to support your venture, along with plenty of wholesale growth. For the purposes of learning how to start a clothing line with no experience, you need to focus on just 1 category.
A specific type of shoe like shoes for bodybuilders
A specific type of shirt like tank tops
A specific type of pants like performance dress pants
Doing this will dramatically lower your costs and build a much stronger brand.
At the same time, you should take this chance to make life easier by going to a less competitive category. This means doing a broad analysis of the clothing industry and understanding that shirts are more competitive than pants.
From there, you can fill out your clothing line with variations.
For example, if you’re selling a specific type of dress shoe, you’re going to have a shoe line that contains many different colors, sizes, and possibly even styles. But in all cases, they’re made from the same material, which you chose to differentiate your brand further.
The Ultimate Clothing Line Business Plan
If you completed everything until now, you should have a well differentiated clothing line brand idea. So with that in mind, here’s what I would do to market it based on my past experience.
Build a small, loyal audience or partner with an influencer
The apparel market is a low margin, high refund space. So when you launch, you want to find every possible way to launch your brand without Facebook ads. This means you either start your own Vogue for shoes or whatever category you’re in or you partner with an influencer through some kind of collaboration to leverage their audience. In a perfect world though, you do both to maximize your reach. Either way, this phase should take you about 6 months.
Launch with owned media
By the time you’re ready to launch, you should either have a small audience ready to be sold too or you have a collaboration ready to go. Either way, this means you have an owned audience of some kind. Ideally, it’s an email newsletter hosted through Klaviyo. This means all you have to do is to launch the brand with emails. In a perfect world, you will have been pre-selling the idea for weeks now to that email list. Then on launch week, send 1-2 emails per day to squeeze out as many sales as possible.
Grow with earned media.
So you’ve launched, but you still need to make more sales without paid ads. You also need the credibility needed to reach a colder audience. That’s where things like PR come in. You need to reach out to every possible outlet that has covered clothing like yours and get yourself featured as well. The key here is to have an angle or story that’s interesting enough to cover. For example, if you’re selling a unique product or the influencer you collaborated with is big.
Scale with paid media.
You’ve now validated the brand, earned the assets you need for higher conversions like “As Seen On” logos, and you have data you can build off of. Now is the time to turn on your Facebook ads to really scale your brand. It’s important to remember that apparel is a low margin, high refund business. So only promote products that have a high enough margin and have low refund rates. In addition, you also want to look into selling kits and bundles.
Profit with owned media.
Like life, marketing is also a circle. You launched with owned media, but as you grow, it becomes one of your main profit centers. Ideally, you’re making 30% of all your sales from emails marketing. You also want sales to come through SMS, SEO, and direct traffic. This is usually the part that makes or breaks the ecommerce operation of most clothing lines.
Get into wholesale ASAP
This is the part where most people learning how to start a clothing line with no experience get confused, but it’s that important.
Sticking to just ecommerce for apparel is a dangerous move. Some categories, like shoes, can do this well. But for most others, once you’ve validated the brand through digital marketing, you now want to take your successes and get into retail businesses, starting with boutiques and other small retail stores. The reason for this is that apparel requires volume to make money due to its lower margins. It’s also a category that requires someone to wear to make sure its right for them, hence why the return rate for apparel is much less through in-person retail. If there was ever a mistake I made, it was this. When you get into the apparel business, you must understand that retail will probably become your most important marketing channel.