After collecting her degree in fashion design, Sarah Donofrio stepped into the real world with the same question that has long troubled creatives of all ilks: What now?
Fashion school taught Sarah about pattern grading, sewing, and draping. She could drop a mean French seam. She could tell you everything about fit. Her education, however, didn’t really teach her how to actually start her own fashion brand.
To take your dream from a business idea to launch and make it in the frenzied world of fashion takes a specific set of skills, a generous dose of creativity, and a pinch of business savvy.
Today, Sarah is a successful designer and owner of her own clothing line. What she’s learned over the past two decades is that taking your dream from idea to launch and making it in the frenzied world of fashion takes a specific set of skills, a generous dose of creativity, and a pinch of business savvy.
In this guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of starting a clothing line from scratch—everything from education and design to manufacturing and marketing—with tips from a seasoned pro.
How to start a clothing line
Sarah has lived and worked in two countries, and her experience spans everything from design and production to education and physical retail. She has struggled and thrived, sometimes simultaneously, over her many years in the industry.
In 2016, Sarah was a contender on Project Runway’s 15th season. She has since launched her namesake brand as an online store on Shopify, won multiple awards, and had her work appear in multiple publications and retailer shops.
1. Hone your fashion design skills
Designers like Vivienne Westwood and Dapper Dan found massive success in the fashion world, 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 launch your own clothing line, but formal education, whether in a classroom or online, has its merits: learn the latest industry standards, access resources and equipment, make contacts, and get feedback from pros.
While Sarah owes a great deal of her success to learning professional skills in a classroom, much of her education was gained on the job, working in corporate retail. “I wanted to work for myself,” she says, “But I felt that it was important to get experience.”
It took me a long time to be confident enough that I could fill a store with my clothing.
Sarah is a huge advocate for spending a few years learning the ropes from other brands and designers. “It took me a long time to be confident enough that I could fill a store with my clothing,” she says. “I think that I needed the time to grow and to get advice and experience.”
How to start a clothing line: A step by step guide
In this video, we’ll teach you the ins and outs of the fashion industry and everything you need to know to start a clothing brand from scratch.
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.
If you have more drive than funds or time, there are a growing number of fast-track and online courses for fashion industry hopefuls. Check local community colleges for virtual or part-time formats that accommodate your schedule and budget, or consider learning through sites like MasterClass (there’s a fashion design course taught by Marc Jacobs himself), Maker’s Row Academy, or Udemy.
2. Create a business plan for your clothing company
As Sarah discovered, the world of fashion and the world of business have a lot more overlap than she expected.
Starting a clothing line requires many of the same considerations as starting any business. How much does it cost to start? When should you pursue capital for your startup? What outside help will you need to navigate legal, financial, production, and distribution aspects of the business? Where and how will you produce your garments? Let’s dig in.
What’s your business model?
This guide is for those looking to design and develop their own clothing brand and collections. If you are interested in the fashion world but have no interest or skills in design, consider reselling by buying wholesale or trying dropshipping.
For those designing a clothing line from scratch, this is the point where you will decide what type of business you are looking to run. This will help you determine how much time, effort, and funding you will require upfront.
A few business models are:
- Hand produce and sell your designs direct to customers through your own website or online marketplaces or at markets and pop-ups.
- Create collections and produce pieces of clothing through a manufacturer, then sell your clothing line wholesale to other retailers.
- Design repeating patterns or graphics to print on blank t-shirts and other clothing items using a print-on-demand model, selling online through your own store.
What does it cost to start a clothing line?
Once you have a business idea for your clothing line, you may be able to fund it yourself and bootstrap as you go. Designing and sewing made-to-order clothing on your own means you don’t have to carry a ton of inventory. However, you will need to invest upfront in equipment and large quantities of fabric to be cost-effective. Other costs include shipping materials, fees for launching your site, and a marketing budget.
If you plan to go all in and work with manufacturers on a production run, you’ll have high upfront costs to meet minimums. A solid business plan and costing exercise will help you determine how much funding you’ll need.
In either case, expect to need thousands of dollars upfront. “In fashion, you’re not just costing fabric and buttons and labor,” says Sarah. “You’re costing shipping, you’re costing heating and rent.”
There are a few low budget entry points in the world of fashion, though, including consignment, dropshipping, and print on demand.
3. Follow fashion trends—and find your niche
Through Sarah’s 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.
Fashion school will teach you the basics of making everything from undergarments to evening wear. “The trick is finding what you’re good at and focusing on that,” Sarah says.
I’ve always had a really good trend intuition. But it’s all about translation.
While her line has a year-over-year consistency—design choices in her pieces that are unmistakably hers—Sarah is always watching trends. She says that the key is adapting those trends to your brand, personalizing them, and making them work for your customer.
“I’ve always had a really good trend intuition,” Sarah says. “But it’s all about translation.” Sarah worked on plus-size collections during her time in the corporate world and said that translating trends meant also considering the needs of the plus customer.
Though she sticks to her strengths, Sarah factors what’s happening in fashion—and in the world around her—into her development. “Take athleisure,” she says. “I don’t make tights, I don’t make sports bras, but this cool woven crop would look kind of awesome with tights, so that’s how I would incorporate the trend.”
Keeping her production tight and retaining control over design, Sarah was quickly able to pivot in the wake of the global pandemic, adding face masks in her signature prints. She sold 1,100 masks within a two-month period, and she’s turned those sales into repeat customers.
To get inspiration for your own idea, devour fashion publications, follow style influencers, and subscribe to fashion newsletters and podcasts to stay inspired and catch trends before they emerge.
In the noisy world of fashion, consider finding niches or filling gaps in the industry like these inspiring founders:
- Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart launched vegan winter coat brand Vaute Couture 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 Body by Love (formerly Pop Up Plus).
- Mel Wells launched a gender-neutral vintage-inspired swimwear line.
- Taryn Rodighiero also joined the swimwear game but focused on custom suits, made to order to each customer’s exact specifications.
4. Build a strong brand for your clothing line
Remember that “brand” does not mean your logo (that’s branding). Building your fashion brand is an exercise in putting to paper your values, your mission, what you stand for, your story, and more.
Creating brand guidelines will help to inform all of your business and branding decisions as you grow. They will dictate visual direction, website design, and marketing campaigns. They should dictate what you look for in a retail partner or a new hire.
Use social media to build a lifestyle around your brand: share your inspiration and process, inject your own personality, tell your story, and be deliberate with every post.
“The key to social media is consistency,” says Sarah. “I think you have to post every day, but it also has to be interesting.” She mixes up her content with travel, inspiration, sneak peeks at works in progress, and even some interesting stats from her Shopify dashboard.
5. Design and develop your clothing line
Sarah is an advocate of the sketchbook as one of the most important tools for a designer. “I take my sketchbook everywhere with me,” she says. “As I’m sketching away, every so often I’m like, ‘Oh, this little drawing would translate really well into a repeat pattern.’”
As a contender on Project Runway, she wasn’t allowed to have her sketchbook with her due to the rules of the competition. “That really threw me off my game,” she says.
Sarah’s tips for developing a clothing line:
- Always be doodling. A doodle is the first step toward a refined design. For Sarah, every idea starts on paper before being translated to Illustrator or another software tool. “I always use a mix of new technology and notebooks full of scribbles,” she says.
- Make your own samples by hand. This way, you can enter a relationship with a manufacturer with a better understanding of what production might entail. You’re in a better position to negotiate on costs if you’re intimate with the process.
- Focus on being creative. If production or other business tasks start to get in the way of development, it’s time to outsource.
6. Source fashion fabrics—or design your own
Sarah says that fabric sourcing has a lot to do with who you know. Building a network in the industry can help you access contacts for fabric agents, wholesalers, and mills. When she lived in Toronto, she knew the local fabric market and used an agent to get access to fabrics from Japan.
But even that route has pitfalls. “In Canada, everyone’s using the same agent,” she says. “All of the local clothing lines are all using the same fabrics.”
In Canada, everyone’s using the same agent. All of the local clothing lines are all using the same fabrics.
When fabric from all over the world became easier to access online, Sarah began to find it difficult to source unique prints and materials, despite her contacts. Her solution: she began to design her own.
“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,” Sarah says. “That’s why I really got into honing my textile design skills.”
For those just starting out, agents can be helpful, but Sarah suggests building personal networks and joining communities of designers. Start meeting others in the industry at local incubators, meetup groups, online communities, and live fashion networking events.
7. Learn about clothing production and manufacturing
In the early days, you may not be producing volumes that warrant outside help, but as you scale, a manufacturing partner will let you free up time for other aspects of the business and design.
There are a few exceptions. If the handmade aspect of your pieces is a cornerstone of your brand, you’ll always touch production even as you scale. Growth, though, is generally dependent on outsourcing at least some of the work.
Manufacturing your designs can be accomplished in a number of ways:
- One-of-a-kind and handmade by you
- Made by hired staff or freelance sewers but still owned in-house (small studio)
- Sewn in your own commercial production facility (owned, shared, or rented)
- Outsourced to a local factory where you still have some oversight (try Maker’s Row or MFG)
- Produced at an overseas factory (completely hands off)
Adrienne Butikofer of OKAYOK has kept her production in-house by bringing on staff as she scaled. She also outsources her dye runs to a factory. In Michigan, Detroit Denim produces clothing in its own manufacturing facility, where the founders are able to control the process—at scale.
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 spaces, incubators, or shared studios.
Working with clothing manufacturers
In the beginning, Sarah’s line 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 expanding her wholesale channel.
Obviously American-made comes with a higher price point, but it’s worth it to me.
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 it’s worth it to me,” she says. “I think transparency is a big plus.”
When vetting local factories, Sarah 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.
Sarah’s experience working in the corporate world taught her not to put all of her eggs in one basket. She weighs the strengths and weaknesses of each factory and collects her findings in her own database. “Big companies use different factories for different things,” she says. “Maybe there’s a factory that does knitwear better or one that does pants better.”
Ultimately, how you choose to tackle production and choose a manufacturing partner 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 in the production?
- Do you plan to scale?
8. Plan your collections around fashion seasons
The fashion industry operates on a seasonal cycle (fall/winter and spring/summer), and working backward from each season means that development of a collection can start a year or more out.
“In corporate, we were developing two years in advance,” Sarah says. “Big corporations tend to design faster, so they’re doing a lot of trend research.” Without the big team and resources, though, independent designers like Sarah are working closer to delivery dates.
Have your collection ready for the next season at least six to eight months in advance. If you’re selling wholesale, buyers will need to see your collection a month before fashion week.
Your design and development period and delivery dates depend on your customer and your launch strategy, Sarah says. She suggests that you have your collection ready for the next season at least six to eight months in advance. If you’re selling wholesale, buyers will need to see your collection a month before fashion week.
Work backward from your delivery date to establish your design and production timelines. Add dates of important global fashion events, like New York Fashion Week, to your calendar to help set goals.
Seasonality doesn’t have to dictate all of your collections, however. “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,’” says Sarah. Therefore, she’s inspired to work toward prints that work regardless of season.
While product development is a constant concern for fashion brands, signature or core bestselling pieces may stay in your collection for years. This is true for basics brands that focus on, say, “the perfect cotton tee,” a classic that occasionally gets a color update. KOTN’s brand is built around well made, sustainable basics with core tees selling alongside seasonal releases.
9. Pitch your clothing line to fashion retailers
Wholesale played a huge part in the growth of Sarah’s brand in the beginning. After navigating other sales channels like her own retail store, she’s recently returned to a wholesale strategy.
In fashion, there are two main ways to sell your clothing line through other retailers:
- Consignment. This is a win-win for everyone, as it gives your line a chance to get exposure in a store with no risk to the retailer. The downside is that you only get paid when an item sells.
- Wholesale. This refers to retailers buying a set number of pieces upfront at a wholesale price (less than your retail price). This option is riskier for the retailer so you may have to prove yourself through consignment first.
“It’s a lot easier for stores to take your whole collection on consignment, as opposed to just one or two pieces,” says Sarah, “because they have nothing to lose.”
You can’t just have pretty clothes. You have to know every detail.
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, Sarah urges. “The first time I pitched my line, I asked myself, ‘What are buyers going to ask me?’” she says. “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. While she advocates for face time, Sarah doesn’t recommend an ambush. Start slow, she says. Introduce yourself with a card or a catalog and try to book time to meet later.
“There are ways that you can approach people without either accosting them or hiding behind a computer screen.”
10. Build an online store for your clothing company
Let’s make sure you have a solid online business idea. Does your clothing line business plan detail how you will handle shipping and fulfillment, packaging, and online customer service? Is your production method able to accommodate single orders?
Ready? OK, let’s open your store. It only takes a minute to sign up for a free trial, and we’ll give you some time to play around before you commit.
Ready to launch your own clothing line? Start your free 14-day trial on Shopify.
A professional online store can serve two purposes:
- It’s a way to sell directly to your potential customers
- It’s a living, breathing lookbook to share with buyers and media
Setting up your online store
A platform like Shopify is simple to use even if you don’t have graphic design or coding skills. Choose a Shopify Theme that puts photos first, and customize with your own logo, colours, and other design elements before adding products.
We suggest themes designed for fashion brands like Broadcast or Spark, or a free version like Boundless.
Your product pages need to work overtime to capture details like fit, feel, and draping. There are also a wealth of apps in the Shopify App Store designed specifically to help fashion brands create personalized shopping experiences and solve common challenges like fit and sizing. Among the best apps to sell clothes, these are a few standouts:
Consider other online channels like social selling. Reach your target audience by integrating Instagram and Facebook Shops. Your clothing line may also be a fit for marketplaces like Etsy, where you can reach a built-in audience of those interested in handmade goods.
Photography for clothing brands
The right theme helps photos pop, so make sure you invest in professional photo shoots. For a smaller budget, a simple lighting kit, a DSLR camera (or even your smartphone), and some tricks of the trade can help you produce professional-looking DIY shots. Be sure to capture details: fabric texture, trims, and closures.
A lifestyle shoot produces content for other pages on your site as well as marketing campaigns, a press kit, and lookbook. Show your clothing on a model to demonstrate drape and tips to help your customers style the piece.
Marketing your clothing line
Marketing and driving sales remain the single most reported challenge for online brands, regardless of industry. As fashion is a saturated market, developing a solid brand with a unique value proposition will help you focus your efforts on your ideal customer rather than throwing money away.
In the beginning, your budget will be small, but there are still ways to grab attention with creative and organic ideas:
- Invest in content marketing. Use optimized video or keyword-targeted blog posts to drive traffic to your site.
- Build an email list even before you launch. Tease your upcoming clothing collection on social and incentivize sign-ups with exclusive deals.
- Lend your clothing to other businesses for photo shoots (example: beauty brands) to get shoutouts and exposure.
- Try influencer marketing by finding emerging Instagram or TikTok stars to hype your brand.
As you grow, paid ads, hiring a PR firm, and applying to show your clothing line at smaller Fashion Week events are all ways to gain exposure for your brand.
11. Open a retail store, launch a pop-up, or sell at markets
It took Sarah 11 years to be in a position to seriously consider opening her own retail boutique. But it wasn’t a leap—it was a move that she’d been grooming herself to make. Throughout the evolution of her brand, she used local markets to gain more insight into her customers, test her merchandising, get exposure, and build relationships in the industry.
I was always afraid of opening my own store because of the overhead, especially in Toronto. It just wasn’t attainable.
After her move to Portland, she took her retail experiment to the next level with a three-month pop-up before opening a permanent retail location. “I was always afraid of opening my own store because of the overhead, especially in Toronto,” says Sarah. “It just wasn’t attainable.”
Through the process, she learned that she could use six more hands. She hired a fashion design student to help in 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,” she says. “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.”
Selling IRL doesn’t mean signing a 10-year lease on a retail space. You can dabble in in-person selling in a number of more affordable and non-committal ways:
- Subleasing retail space to host a temporary pop-up shop
- A mini pop-up experience on a shelf or in a section of a retailer’s space
- Applying for booth space at craft, fashion, and designer markets
- Vendor booths at events like music festivals
Sarah has since closed her retail location. “I did not like running it,” she says. The store took her away from the aspect of the business that she loved—designing. She still sells direct to customers via the website but has switched much of the brand’s focus to wholesale.
12. Learn from the pros (tips from a Project Runway alum)
Sarah’s experience as a contestant on Project Runway taught her many important lessons about herself and her industry.
While Sarah understands that being reactive in fashion is an asset, she knows she thrives when she has more wiggle room. Because of her development background, she was amazed at the work her fellow competitors could do in a short amount of time. ”For me, it was not a realistic pace at all,” she says. ”It’s a shame that my best work wasn’t on national television.”
She also faced one of the scariest things any artist has to face: the haters. She was eliminated in the fourth episode when her swimwear didn’t resonate with the judges.
The lesson: your audience is not everyone.
But she was also surprised to see many supportive tweets from new fans she amassed during the show’s run. “The show taught me that everything comes down to taste,” she says. “There’s always someone who will like your stuff.”
What’s next for Sarah? She’s taking her own advice by staying creative and honing in on what she’s best at: design.
Sarah’s business is thriving because she 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.