Selling clothes that people actually want to wear. That was the message that Paul Trimble, a founder of Ledbury, expressed in a recent New York Times article, “But Can They Write Fashion Code? “New wave of male entrepreneurs changing fashion scene”
This article struck close to home as the founder of a men’s clothing line that was designed to not to express some unmet creative need or cater to an elite sartorially inclined group but to meet the need of a large and long overlooked segment of the population that craves basic, classic pieces that actually fit. A simple solution to a long standing problem. Shortees was founded with a simple mission, create a t-shirt that could be worn untucked by shorter men.
I identify with the founders of these companies as someone with no fashion design or industry experience who dove into the deep end on the first try. Like them it was far harder then I ever imagined. The lack of industry knowledge, unfamiliarity with the secret language that all industries use to streamline communications and keep outsiders from understanding what is going on and the total lack of connections have made it a near impossible task some days.
Every day that I get online I find multiple new apparel companies and countless others talking about starting one. The entrepreneurial side of me salutes every one of these founders or prospective founders for taking the bold step. The practical side of me wants to shake them and say they have no idea what they are getting into and the odds of their success are vastly small then they could ever imagine. When I started Shortees I at least had the advantage of having completed business school along with a number of years of experience developing small businesses so I understood both the challenge as well as many of the business functions that were going to be necessary. Even with those skills I still faced a monumental challenge entering an industry I knew nothing about , and still feel that I barely know.
The t-shirt industry is a unique animal. For most new brands they stake their space based on graphics and the segment of the population that identifies with their ascetic and lifestyle message. The growth of street-wear totally changed the t-shirt market and made it not only cool but a potential source of riches. The tales of small brands started by no-names in their garages abound. Suddenly everyone thinks they have the greatest new graphics that everyone will love as much as their close friends and mother does. For these founders the path is actually quite simple. Pick any of the countless mass produced blank t-shirts that are manufactured in enormous quantities. They are quite inexpensive and readily available in both large and small quantities. Find a decent screen printer and for a few hundred dollars more you have inventory. Throw up a basic shopping site for a few hundred to thousand more and you are in business. For a lucky few the orders start rolling in. For the majority its a lesson in Field of Dreams Theory. If you build it they will not come. You have to go out and find them and drag them back to you.
For those like Shortees that want or need to redesign their products and have them manufactured to custom specs its an entirely different and much more challenging process. Designers, pattern makers, sample makers all have to be identified and vetted. If you can get through that process then you have to deal with finding a manufacturer. While there are hundreds if not thousands of garment factories around the world finding one that can not only make your product but make it to your actual specifications at an acceptable level of quality is an enormous challenge. Then there is the cost. If you just want to print a few dozen to a few hundred shirts its pretty affordable. If you need to go through the entire design process and custom manufacture its an entirely different economic scale. Tens of thousands at a minimum if not hundreds. And we haven’t even touched on web site development and marketing costs.
As I read the New York Times article what stands out to me about the companies they mention are the backgrounds of their founders. Private equity, finance, technology. These founders are used to six figure incomes and had resources to finance their new projects or at least savings to support themselves as the launched their new careers. Do I feel bad for the failure of You Tube founder Chad Hurley’s foray into upscale apparel and accessories with Hlaska? Not at all. He will be fine living off his millions. I stumbled upon a Hlaska store when they first appeared. They suffered from the same mistake that many others do. Simply launching a brand and expecting that by virtue of your price point that consumers will identify and value you as a luxury brand. Yes it works for some brands but it either takes a lot of money, time and patience or a great deal of luck. Most luxury brands earned their way to the top or spent a fortune positioning themselves there. Though Chad, if you want to invest in an up and coming men’s brand focusing on the 25% of the population under 5’8″, touch base. I’m easy to find.
I’m proud of my roots in personal training. Shortees was built on the back of hundreds and hundreds of personal training sessions and continues to be supported by my other business. Its the primary reason for the slow growth of my apparel company. It would have been wonderful and ideal to work full time on Shortees but I had the misfortune of having to earn a living while I launched it and generating some form of cash flow to support the company until it was able to reach a self sustaining level. Even today our biggest limiting factor is the cost of expanding is greater then what we can cover at any given time. The result, a slow but steady growth curve and a long list of happy but frustrated customers that want more then what we can deliver them.
Do I feel like a fashion designer? Not usually but some days. So go out and support your local small scale fashion designer. Skip the big box retailer and large fashion houses and try something new. You never know, your next favorite shirt may be designed by a former equity trader, internet-technology start up code writer or even a personal trainer.