HOW CAN YOUNG DESIGNERS GET THEIR LABELS OFF THE GROUND?
In the current fashion climate where competitiveness has become the norm, the volatile market requires new members of the industry to have substantial knowledge of how to conduct a business and innovate during the process of becoming an established brand. Undoubtedly, the work of an acknowledged designer is one of the most valued and highest paid within the industry. However, getting to that position is not an easy path, especially since the ultimate goal for a designer is managing a label of his or her own. Being recognized in a saturated, yet highly visible, social media-fuelled world where everyone is constantly trying get noticed is a daunting challenge. New labels are never guaranteed success, and due to fashion’s hyper-cyclical feature, if they do initially succeed, what are the chances of their survival? With the chances of winning a highly-coveted design prize are relatively low, as is getting support from the best investors, the first steps in building a design legacy are, well, gruelling.
Young brands have always faced technical challenges, such as creative innovation, defining target customers, and having well-defined marketing strategies. However, one of the main setbacks that continues to stagnate (and even terminate) the work of a new label is poor business management.
A common path for aspiring designers has been attending fashion school at a fashion capital, interning at large brands, and focusing on building a strong portfolio. When graduating, they have the choice of gathering experience by either working as design assistants at independent fashion studios, or creating “ghost work” for larger brands. However, since fashion education has become much more popular in the last 10 years, fashion schools are experiencing over-enrolment in the US and in the UK alike, and there are not enough jobs in the market for an entire graduating class. Business of Fashion compiled statistics along with the CFDA and the U.S. Department for Education regarding this issue in 2015, explaining that “each year, the US fashion sector would have to make room for 1,700 new fashion design graduates either through attrition or market growth.” Obviously, the latter is simply impossible.
Therefore, a viable and beneficial option for new designers is to go solo. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 4 designers were self-employed in 2014. Additionally, employment of fashion designers is projected to grow 3% between 2014 to 2024 - slower than the average for all occupations - meaning that, unfortunately, the rate of employment in fashion is not on track to improve. Not only that, but employment of designers in the wholesale apparel industry is projected to increase 17 percent over the projection period, so we can foresee a continued prioritization of commercialized fast fashion over the creative process that fashion devotees and designers favour.
This is the point where the market becomes extremely competitive, and newcomers must be equally prepared with a true and clear vision of what they desire to create, and should have sufficient knowledge of how to start a business from scratch, along with how to manage it down the road.
When setting up a new brand, designers should have a well-thought-out idea of what it is they are trying to sell. The product needs to be both feasible and innovative, otherwise, it will be hard to get the public’s attention, especially when there are so many new labels out there trying to stand out and gain followers on our Instagram feeds. Unquestionably, the essence of a design product and its purpose is learned at university and through professional experience and artistic experimentation. Later on, an initial investment must be done in order to set up an independent label, as well as establishing if a designer will work with additional staff, choosing which suppliers to work with in order to obtain clothing material, among many other aspects to consider. Most of the initial investments are self-made, since investors usually arrive when a business is already advanced and can prove that their investment will be worthy.
Once again, however, a crucial challenge is the lack of business preparation that most designers face early on. At the end of the day, fashion labels are businesses and they need to sell to the public. As a result, if they are prepared with the proper business strategies, their brand is far more likely to thrive and not have a short shelf life like several buzzy, initially promising labels of the past few years. Unfortunately, this kind of financial wherewithal is not typically taught at fashion schools, such as “sourcing, costing, markups, floor margins, quality quotes from vendors and suppliers,” according to entrepreneurial strategist Mushi Bhuiyan. Designers have the option to partner with business specialists, but hiring or working together with experts does take time (and funding). Also, already having the basics of how to operate a self-run fashion brand allows designers to have more creative freedom and a deeper understanding of where they want to conduct their business.
Samantha Southern, an Expert Producer at Mastered, a fashion design accelerator based in London, told Couturesque how the role of the modern designer has evolved into be increasingly involved with the business' management:
“Whereas – historically – designers at design houses and brands were mostly responsible for conceptualising designs, we now tend to use the title 'designer' and 'creative director' interchangeably,” says Southern. “In a design context, the term 'creative director' encompasses the role previously understood to be the designer's, but it also includes this awareness of ‘business management’ skills.”
She also agreed that it is important for emerging independent designers to know how to sustain themselves and grow within the fashion industry, which includes possessing the business knowledge to maintain their brand’s prosperity.
“For us, the difference between the – let's say, old fashioned – term of being a 'designer' and being this new definition of a 'creative director' is really about having an innate understanding of the fashion industry and where it's at right now (and where it could be in the future), so that the industry's next generation can use this knowledge as they see fit. We want to empower designers to either take on their brand's business management responsibilities themselves, because they feel equipped to, or use that understanding to build a trusted team of collaborators to work with, so that their brand can equally flourish with the help of others,” she added.
Couturesque also compared the fashion design programs offered by four of the most highly-regarded university fashion programs at Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Central Saint Martin’s London (CSM), and Istituto Marangoni. Almost none of the programs included information online about courses that deeply address the business training that fashion graduates need to thrive on their own. Although several of the programs do delve into market research, they do not make a clear case as to how they are preparing students for a highly competitive market that requires cogent business knowledge; Istituto Marangoni’s curriculum does describe several times that its students have “an understanding of business practices within the global clothing industry,” but this is vaguely reflected in its core structure.
Larissa Sehringer, a soon-to-be sophomore fashion design student at Parsons, also expressed concerns about the lack of holistic preparation in the curriculum. “The main problem at CSM and Parsons is despite having the best reputations in the world for design, they really don't focus on business,” said Larissa. “One option [at Parsons] is minoring in creative entrepreneurship and taking business classes as your electives. It’s not specifically geared towards fashion or branding help though, which I feel I could personally use, but it still offers you business [information].”
“I think sometimes schools think you’ll learn that from experience working for brands. That is true, but you’ll never learn everything you need and it would be nice not to have to make [as] many mistakes, especially when money and your resources are at stake,” she told Couturesque.
From this, it can be concluded that fashion schools, in general, are not preparing its design students with the necessary skills that are needed in the contemporary fashion ecosystem.
But what else can independent designers do in the midst of a competitive atmosphere? Nowadays, there are many more options available that can boost a recently developed label. Designers can compete for prizes that often include money and mentorship, which are commonly organized by very prestigious fashion conglomerates or design agencies. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and LVMH’s Prize for Young Fashion Designers, which consists of a 300,000 € total cash award, are two very distinguished competitions. Accordingly, if a designer already has a coherent point of view and strong product, entering contests could be advantageous, especially since there are also cash prizes for runner-ups, in addition to the heavy networking carried out and the discipline demanded of participants. Despite the low chance of winning, brands that enter competitions like these acquire a lot of press exposure, which may translate into increased social media followings, more interest from buyers and stylists, and hopefully, more customers. In addition, investing money in the correct areas of a business is also a key component, since there is a delicate balance when deciding whether to use the funds as a way to market collections, versus using them for production (Fashionista). Reaching out to incubators or to potential investors are also very viable options for new designers out in the field.
And, since the business of fashion is constantly changeable, not everyone is following the conventional pathway to becoming a household name. Vejas Kruszewski, a Canadian 20 year-old independent designer, has managed to accelerate his fashion label enough to win LVMH’s Special Prize last year, only two years after first opening his studio in Toronto. With no school preparation in fashion design or business courses, Vejas truly took risks at the start of his career, and these paid off. To compensate for a lack of business training, he has taken advantage of the experience from the LVMH’s competition and he also handles the brand alongside his peer and business partner Saam Emme, who joined the brand in 2015. The money from the competition has helped Vejas expand their team and investigate new marketing and management techniques. But, just like the many designers rely on their creative instinct to succeed in business, the improvisational strategy may not always work for new brands without sufficient funds.
Truthfully, there is no secret formula to becoming successful in the world of fashion design. Innovation, business preparation, and a clear vision of a potential product will most likely point to success. However, due to fashion’s volatile and cyclical market, the industry is bound to always be unpredictable.