After 5 Years In Business, Here’s What I’ve Learned About Working In Fashion

Five years ago this week I started a new job. Having turned in my resignation for my fashion job the month prior, I got up and walked into the room across the hall (my new office) and sat down for my first day of working for myself. I proudly took a picture of my freshly-minted LLC registration certificate, signed up for an Instagram account, and looked over the business plan I had created with the help of business library resources and a professor at the Business & Entrepreneurship school at my alma mater. Despite my industry experience, fashion degree, and years of sewing, looking back I had no idea what I was doing starting my own business in this industry.

Like with any business, mine has evolved and grown over the years – and me along with it. Running a business of my own and working closely with dozens of fashion brands these last five years has taught me so much about business. And, specifically, about fashion business. Today I’m reflecting on the top five things I’ve learned that have made a difference in my business (and in the businesses of my clients, colleagues, and podcast guests) that I think can make a difference in yours as well.

Good fit goes beyond the actual clothes

Fit is certainly about fitting the body of your customer. As a patternmaker, that is one of my favorite parts of my job – being able to create patterns that fit your unique customer whatever size and shape she is. But what I’ve realized about fit, is that more things have to fit just right than just the clothes themselves. That one garment needs to fit in your business model in a way that fits your vision. On the numbers side, the development and sales of that garment need to fit in your budget and the retail price of that garment when it is finished needs to fit in your customer’s budget if they are going to buy it. On an even deeper level, most of us here want our businesses and the way we make products and show up in the world to fit in with our values. 

The product needs to fit within the lifestyle of your customer while your business should fit the lifestyle you want to live as a business owner. 

Things that last are made to change

There hasn’t been a single year in my business where things have stayed constant. Whether personal or business (or a global pandemic), things are always changing. I think a large part of being a business owner is learning to be flexible and resilient in the present while looking long-term. Design your business and your clothing to embrace and move with the changes as opposed to fighting them. How can your business use its strengths to be creative within a new circumstance? I find that having constraints actually makes me more creative and results in better outcomes than would have happened if there were infinite possibilities. 

Even the clothes themselves need to be designed to change. The seasons change, our bodies change, fashion trends certainly change, and from time to time our lifestyles change –  giving rise to new wardrobe needs. One thing I love about fashion is that it isn’t a static art. Fashion involves movement. Clothes, I think, are at their best when they are made to support and move with the wearer throughout the various activities in her day. 

Become good at saying ‘no’

While it is good for a business and for fashion to be flexible in change, there needs to be a steady goal and focus. No one garment, business, or person can be everything to everybody. It is really hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you are going. The longer I’ve had my  business, the more I’ve focused on exactly who my customer is, what problems I solve for them, what projects I am best at. It seems risky at first to turn down opportunities or work (or scrap ideas) that aren’t the perfect fit, but the more I’ve done so in my business, the more work has actually come my way. Being clear about your goal and saying no means you really get to find that perfect sweet-spot niche at the intersection of your ideal customer and your ideal work. 

I’ve worked with so many niche brands that are hyper-focused on one type of customer and their needs – and really successful doing it. They are so in-tune with how their customer thinks and feels, what they care about, and what they like that they can speak the same language and provide their customers with exactly what they were looking for as if they could read their minds. It is a beautiful thing. Like finding that best friend that shares all your inside jokes. 

Good fashion (and good marketing) starts with listening, not creating

If you are going to get to know your ideal customer well enough to read their mind and anticipate their needs and wants, you have to listen to them. As much fun as it is to find inspiration as a designer and sketch away at a collection that you love, it may or may not be the best business decision. What will more likely get you to a collection that actually sells is by taking inspiration from your ideal customers. Listen to what they are saying. Ask for their opinion, critiques, and feedback. Hear their stories of fit challenges and frustrated shopping trips. Then you can get to designing because you’ll be clear on who you are designing for and what they would happily pay for. 

I’ve found that this feedback is also incredibly helpful in writing sales pages and marketing copy too. You know exactly what your customer is looking for, and what words they use to describe it, and you designed the product to meet their needs. The first step before designing or marketing is not creating; it is listening.

Be resourceful with what you have

Any entrepreneur who has started a business out of their garage or spare bedroom knows what it is like to be creative with limited resources. Fashion business is no different. In a perfect world, it would be nice to design with no constraints, an unlimited budget, and a state-of-the-art inspiring studio space. But real business is often a messy desk, your savings funding the next production run, and you wearing all the hats in your business. Again, though, sometimes the constraints make you more creative and the limited financial or time resources make you more thoughtful about decisions. I think this can lead to a healthier, more sustainable business when done right. You can grow slow and steady and incorporate customer feedback and lessons learned along the way. 

Even if you don’t have a huge team and large budget to work with, know that you don’t have to do this fashion business alone. Despite the stereotype of the fashion industry being competitive and secretive, I’ve found that most people in fashion are friendly, willing to help each other out, and are in this business because they really love it. I can tell you, making friends with other professionals and business owners in this industry by being welcoming and supportive is way more fun than having a bunch of competitors and working alone. 

I’ve learned so much these last five years and my business feels like it fits me and my clients better and better each year. My hope and goal is that you find the same for yours. 

Alison Hoenes Design turns 5 on June 1st and I’m celebrating the whole month of June with some exciting updates, new products, and more to help you get your designs to production with confidence and grow a fashion business that fits your customer, lifestyle, and values! Sign up for my newsletter to join the party, get first dibs on new resources, and receive exclusive 5th birthday discounts. 

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