becoming a designer: how much money do you need to start a clothing line?

September 17th, 2012

Say hello to the loaded question of the century!

I get a lot of questions about starting a clothing line – but this one seems to come up most often. It’s a hard question – and a touchy subject, i mean who likes to talk about money? not me. I find it super awkward.

Anyway, i decided to write this post after I read something a few months ago that stated a person would need around $20,000 to start a small clothing line. This really irritated me – because it’s so discouraging to people who want to start something and take a leap. Here’s the thing, it depends how you want to start your clothing line, and what kind of line you are starting, how big you want to start, and what your background is.

Lets say you know nothing about sewing, or design, or pattern making, and you have absolutely nothing in the way of equipment etc – then yeah, you will probably need a giant lump of cash to start a line. Why? Because you’ll have to hire people to do everything for you. You will need a pattern maker and you will need a sewing contractor of some kind. And that’s just for starters.

But lets say you already sew. You know how to pattern make. You have some experience making things. You have equipment. Then you can probably do this on very little. I promise. Because i did.

So shall we chat about real numbers?

I started my clothing line with $500. That’s it. I launched my line at a time in our lives when Chris and i had very little money. We had just finished paying the epic hospital bills from Bunny’s birth, and were saving heavily for the next lot of huge birth related hospital bills (i was 7 months pregnant with Buddy)… right as Chris’ company was feeling the economic financial pressures, and so they stopped paying raises. We prayed, took a leap of faith – and i took almost all of our savings… our very small savings to launch my line. It was scary, but Chris believed in me.

So how did i spend it? I spent it on three things.

  1. A display form. It cost me $79 on Ebay
  2. Some lighting equipment. Also from Ebay, i think it was around $100.
  3. Materials to make collection samples.

You see, I had everything else already. I had all the equipment i needed, I had the skills I needed as I’d been spending the last few years working really hard at refining them, and i had the time to sew. I got to work and created my collection. Since i was tight and had specific ideas of what i wanted, i hand dyed most of my fabric. I tried to be efficient – and used the same base patterns for a number of designs – and made sure to use the fabrics for more than one design. In the end i had my samples ready for the lookbook – and had enough fabric left to make a few pieces of stock. But honestly not a lot. Then I mailed the samples to my dear friend Jessica, who was helping me with the lookbook. (She was just so wonderful – honestly, good friends are worth so much, and to this day i will never forget how much she helped me get the word out in those early days)

Chris set up my website for me using a wordpress blog and paypal buttons- and we were ready to go. Gulp.

So how did i get past the issue of no stock? Everything was made to order. I made sure my customers knew it would take a few weeks for a garment to be made and arrive – and once an order came in I used that money to buy supplies. Was it hard and stressful? Yes. For sure. But it worked.

I repaid the money i had borrowed from our savings in the first week of my launch. And then i was able to save, and put the profits away as the seed money for my next collection.

My customers were so wonderful. So understanding and supportive – and most of them continued to purchase from my future collections as well – which is probably the most gratifying feeling.

Yes i made mistakes. We all do when we do something new – but i made it work. Would I have liked more capital to start? Of course!! It would have made the world of difference!!! it was only after a year of sewing like a dog, that i had reached a point where i could afford to pay outside contractors to do the sewing for me. But here’s the lesson: It was possible. And it still is possible to start a clothing line on a shoe string. You just need to be careful, and think it through, and make sure you are happy to do all the work yourself for a while.

So here are my tips if you don’t think you can afford to start a line but desperately want to:

  1. Save. Even if its a really really small amount. Because though you can get by on a little, you will still need some seed money. If you just have an inkling of a dream, a whisper of hope – start saving now. Just a little, so that when (or if) you’re ready, you’ll have something to help you start.
  2. Learn to sew.  You can save yourself a lot of money if you can manufacture in house. The end.
  3. Learn to pattern draft. As above – you will save yourself a lot by being able to pattern draft. I learnt from books, you can too :)
  4. Spend wisely. Be very careful how you spend your seed money. Plan it out. You could probably start with less money than i did if you are careful. In retrospect i feel buying lighting equipment was a waste. The display form was important to me – but you could probably get by without that too. You could simply lay things flat on a white surface, or hang them on a wall with a pretty coat hanger.
  5. Ask a friend to model for you. One of the things i’ve learnt through all of this, is how supportive good friends are. I’ve been incredibly blessed that friends have modeled all of my lookbooks so far – and it has helped me immensely. I couldn’t be more grateful to these wonderful girls.
  6. Take good photos. I cannot emphasize this enough. Bad photos will kill your brand, and make your product look like crap even if in fact it is the best thingymajig ever made. You don’t need fancy equipment to take good photos. I took my first product photos on a display form, with a point and shoot. Nothing fancy. Chris and i just planned it really well so that we used the best light of the day, plus some lighting equipment – and took all the furniture out of the room with the plainest walls to use as a backdrop.
  7. Start small. There’s no need to go overboard. A collection doesn’t need to be big. You could make 3 things. Done. I wish i had made a smaller first collection, that’s one of the mistakes i made :) It will make your workload more manageable, and allow you to be more efficient.
  8. Make to order. If you are unsure of how well received your designs will be, don’t go all out on investing in lots of stock. Try the “made to order” approach. It will help you if funds are tight. Remember who you are – you are a small company, you don’t need to act like a big one.
  9. Price appropriately. Another touchy subject. But you need to think carefully about pricing. Too high and no-one will buy anything, so you’re shooting yourself in the foot. But too low is even worse – too low and you’ll probably lose money, even though you think you’re making money. Too low is also bad because then you can’t afford to wholesale. I regretted pricing too low in my first collection in an attempt to be affordable, but it didn’t help my business.

So what if your dreams are bigger than your budget? Don’t let me money stand in your way. Hard work is worth so much more.

Becoming a Designer series by Megan Nielsen

33 Responses

  1. Crystal says:

    This is a very generous, informative post.

  2. anto says:

    Wow, Megan. I cannot thank you enough for sharing all of this invaluable information with us. It’s like getting great advice from a close friend that already went through what you want to pursue.
    This might get a bit long and I am sorry for that but this touched me a lot because it’s my dream, it’s what I’m aiming at, it’s what I’ve been working towards since I was 12. I want to start my own collection, I have the sewing and pattern drafting skills down because I have been sewing since I was a child and I taught myself pattern drafting some years ago and then reinforced that at school. Yet, I don’t have a budget to start my own collection yet. But imagine my relief when I realized it was actually closer than I thought. Your story is the first one I’ve know of and it has put me a bit at ease. It’s still super scary to dive into something like that and I am consumed by the constant fear of taking that leap and failing but that is no reason not to try.

    I can also draw so my plan is to save up money for my first collection by working as a freelance illustrator and selling prints and custom portraits but that hasn’t picked up yet so I’m collecting spare change from under the couch cushions for now.
    Wow, I knew it was going to get really long. Sorry. I really wanted to share my situation, how helpful this was and offer a heartfelt thank you for opening up about this even though it makes you uncomfortable.

    • Meg says:

      Anto! I’m honestly so touched by your story – i can totally understand where you are coming from, and i’m so so happy that you found this post helpful and encouraging – it was my hope.

      It really is so hard taking that leap – and i know what you mean about the issue with funds, totally been there :) Please be encouraged – you can get there! It may take a little bit of time, but it’s not out of reach. I spent many years dreaming like you, before i was able to jump in. The timing was terrible, but sometimes you just need to take the time you’re given, i guess :)

      And please don’t feel discouraged that the freelance work is not taking off at the speed you’d hoped – i honestly tried a lot of little pieces of freelance work before i launched, and a lot of them felt like failures, and some were. But in hindsight, i think they taught me a lot, and the time was valuable.

      I was just looking through your blog and i have to say, i am blown away by how amazing your sketches are. They are stunning – i truly wish my sketching was up to that standard! You are incredibly talented hun.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story- keep at it honey!!!! hugs! xoxo

      • anto says:

        Oh Megan, you are such a sweetheart! Thank you very much for your sweet and kind words. It’s so encouraging just to read such a supportive and inspiring message.
        If there is one thing I know is that I am learning a lot and I am absorbing all the knowledge, practice and experience I can.

        Thank you so much for being so sweet. xoxo

  3. Nicole says:

    Thank you for this post Megan! Starting your own business can seem like it’s out of reach but often it’s not as far out of reach as you think. I just started my own business a few months ago after several years of thinking and dreaming, my partner told me to stop talking and do something about it. I started mine on around $500 too and have already made back my initial investment. Having a STRICT budget is definitely very important, and I also agree starting smaller is easier, less stressful until you find your feet. :-)

    • Meg says:

      Nicole!! Its so wonderful to hear you mirror my experiences like this :) I’m really so thrilled things are going so well for you – and i think you are so right, a strict budget is vital. The other nice thing about starting small is that its much easier to make back that initial investment – which i think is evident in both of our experiences!
      Thanks for sharing hun!! xoxo

  4. Katie says:

    Thank you so much for this post, I’ve been wanting to start my own business for a while and so many people have told me they think it would be a waste of time! Thank you for making things seem more simple and achievable, you’re an inspiration!

    • Meg says:

      Katie i’m so glad you found this post encouraging!! I”m honestly so sad to hear that people have told you that. I really do think that there is never any harm in trying something – never.
      Plus, i’ve never had anyone (apart from my husband), think a business idea was brilliant, until after the fact – when it was actually successful. There will always be nay-sayers. It’s just hard for other people to visualize your dream like you can :)

      I’m not sure if you’ll find this helpful – but I actually had a very close friend once tell me that a dress i was planning for a collection was awful and that i probably shouldn’t include it. But i loved that dress, so i released it anyway – it was the Darling Ranges dress… and it was an instant hit :) So i guess what i’m trying to say is, don’t let someone elses negativity squash you :) you can do it hun!

      hugs! xoxo

  5. Marie says:

    Thank you for being so generous with your experiences and lessons learned! This is such an excellent, encouraging and inspiring post…you’re an absolute star for shring!

    • Meg says:

      Marie you are too sweet! I’m so so happy you found this post encouraging!
      hugs! xoxo

      • Marie says:

        Just out of interest Meg, you say you taught yourself how to draft/design from books etc, but did you have any formal lessons or qualifications at any point? I’m trying to figure out if someone would need formal teaching in order to successfully do what you do, or if it can be essentially self-taught. Many, many thanks again!

        • Meg says:

          Hi Marie!

          No I didn’t pursue any formal lessons or qualifications – to be honest, i much prefer self teaching, and it worked well for me. I first started teaching myself pattern drafting when i was working full time in another career, and doing postgrad studies in that field – so formal design qualifications weren’t an option or even an idea to me at that point! By the time i decided to start my line, i couldn’t see the point in restudying what i knew – and i was living far far away from colleges with good courses, and had a small baby and another on the way, so it really and truly wasn’t an option hehehe. And now that i’ve been doing this a while, I haven’t yet found the need to pursue any formal training :)

          However, having said that – i don’t think self teaching is right for everyone. I have had to be very disciplined and make sure i cover topics i don’t find interesting, but are necessary and important. And sometimes i have had to learn things the hard way when it comes to running a fashion business. So i guess what i’m getting to is that for some people it might be better to study formally as it ensures you cover all the topics and theory you’ll need.

          I have a lot of friends who are independent designers and i’d say they are about half /half split between those with formal qualifications and those who are self taught.

          I hope that helps!! Meg XOXO

  6. Right on Megan! I started my clothing business with nothing and it was the best investment I ever made. As a fellow designer I can attest that your words are accurate and your advice is spot on. One “help” book I read said you needed $500,000 to start, nonsense! One more thing that I would like to add that was vitally important to me; BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Believe that failure is not an option and it won’t be. Ask my mirror, it’s been told “you can do it!” and “everything is going to work out exactly as its meant to” a million times, haha.

    KATIE! Forget about the naysayers! These are people that are too afraid to go after their dreams so they’re trying to ruin yours as well. You can do it! And absolutely nothing is a waste of time. The biggest mistakes and failures are the ones that you learn the most from. A bad idea can be so much more valuable than a good one! Good luck following your heart!

    • Meg says:

      Thanks Nicole! I”m so thrilled to hear you back up my thoughts – it was certainly a nerve wracking post to put together :)

      And i absolutely agree with you – belief in yourself is imperative!! I think its fantastic that you speak so much positivity over yourself – that’s so so important!!

      ps. your designs are gorgeous! you have such a fresh style – i love it!!

  7. Paunnet says:

    Thank you so much for this post, such valuable information!

  8. Tracy says:

    Hi Megan,
    I have being reading your blog for awhile and always enjoy what you have written or designed, this post was particularly inspiring though as I am at the moment a fashion design student (1st year) and have being worried about money and time and breaking into the industry but this blog post has just put a lot of those fears to rest and instead has filled me with inspiration and motivation! So a huge thanks for taking the time to write about your experiences :)
    - Tracy

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I have dreams and I think I am about to start pursuing them. I am sooo nervous but I really want this!!
    Thank you, again!!!

  10. Roobeedoo says:

    This is such a sensible, well thought out post! What good advice! I really hope that it inspires others to take the leap!

  11. Kessem says:

    Wow! How inspiring! I love that you tell everything how it is and don’t suger coat anything.
    I’m not really at a point where I’ve decided to start a line, but I love sewing and I love pattern drafting to a point where I think I want to do something that involves that as my career.
    I walked into a boutique a few days ago with a shirt I made and the woman who runs the boutique loved it so much she offered so sell some of my clothes consignment. now, of course this isn’t the greatest deal for me but it’s a feel of the industry.
    how do you feel about selling through consignment? I’m assuming that once you get to be as well loved as you are you don’t have to use these methods, but I was just wondering your general thoughts.
    thanks Megan for inspiring us again!

  12. Rochelle New says:

    Thank you so so so much for this!!! I’ve bookmarked this post and will refer to it often. It’s so nice to hear that yes it is possible to make the jump and make it work with very little monetary resources to back it. There is hope for me yet :)

    Thank you for being such an inspiration.

  13. [...] qualifies as stash/remnant-buster. I loved following her blog while she was pregnant and she shares great tips on starting your own business on a small budget. Rate this:Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookDiggPrintStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeOne blogger [...]

  14. Kendel Mineo says:

    You said you had enough fabric to make a few extra pieces, did you ever have the problem of someone ordering something and then you went back to buy the fabric and they no longer had it? If so what did you do? I get so nervous about that.

    • Meg says:

      Hi Kendal!! That’s a really good question- colourway continuity can be really hard to maintain when you are making to order! It made me nervous too :)

      That’s why i hand dyed most of my fabrics – it meant that I was able to buy plain white quality cottons and silks when orders came in, and then hand dye them to be the right colour. I kept really good records of the colour formulas i had developed, and it made it a lot easier.

      I had one dress that i used vintage fabric for – and only had enough fabric for 3 dresses. Once those were sold (first week hehehe) I had trouble. I ended up waiting till i found a print i liked (and by that point i had built up more capital) and was able to buy bolts, which allowed more consistency. The other side of the story is that one of the tops was made from a print, and i only made the sample – and one piece of stock. So when it come to opening my store i realised that print was gone and i couldn’t find it again, and nothing similar, so i only sold one of that top. What a bummer!! But those were the only two garments with prints – i think using the block colours for everything else was the best idea :)

      If price doesn’t bother you (but i’m pretty sure price bothers most people!!) I have often wanted to use my own design and print through somewhere like Spoonflower, that way i could order the print as needed and never worry about running out :)

      I hope that helps a bit!! I know it is very stressful trying to keep continuity!!

  15. Kendel Mineo says:

    Thank you for your help. Yes price is a big one especially when you are trying to keep your prices affordable for your customers. I wish there was somewhere like Spoonflower but cheaper (and good quality still though), but I understand they have to make money too so it is a catch-22.

  16. Karen says:

    Thanks so much for this post Megan. I have started sewing again in the last year or so, my only other experience was what mum taught me when I was in my teens. I’ve been slowly teaching myself bits & pieces to build up my arsenal of sewing expertise, pants still scare me!

    I absolutely love the process of coming up with an idea, picking a pattern, finding the right fabric and bringing it all together into something I can be proud of. It’s so lovely to be able to feel the passion you have for you what you do, and it’s that same passion that I want to experience in my life. I’ve been thinking long and hard about changing careers and learning more about what I love to do. I’ve just signed myself up for a 1 day workshop with a college which is a taster on their Fashion Design & Business course. I’m so excited and anxious at the same time, at my age I don’t know if I should be making such a bold move like this when all I’ve done is work in an office for most of my working life.

    Hope you don’t mind me asking a question though, did you have any experience working with a fashion design company or any other industry experience?

  17. Emma says:

    Your information was so common sense and straight forward. I have been tossing and turning over my decision to take my hobby and turn it into a business and your perspective was helpful. The fact you call your savings a ‘seed fund’ really strikes a chord with me.

    Thanks for your honesty.

  18. Ray says:

    Hi Megan, Wow, your story is so inspirational! Thanks for sharing. I’m interested to know how you approached the marketing side of things. Did you rely on word of mouth to start with, or did you employ other strategies? I’m in the process of nutting out the logistics of putting together an online range, but I get butterflies thinking I’m going to be one of the million plus online ranges out there in cyberspace. I don’t have a huge amount of capital, and all the design, pattern making and sewing skills in the world are no good unless you have presence….If you could share what you found helpful, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you :)

  19. RAY says:

    WOW! This was so NEEDED!! I really needed to read this. I have prayed over my situation, and I have asked God to help steer me in the right direction. I am 22 years old and a mother of twin girls. But this has been a dream of mine since I was 11. I have always been into fashion. Although I cannot afford to go to any prestigious fashion school or take fancy classes in NYC. I have ready plenty of books and blogs and have taught myself how to sew. I love your “tips for a small budget” I am one of those people who always think that big is always better. But I have to realize that patience is key. I have so many ideas, it is just time to get it all out. Thank you for your help! This was extremely helpful. It saved me some money too! I have just one question. Did you have a business license when you first started or did you wait a little while? Don’t answer if this can get you into any trouble O_O idk!

    • Meg says:

      Hi Ray, I’m so glad this helped you! I think keeping things simple and small is one of my favourite tips – if i had my time again, i’d make a much smaller initial collection :)
      Anyway, with regards to business license – When i started in the US i didn’t, after a lot of research and getting some advice i found the easiest option for me was to simply function as a sole proprieter – when i moved to Australia however, the rules were stricter, so i registered my business immediately (i was also a much larger company by this point and so it didn’t make sense to work as an individual anymore, it was better to incorporate). I hope that helps a bit! I would recommened you look into what is the right thing to do where you live :) xoxo

  20. Robyn Tonnet says:

    I have loved reading your design diary. Thankyou so much for sharing your knowledge. I would love some advice. I have an online facebook presence and am in the fortunate position of demand way exceeding what i can physically produce. For instance last night i put 30 garments on line and they all sold out within 1 minute. I am so greatful, but am really struggling to see how I can sustain production as I do everything all the sewing , original patterns and design , graphics and photography……..I am completely obsessed and passionate, but at the end of the day am really in a ‘sweatshop’ I am turning people away, including wholesale opportunities – which is obviously not good business sense. I am in dire need to go to the ‘next phase’ and outsource, but I have know idea how to go about it here in Perth. Ideally i’d love to keep things local. I tried employing a seamstress at one stage but it really wasn’t viable. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  21. I absolutely love your blog aand find the majority
    of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for.
    Do you offer guest writers to write content in your case? I wouldn’t mind
    publishing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write related to here.
    Again, awesome web log!