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10 Tips on How to Start a Clothing Line
min read

10 Tips on How to Start a Clothing Line

We've worked with a lot of brands here at Real Thread, and this is how you start your own.

Starting a clothing line may seem like a daunting task to some. But it doesn't have to be! If you are considering the right things, you can set yourself up for success and avoid any headaches in the future.

First, the fun stuff: let’s talk design!

1. Who and what are you designing for?

You need to know what you are designing for. Is it a cause? Is it a sport? Is it a movement? Is it a hobby? Make it something you’re passionate about sticking with for the long haul.

You also need to determine who you are designing for. What’s the age rage? Male, female or both? What do they like best about your hobby? A lot of the time when people buy T-shirts and other printed clothes, it’s about identity: they’re using your designs to say who they are.

Do your research, ask other members of your community to chime in with their opinions, suggestions and criticisms. This is something you need to repeat at every stage, but it makes sense to get it on a solid footing as quickly as possible.

It’s also one reason why we recommend building your business in a space that you personally care about: that way, you have a lot in common with your target audience. But consider forums online, or informal meet-ups offline. If you’re making shirts for surfers, take your drawings to the beach. Any feedback from the target audience is good, even if it’s not complimentary.

Chances are there are a lot of other start up clothing lines looking to do the same thing. Define what you are going to bring to the table, then do it.

2. Choose the right shirt

If wearing your shirt isn’t pleasurable, people won’t do it. So you need to pick out something that will delight with its feel as well as its looks.

T-shirts come in different styles, colors, fabric blends, weights and some even have tear-away tags. There’s a lot of choices - enough to stump you if you’re new to the game!

Once your line has been in the air a while, you’ll have sales data of your own to base these decisions on: if you sold five times more heavyweight than lightweight last year, it’s a good bet that heavyweight is where you should put your money this year. But when you’re just starting out you don’t have that data. How do you make decisions like this?

There are a couple of rules of thumb that should make things easier.

First, make sure you know your budget, so you are able to keep nice margins and make money while offering your customer a great quality shirt!

Second, we would recommend not going style crazy. You don’t need your design on every crew cut, tank, long sleeve and hoodie out there! Choose 1-2 styles at most and make sure it’s going to sell before you put all of your eggs in the same basket.

We think it’s better to offer more designs than styles. With all that said, keep seasons in mind. If it’s summer, don’t print hoodies (unless you’re prepping for a later season and you need to get your goods to the retailer for the fall season). In winter, don’t launch your new line of tanks.

With options like tags and details, consider offering tear-away or branded tags as an upsell - the premium, ‘extra crispy’ version of your basic shirts - and see who bites.

To help you choose the right shirt for your project, we created a Visual Guide to T-shirt Fabric Blends.  Learn about tri-blends and poly/cotton blends in this in depth visual guide and how these fabrics play a role in the results you're likely to achieve!

3. Create mockups and get feedback

Do you pick your shirt style and color and design to that or do you design and then pick the product?

Either way, we think it’s important to do the dirty work and find out what’s going to sell. You should email trusted friends, co-workers or the community you’re designing for and ask them for feedback (and then listen to it!).

We’re not saying this is always the way to go. After a while, you’re going to learn what people like and what they don’t really fast. When you have your own sales figures to go on, you’ll have a clear idea of what sells. And sometimes, you have to trust your gut and offer people something you don’t know if they’ll accept or not.

But while you’re starting off, it’s good to get honest feedback! It’s going to help you make the best possible product you can that people are going to love to wear and talk about.

4. Make it retail quality

Someone makes an awesome shirt - the product and design are on point, but it feels like something is missing.

The difference between people getting it right and people just not getting it, is making sure your customers know how much you value your own work. We highly suggest taking the extra time, paying the extra money to make it worth it.

When you’re starting out, it can be a little scary to think of doing anything that costs more, making your product more expensive. But the fact is, you can get a T-shirt for $2. You’re not competing on price, you’re offering your customers a personal treat and an expression of their identity. That extra attention to detail that you pour into a custom screen printed tag or custom hem tag, shows them that you value that as much as they do

5. Choose the right printer

Not all printers were created equal. Some shops only print water based ink while others strictly print plastisol ink. Some offer every service under the sun, while others are specific about what they pour their resources into. Some offer custom retail services like hang tag application, custom screen printed tags and hem tag services while others send it elsewhere.

This is your business, your clothing line- your brand. Make sure the printer you pick is going to come along on this journey with you as you find your way. If they send everything out, who are you really dealing with? If they’re not scrupulous about quality, that’s your reputation in their hands.

You are going to have a lot of questions as you determine what your clothing brand stands for and the direction you want to go. Choose the printer you can build a great relationship with, that you can use as your resource hub, who's going to celebrate your big wins!

6. Market your shirt

Home sweet home. Your shirts have arrived. Now what? Now you need to market the heck out of them (P.s., It’s best to have an action plan before the shirts arrive). Have you thought through your marketing strategy?

If not, you’re going to struggle. Before you begin creating your business, spend some time considering the answers to questions like:

  1. Are you promoting on social networks?
  2. How have you been growing your social following?
  3. Did you do any pre-sales?
  4. How will people know that the shirts are ready for purchase?
  5. Are you going to run ads?
  6. Are you going to sell your merchandise at events?
  7. How will you determine the price?
  8. Are you going to sell online?
  9. Did you line up stores to sell your shirts in?
  10. how are they going to promote you?
  11. How are you going to package your shirts?
  12. What impression do you want to make when someone receives it?

Seems like a lot. But figuring out a marketing plan that you can afford and that will produce some customers will save your business from stalling on the runway.

The lowest-cost method is probably to sell online through existing storefronts like Etsy, Amazon or Ebay. You can build a successful business on those sites alone, or you can find local stores that will sell on commission, or create your own ecommerce store.

Whatever route you decide, remember that marketing is end to end: it starts the first time they hear about you, and ends long after they open their first package with your product inside. So invest in every stage of the buying experience, from marketing messages to packaging, if you want to grow fast.

7. See what sells

The most valuable information you’ll ever have comes from your own business. When you know which of your designs sell best, you have the information you need to grow your profits.

Re-print the favorites, lose the designs that didn’t sell and throw in something fresh! More than likely, you’ll have a few designs that are going to be the big hits. (They might not be the ones you predicted, either.)

Keep printing those! If there’s demand, don’t make the mistake of putting them on sale. There’s no reason to cut your profits. The market is oversaturated  with “everything is on sale", so do yourself a favor and hold the value of products. There’s no guarantee that you’ll sell more - cutting prices can devalue a product in consumers’ eyes. If you run a sale, save it for something big and make them special.

It’s best to create an inventory management system tracking your products, how well they did, how many you have left, etc. You need to have a pulse on what’s working and what’s not, so you know how to move forward.

At the same time as you get the more enjoyable aspects of creating a clothing line off the ground, you also have to deal with some rules, regulations - and a tough question you need to ask yourself. Let’s start with that one:

8. Full-Time or Side Project?

Figure out whether you want to take the plunge right away and make this a full-time thing, or whether you’d rather do it as a side project. If you’re going full steam ahead, realize that most businesses don’t let their founder draw a salary for the first year at least. Factor in living costs - including things like medical bills, insurance and so on - and be sure that you can deal with that before you jump. (Alternatively, consider running on credit - but be aware that getting a business loan for a new business is really tough, and running your business on credit puts you under a lot of pressure.)

If you decide to run your new clothing start-up as a side project, you have a lot less pressure. But you’ll need to be disciplined with yourself about where you put your time when you have less of it to devote to your business.

Weigh the pros and cons of both approaches, and go for the one that’s right for you!

9. The Legal Bit

This is the boring bit, but you really do have to do it. Businesses can grow fast; it makes sense to get your feet underneath you legally before you find yourself turning over tens of thousands of dollars, and running it all through your personal bank account!

In the USA, you’ll need a tax identification number and a business number. If you’re taking business payments online, you’ll need a business account for whichever payment solution(s) you decide to go with. You’ll need to get set up at the bank too! (See below for more on that.)

You’ll also need to decide on your company structure. These run a scale of complexity from sole proprietor, which is essentially you as a business, to a full-blown corporation. Many businesses opt for LLC (Limited Liability Company) status because it provides them with more flexibility than a corporation but still protects them from full personal liability. State, as well as federal, law can affect what a company structure means, so do your homework before you decide!

10. At the Bank

If you’re planning to accept payments online, you’ll need a PSP, an IMA, or a PPC.

Let’s straighten out that alphabet soup a little.

A PSP is a Payment Service Provider. When someone goes to the payment section of your website and clicks ‘purchase,’ the Payment Service Provider takes over. They’re a third party whose job is to handle the payment for you, including security. It’s a good idea to have one of these because they’re on the hook for security, not you!

An IMA is an Internet Merchant Account, a specialist bank account designed to accept online payments. Your business bank will set you up with one; this is what your PSP will ultimately pay you into.

Finally, a PPC is a one-stop option that takes care of both. It stands for Payment Processing Company, and it eliminates the need for a separate IMA and PSP. If you have little or no trading history, you might find it comparatively hard to get an IMA, and comparatively easy to set up an account with a PPC. The downside is that there’s usually a delay of around 60 days before you’ll see any of your money, and it will be slightly more pricey than setting up an IMA and PSP separately.

Ready to get the ball rolling on your clothing line? See the different shirt options you can create here.