I received an email last night from a friend who wants to start a small retail business and doesn’t know where to begin. As I mentally contrived a response, I realized that you, dear reader, may also be interested in my two-cents. My business has undergone many many incarnations. In fact, at some point, it’s been almost every version of a retail business (a brick and mortar shop, an art show booth, an international wholesale line, a studio, a Mercedes Benz Fashion Week participant, a pop-up shop, and primarily an e-commerce boutique).
My current studio- 2014
At Parsons, where I studied fashion design, I was under the impression that everyone had a shared goal of launching their own fashion line and seeing grand global success with it. Several years later (three years after I started my business, to be precise), it didn’t occur to me to think smaller than that. Why wouldn’t I want my jewelry sold all over the world and making magazine cameos? So, I sent press kits across the country and met with some of the top fashion magazines (always in my $30 H&M dress and my sister’s heels which I swiftly removed the moment I walked out the building). I called stores and magazines all day and travelled the country, meeting with boutiques and setting up booths at the Fashion Markets. I briefly worked with a PR company and sent samples of my laboriously handmade jewelry for them to loan to TV shows and stylists that may (or, more likely, may not) use them. And it worked. But it was EX-PEN-SIVE. Very expensive. And what rookie designers don’t realize, is that many (let’s be honest, most) small fashion houses, launch with a hefty sum of money and a connected network of contacts. This is what the first year of my wholesale business included:
The contents of my first press kit:
-A glossy folder with my logo printed on it. ($200-$400 for folders, cards, etc..)
-A Designer Bio (free)
-Line Sheets, with of photo of each style and the item’s details. This requires graphic design knowledge. (Price depends on what you need to hire out. I do my own product photography and graphic design work).
-A Look Book or Catalog [The photoshoot alone cost about $2000 (model, photographer, hair/make-up), and the printing was almost $4000]
Photoshoot for Look Book 2007
Look Book Cover
You have to apply, and the booth fees are about $2500+, plus participation fees which are similarly priced. You then need signage, displays, etc.. And you’re competing against lines with custom booths that look like permanent stores that miraculously manifest the night before the show and vanish within two hours of the show’s end. You also need to factor in the price of travel, accommodations, food, flights, car rental, etc.. It honestly cost about $7000 per show to have a pretty basic booth. I cringe at the picture below, knowing how much sleeker I would make it now.
My booth at an Accessories show in New York- 2008
A showroom is a company that has better access to stores and buyers than you do. You still have to pay show fees at Market, but you probably have better booth placement and they ostensibly will connect you to press and buyers. A good showroom will make connections and open accounts year round, not just during Market. They charge a monthly fee plus a percentage of your wholesale cost, which is generally half of the retail price of your goods.
If you really want to make it big, you need to get your name out there and get your product seen and validated. The most popular decoration for a Market booth is press clippings engulfing the walls or shelves and indicating to new exhibiters that press is more important than product. A PR company can help expedite the process of getting press, but it’s a very expensive risk that may not work.
A good fashion PR company costs about $2000+ per month and you need to give them at least one sample of each item in your collection. This was difficult for me because two of us were making everything by hand at a big expense to myself. The PR company’s other clients mainly outsourced mass production overseas and were less concerned by items that went missing. For example, I would get a call that a popular tv show wants to borrow several pieces that they may use in their next episode, but they would not be returning samples. Another time I was told that an actress wanted some earrings for the Emmy Awards, but didn’t want to reveal the color of her dress (which means I would have to send a lot of color options and had zero direction). Keep in mind, they are simultaneously borrowing from other sources. Now this is certainly not always the case. Doing my own PR, I’ve worked with great stylists and media outlets that treat my product with great care and return it promptly. I’m just aiming to reveal some of the realities behind the PR promises.
Most of these were garnered by our in-house press outreach – 2008/9
SOOO, this is where I was. I had skimmed the surface of all of this. I had the door cracked open, and I basically needed to decide whether or not to walk through. Walking through would entail continuing at this expense level for quite a bit loger. I would need a lot more money, more help, and would likely need to eventually fabricate my product overseas. Or not, but either way, I needed to really want it and really commit to it. But I didn’t really want that. I would leave the New York shows, drive to my family in Connecticut, put on sweatpants and spend the rest of the evening trying to feel like myself again. Then I’d go to Market again the next day with my Fashion-face on. I missed the small store I had opened in Savannah 3 years earlier. I missed my sweet customers who were so excited about their purchases and the idea that I made a piece longer or shorter right in front of them. That I wrapped it up in special packaging, and they would always remember that they bought it from a jeweler in Savannah, in her cute studio boutique.
Thankfully for the future of Catherine Nicole, the economy collapsed (this was 2008) and the decision was out of my hands. I would not work with PR companies, showrooms, or do any Markets that year. I would focus on my new home city, Austin TX, and ride out the economic downturn without taking any big risks. It worked. I was soon consigning my product in 15 Austin stores (which is a lot, considering you can only sell in one store per neighborhood, and Austin isn’t that big). I continued to wholesale to national and international buyers who sought-out my line. I participated in events, shows, built relationships with local media and won People Choice for Best Designer at the city’s first Fashion Week.
Store event 2009
Runway Show 2009
Austin Fashion Week – 2009
Austin Fashion Awards – 2009
Horrid picture from a TV interview – 2010
Store event – 2010
Store event 2011
But I still missed my customers. I spent a lot of time chasing down money, and I didn’t have any control over my customers’ experience with my work. How was it displayed? Did they keep it clean? What did the stores tell the customer about it? How did they package it? I also felt the need to have my work be of some use to the world. If I sold it myself, I could apply some of the extra profit to a needy and important cause. So, I decided to stop consigning, to not pursue any wholesale (other than accounts that seek me out) and to sell it myself, make the world better, yada yada.
No more fashion markets, runway shows, PR events. Just me and my customer and an extra $5 per item to help impoverished girls become entrepreneurs. This is what feels right for me. I don’t feel like I’m peeling off a mask when I come “home” from work (or walk down the hall, as the case may be). I may not see my customers face-to-face as I did in my Savannah store, but I’m connected to people all over the world and have full-control over how I present my work, myself, and my company’s values. Instead of starting small and growing the business, I started big. I got a good look at what that would feel like, and it just felt wrong. Wrong for the fabrication of my product and wrong for my personality and my lifestyle. When I thought about what would feel most authentic and inspiring to me thirty years down the road, I imagined myself creating new work by hand and packaging it up for the person who would wear it. In my fantasy I’m wearing comfortable clothes and a headscarf and am surrounded by the colors and memories that fill my converted garage studio.
So here’s my advice, Megan (who wanted tips to starting a business)– Think about what kind of business model fits best with who you are and your lifestyle. For example, 5 years ago, I knew I wanted to start having children. A lot of the choices I’ve made for my business have been ones to best accommodate that. I also really missed working directly with my customers. So, e-commerce with some wholesale (without the shows) has been a perfect fit for me.
For others, however, wholesale markets are fun, exciting and a great way to connect with stores all over the world. Designers like running into industry friends and visiting the cities that hold them. People feel a similar camaraderie who participate in art shows and craft fairs. Just keep in mind that you WILL have moments when no one is in your booth and the booth next to you is kicking ass.
And if, like me, you want to pursue your retail dream in the e-commerce sphere, what next? Where do you begin? My advice is to choose a low-barrier-to-entry marketplace, like Etsy, Cafe Press, Scout Mob. For starters you need a name, a logo, good photographs of your work, multiple photographs of your product. But customers are not going to know you’re there just because you have product available for purchase on the internet. At least not without an obscene amount of effort on your part, or a really unique product. A lot of your business is going to be about building a community. Joining Etsy Teams, interacting with people, getting involved on Pinterest… these are all ways to promote your brand. If you want to create your own marketplace, it’s the same deal. Unless you sell a really unusual, specific and search-friendly product (antique phonographs, for example), your store needs to constantly be at work. But if you’re willing to do it, it’s the best, and it’s fantastic to a have a business agile enough to make changes with our swiftly changing world.
My original studio – 2004
Preparing to launch my debut collection- 2007
Working from the Airstream trailer where I travelled and lived for most of 2007
My current studio
My current studio
My current studio