Starting a clothing business is a dream for thousands of entrepreneurs. But how do you actually do it?
In this article, we’ll show you how small, medium, and large clothing brands have planned, marketed, built, and grown their businesses.
We’ll draw from interviews with major players in the custom apparel industry – like SanMar and Bella + Canvas. But we’ll also take the best from the PrintHustlers podcast – where we’ve interviewed more than one-hundred print shops.
A clothing business can be virtually anything you want it to be. Entrepreneurs choose lots of different paths – from printing and fabricating clothes to designing and selling them.
Work with who you want
There are two types of clothing businesses:
- Direct to consumer
- Direct to business
In both instances, however, the entrepreneur chooses who they want to work with.
What do we mean?
If you sell directly to consumers, you can choose who you want to work with at many stages of the clothing development process:
- Design: you can choose designers and what type of designs you do
- Sourcing: you can choose where your clothes are made and by whom
- Printing and embroidery: you can choose who prints or embroiders your clothes
- Distribution: you can ultimately choose who sells your clothes
Clothing businesses that sell directly to businesses may not have the luxury of choosing their customers (for instance, print shops often do contract printing where they simply print what other customers want). But even then, most custom clothing businesses can choose to say no to clients they don’t want or jobs they can’t handle.
The freedom to choose who you work with is a major benefit to starting a clothing business.
Design and create your ideas
A lot of clothing businesses began as a young entrepreneur’s first foray into making clothes for a brand that they created. Superior Ink’s Dominic Rosacci started his own clothing business because he simply wanted to imitate the major snowboarding and skateboarding brands he loved.
Creating clothing and apparel
Others start businesses because they are designers at heart.
Many major fashion designers thrive from seeing their ideas become reality. High fashion doesn’t have to be the only goal, as a variety of companies were founded by entrepreneurs simply looking to fill a niche:
- NIKE began because Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman wanted a simple athletic shoe
- Spanx began because Sara Blakely wanted something better for women
- Adolph Dassler started Adidas to provide athletes with better equipment
- The North Face was simply a retail store that needed to better meet its customers needs
- …and so on
The major point is that a lot of clothing businesses start not because of a lofty dream – but because of a practical need for clothing and apparel for a specific niche.
Printing: making images into reality
If you’re not interested in designing your own clothing specifically, screen print shops take a diagonal approach to the fashion industry – they make great artwork become beautiful prints.
Thanks to the work of process screen printers in the 1980s and 1990s, photorealistic images are possible to print.
Screen printers also work with a variety of companies and customers to meet their exact needs. “Every job is really a unique custom job [in screen printing,]” remarks Golden Press Studio owner Jonathon Overmeyer.
Screen printing is uniquely hands-on and process-oriented. If that sounds like something you’d like, then learn how to start a screen printing business.
Sell and get paid (almost) anywhere…
Interested in working remotely? Want to run a business and not be tied down to a desk in an office?
Running a clothing business can be a reliable and profitable source of additional income – and others have taken it a step further.
While most business owners in print shops are in the building most days, many clothing brands have outsourced virtually every step of their manufacturing, printing, sales, and shipping processes. They use email and social media for marketing and contract printing for the bulk of their actual production. Believe it or not, this model may be more profitable than a traditional brick-and-mortar business!
Software like Printavo and Shopify allow entrepreneurs to sell clothes anywhere – and get paid quickly straight through the internet.
We’ll discuss a remote-first business model in the planning section below.
…or build your own print shop!
You can sell your own brand, or you can sell the a shovel to other people so they can start their own brands.
Here’s what we mean by “sell a shovel”: many clothing businesses support other entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality – like Oakland, California’s Big Printing, which has reached 150k+ Instagram followers and helped launch hundreds of brands.
Of course, a clothing business doesn’t need to be focused on a single brand!
Most clothing businesses start in the garage of an entrepreneur’s home – or even their bedroom. Print shops don’t always start their own clothing brands. You can work in the opposite direction: develop your printing, manufacturing, and sourcing skills first.
Here’s what we mean by “sell a shovel”: many clothing businesses support other entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality – like Oakland, California’s Big Printing, which has reached 150k+ Instagram followers and helped launch hundreds of brands.
It’s daunting to start a business. You need to understand your state’s local laws about incorporation, take careful stock of your finances, and develop a business model that leaves you with something in your pocket at the end of the day.
But the fundamental skills you need are the same you’ll need in any entrepreneurial role. Thankfully, none of these are “natural” talents. They are all skills you can learn, improve on, and continue researching during your journey. The skills are simple:
- Strong sales and marketing skills
- An understanding of the production process
- A willingness to embrace technology
- Being friendly and outgoing
Sales and marketing skills are #1
Way too many people think that sales and marketing skills are something that only certain types of people can do – the loud, brash, outgoing, super-fun types that never slow down and always have something to say.
But that’s not the truth.
Marketing is all about visibility and repetition.
Your primary goal as a marketer, particularly early in your growth and development, is to raise the visibility of your business. People need to see your business multiple times before they’re aware you exist – so don’t be afraid to use retargeted advertising or be incredibly repetitive in your messaging and branding.
Sales go hand-in-hand with marketing. Your goal in sales is to sell (of course), but the way to sell more is to make genuine connections.
How do you do that? Go to where your target audience is and be active in your community.
Additionally, think about your quoting process:
- How can you build a quote pipeline so more of your quotes become paid orders?
- How can you streamline ordering and paying to add value to your customers?
You have to understand how a sale becomes a piece of clothing.
One of the biggest problems that new clothing businesses encounter is a lack of knowledge and experience with custom apparel.
The screen printing process is complex, and each step depends heavily on the step before it. It’s a process that can often require a business to completely start over if something goes wrong in the production process!
For example, you should absolutely understand the difference between DTG and screen printing. Know what it takes to embroider a garment. Learn about the wholesalers. Learn the lingo that the business uses. One of the easiest places to do that is at trade shows (once they start up again after 2020-2021!).
The biggest piece of advice that new clothing businesses need to understand: you should only sell jobs that are profitable to your business.
Sales are the FIRST STEP in the production process, because they’re a promise that you can make what you said you can make.
Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. You can only do that if you have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the actual processes involved with embroidery, DTG, and screen printing!
The clothing business is a technological industry first and foremost. The companies that embrace technology – whether it’s simple software to manage their shop, a way to communicate faster with customers, or investments in futuristic hybrid printing – are significantly further ahead than companies that don’t.
Clothing companies like Real Thread in Florida have told us point-blank that they consider themselves technology companies first – and printing companies second.
This is a huge and important insight: you need software to organize your shop, a good website, and a basic understanding of SEO at a minimum.
There is a lot of great software that will make starting, growing, and sustaining a clothing business much easier. Read more about it here.
Making a website for your print shop is essential – and will require a significant (though not overwhelming) commitment of time on your behalf.
You’ll want to have a basic understanding of SEO for print shops, too. As Jupmode’s John Amato notes, “A great website is nothing without discoverability.”
Have (or develop!) people skills – they’re your brand
People skills are NOT an innate tendency that certain types of people have. People skills are something you can learn and improve. Bigger still? The people you connect with are your brand – particularly in clothing!
You need people skills in the clothing industry because each part of your business revolves around people: they buy the clothing, they make the clothing, they wear the clothing.
Even moreso, people associate your clothing business with the people you associate with. Who wears your clothes? What do your clothes mean?
Remember NIKE starting because they wanted to make a better shoe? They had the people skills to discover that athletes needed a better shoe, convinced athletes that their shoe was worth trying, and built relationships with athletes to endear their products.
Persistence is rocket fuel for success
The secret sauce to starting a clothing business – or any business – is long-term persistence.
If we could distill all of our advice down into one sentence, it’s this: Keep going.
The cumulative effect of small efforts over time are much, much larger than `
Planning your clothing brand is a vital component of your long-term success.
It is one thing to create a single t-shirt and sell it for a profit.
It’s a different thing to create a business that can generate wealth.
What not to do
Here’s how the overwhelming majority of new entrepreneurs approach creating a clothing brand:
- They design something
- They figure out how to make it or print it
- They try to find people to buy it
- They lose money, or if they’re fortunate break even. A very small percentage make profits.
This is NOT how to approach starting a clothing brand.
Because if you design a product, invest a lot of money into making it, and then aren’t able to sell it – you’ve failed to create a business.
Instead, build a plan that establishes a market and works outward from there.
What to do instead
Invert the traditional thinking process a bit: don’t start with the product and work backwards from there. Start with the people you want to sell your product to.
Who are they? What are they interested in? Where do they go and how can you reach them?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but here’s how truly successful brands have approached their planning phase:
- Find an audience you want to sell to
- Go where they are
- Establish yourself in their world
- Sell only once you’ve become part of their subculture
The most influential clothing brands in the world (think Supreme, NIKE, and so on) have built strong subcultures around their merchandise. Wearing their products tells other people you’re part of that brand’s subculture.
Think 1-3-5 (years into the future)
Long-term business planning isn’t anyone’s first nature. But it’s a skill that you can cultivate with some simple strategic planning.
We’ve written extensively about the book Traction, which lays out a great way to design a long-term plan for your business.
So when you start planning your clothing brand, the simplest way to start is to think about the long-term goals you want to achieve.
For each of these questions, you want to be able to think about 1, 3, and 5 years into the future:
- Who do you want to work with?
- How much revenue do you want to make?
- How will you sell and market your business?
- Who will you need to hire?
- Ultimately, what is your goal?
- For example: sell your business or grow it into a sustainable salary? Those require two different kinds of choices!
These are big, high-level goals with concrete answers. You can take small steps each day with this vision in mind, which makes each choice you face along the way simpler. Does this get you closer to your goal?
You may be shocked to learn that you don’t need any special printing or manufacturing equipment to start your own clothing brand.
While many screen printers start businesses by purchasing equipment, refining their techniques, and then learning sales and marketing techniques – that is hardly the only pathway to success. In fact, investing heavily in equipment to start a clothing business is probably not the most profitable or quick way to get started.
So what should you focus on when you start your business? You really only need an internet connected computer and a network of people to connect to.
Software: the key to growth
Your computer is the center of your business. We live in a digitally connected era where you may never touch a single piece of clothing and still run a wildly successful brand. There is so much software for screen printing & print shops that you can actually run your business from anywhere in the world.
At a least, expect that you’ll need fluency (if not competency) in design programs like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. You’ll also want to know how to use a spreadsheet for pricing and be adept at trying out different email and social marketing platforms.
No matter what, invest in software to make your process easier so you can grow your business with less labor. You can use software (like Printavo, for instance) to automatically do things like:
- Communicate: with customers and other businesses
- Get paid: collect payments online
- Get approvals: for quotes and artwork
- Build online stores: to sell to anyone, anywhere
All of these elements are necessary for running a successful clothing brand in 2021 and beyond, and there are dozens of great software options available to help you.
Your network: people!
“Your network is your net worth,” goes the old adage. Lean hard on the connections you have early on: churches, schools, sports teams, hobbies, interests. These simple jobs can help you build a huge network, as word of mouth remains the most effective form of marketing in the print industry.
Too often, clothing brand entrepreneurs try to look for a customer they don’t already know – when it would be much simpler to try to connect with people the entrepreneur already knows.
If you’re concerned you don’t have a network, there are a lot of industry trade shows for printers and clothing brands. Additionally, Facebook Groups for screen printing are a huge resource for entrepreneurs (even if you’re not intending to become a screen printer).
Before you spend thousands on Facebook ads, think carefully about what kind of clothing brand you want to build.
Clothing brands split into two categories:
Understanding what kind of clothing business you’re trying to start helps narrow your marketing. If you’re trying to become the next Supreme, your marketing plan looks very different than if you’re trying to start the next GAP!
Volume-oriented businesses want to sell as much of their product as they can (“volume”). These are brands that you might see in big box stores that have national name recognition. Most of these brands originate as smaller companies or labels, and are then purchased by major manufacturers. One example: Target acquiring Mossimo, a 1990s touchstone brand.
Value-oriented businesses want to capitalize on brand perception to sell fewer items at a premium. These are fashion brands that hold considerable sway, but don’t sell large volumes of clothing at big retailers. These are often niche or subculture brands that thrive on
Do both? Now, with the emergence of second-hand markets for reselling luxury goods (The Real Real, for instance) and aggressive auction-based sites for coveted sneakers and athletic wear (StockX), some volume-oriented businesses have begun to capitalize on value-oriented scarcity. While few brands can actually pull this off (NIKE is the prime example), it shows how the current climate for clothing brands is not cut-and-dry.
The bottom line here? You may be able to get more value and profit out of selling fewer items to the right people – and knowing who you’re selling to and what you plan to sell is key to building your marketing plan.
Copy what your favorites do
Here’s a great way to approach marketing: good marketers borrow, but great marketers steal.
See a campaign for clothing, apparel, or merchandise that works on you?
Found something that worked on someone you know?
Copy it in your own style.
Find exactly who you’re marketing to
Remember how we harped on about identifying your core audience?
This makes marketing so much easier. Why?
Because you can choose your marketing channel and marketing style much easier. Knowing your core audience means you can focus on where they like to go and what they like to do.
Facebook and Instagram
Facebook and Instagram (and even WhatsApp) are vital marketing resources for clothing businesses.
They let you specify the exact audience your ads are shown to. What does that mean?
Let’s say you know that you are trying to sell to college students in Illinois that are interested in football.
You can create a specific audience with those exact parameters through Facebook. Facebook will then display ads only to people that meet your requirements.
Facebook even has a powerful feature called Lookalike Audience Builder. It lets you find people that are like the people you’ve already had success with.
Facebook ads have a steep initial learning curve, but the quality of their advertising remains particularly high.
Instagram is its own unique ballgame. Check out the podcast we did with @bigprinting, a brand-building shop in Oakland that has more than 150k followers:
Ever visited a website then seen an ad for it later on a different website?
That’s the power of retargeted advertising. For a few bucks a day, you can try retargeted advertising with a service like AdRoll and reach your most likely customers. This is a powerful retention tactic that’s used by the biggest and most powerful businesses, but it’s surprisingly underutilized by smaller businesses.
Started a business, but struggling to get your brand some traction?
Growing a clothing business is not an easy task.
If you’re looking for short and sweet tips on how to grow a clothing business, here’s the cream of the crop.
Pick a niche (or niches)
It’s counter-intuitive, but your brand will be much more successful if you only focus on one type of customer.
For instance, you could:
- Only make clothes for medical professionals
- Make clothes for a specific activity (cycling, running, painting, etc.)
- Only sell clothes at a certain place or time
- Sell clothes specific for a cause, charity, or organization
Some of the most successful clothing brands began by serving a small niche extremely well: NIKE served athletes, but now makes shoes and clothes for all kinds of people.
By picking a niche, you narrow your focus and simplify all of your efforts.
One of the worst things a clothing business can do is to overpromise and underdeliver. Instead, go above and beyond to impress your customers – but don’t promise things you can’t actually do.
For instance, if you’re mostly into screen printing but promise a complicated all-over print that uses sublimation, there’s no way you can learn an entirely new process in time to deliver a great product to your customer (or cover the costs!).
A good rule of thumb: if you’re trying to make something for the first time, let a professional do it through contract printing.
Compete on quality, not price
Clothing is a highly commoditized market. This means that the basic goods used to make most clothes are identical, for all intents and purposes. You can get a cheap t-shirt just about anywhere.
The implications of this are important to understand: no clothing entrepreneur can compete solely on price. There are large international supply chains dedicated to keeping the prices of clothes extremely low. There is almost certainly another business in your state or city that can do what you do for much less. After all, everyone needs clothing.
Instead of offering low prices, offer the highest quality service and products you can. Great customer service is the killer app for most print shops, and it represents a huge opportunity to distinguish your brand from others. So, compete on the quality of product and service you offer instead of simply trying to undercut competitors.
We have seen hundreds of clothing businesses fail because they try to offer aggressive discounts and compete on prices. Your prices are your prices, and you should find the customer that agrees with them instead of chasing finnicky price-conscious consumers.
Improvement & innovation: seasonal lines
Seasonality is crucial to the success of any clothing brand. This isn’t just because it offers a chance to sell more clothing during the spring and fall. It’s because it is a chance for ongoing improvement.
Innovation is forced by the need to constantly create new and better clothing. This may lead to new types of clothing – or it may simply be the refinement of a manufacturing process, a shipping process, a dye recipe, and so on.
At the very least, offer a new yearly line. Some brands prefer to have Spring and Fall releases. How exactly you structure your business is up to you, but the point is to have an ongoing and active process of development and improvement.
Some areas to improve:
- Workflow: are you efficient and organized, or disorganized and sloppy?
- Products: are your products ethically sourced and environmentally friendly?
- Marketing: are you marketing your clothing to the right people in the right way?
- Software: are you up to date on the latest software to help your business?
- People: do you have the right people in the “right seats” to grow?
While we’ve covered a lot of ground here, we should summarize the major mistakes that entrepreneurs make when they start a clothing business.
What not to do: have no goal.
First, what is your goal? If you know what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s much easier than “I’m planning to sell some clothes with a great logo on them.”
What not to do: buy lots of inventory and try to sell it.
Second, why pay for something you haven’t sold? Too many clothing entrepreneurs spend too much money up front without a solid plan for actually selling and delivering their products.
What not to do: think short-term, one job at a time.
Third, when can you realistically achieve your goals? Think one, three, and five years into the future. Building a clothing business can be a gradual process, so be persistent and thing about the long-term health of your business.
No target market
The single biggest mistake you can make if you start a clothing brand?
Trying to be everything to everyone.
Many entrepreneurs dream of creating a clothing brand that’s so popular it can be sold in any store and worn almost anywhere.
But the truth is that clothing brands are niche businesses. This means you should focus on finding the exact customer you want to sell to and aggressively pursue them.
If you don’t have a target market, you will spend too much on inventory. You will lose money quickly. And worse still, you’ll struggle to figure out what to do to correct your problems. If you know who you want to sell to, every single decision becomes much easier.
Not using contract printers
Contract printing is an extremely valuable tool for entrepreneurs.
Instead of investing thousands of dollars in printing equipment, you can simply utilize someone else’s business. For a small fee, they’ll custom print garments for you. They may even handle fulfillment and online ordering for you too.
No matter what, look into utilizing contract printers when you start. This minimizes the investment you need to make in order to start making sales.
The fact of the matter is that it’s not unrealistic for a creative entrepreneur in the clothing business to very rarely touch an actual piece of clothing. You can run your business from the internet and offload much of the actual labor.
Wrong tools and processes
Entrepreneurs are curious, creative people. But they’re human, too! Many tend to find something that works and stick with it forever.
This is not an effective strategy for clothing businesses. While the processes may stay mostly unchanged, the software and tools used to manage businesses gets better and better with each passing year. There are so many niches and opportunities for custom clothing brands that it’s almost overwhelming.
This means staying informed about ways to manage your customer communication, your workflow, your marketing, and more. You don’t have to rip out everything and start over each year, but you should add and try new tools and software as often as you can.