Fashion Design 101: How to Plan for Business Success


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Making a living doing what you love is important. I’ve had the privilege of working in the communications field for over 18 years and I’m passionate about my work. Working in the fashion business, it’s likely you’re living your dream as well. I’ve yet to meet a designer who isn’t passionate about fashion, her designs and her customers. Yet that enthusiasm less often extends to the other, less creative aspects of running a business. Unfortunately, setting up your business properly can be one of the most important ways to set yourself up for success in the long-term.

Consider this: you’re not only a fashion designer, you’re a business owner.

Map Out a Business Plan

Much in the way you sketch your next great creation or draw out your patterns before sewing, set aside some time to map out what your vision is for your company and create a business plan. You can find several templates and examples online to help you get started. By following along with the template, you will be forced to consider questions like – who are your stakeholders? What is the operations plan? Are you planning to work solo or do you need to incorporate? What is your marketing plan, major messaging and key areas of differentiation.  Business plans are often modified as your dreams become reality, but spending time in this planning phase is crucial, for your own sanity and if you ever hope to have an investor take you seriously.

Develop Customer Profiles

Who is your target customer? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard designers say “everyone” because they feel their product is so great! Even saying “women over 25” is too general. A great way to get specific is to develop customer profiles or personas. Give your 35 year old, college-educated, zumba dancing, Africa-safari going, major metropolitan living, mom of two girls aged 2 and 6 looking for comfortable separates that will help her stand out, a name. Give her a face!  And then design for her.

Being clear on who your target is not only helps line up your image and brand so that it resonates with that target, it allows you to research further into her experience. Host a focus group, invite friends or friends of friends over for tea and have them talk to you about what they are looking for in their closet each morning. In addition, a clear target helps with public relations and securing media coverage. As a quick example, we know that the Nylon skews a bit younger, is edgy and tied to music and underground culture.  W Magazine, on the other hand, attracts a more sophisticated, polished and affluent reader. Perhaps there are aspects of your line that appeal to both, but make sure your pitch is targeted to appeal to the specific vibe of the publication.

Make Budgeting Your New BFF

It’s important to make sure you have enough savings to keep you afloat during the first few months. As a designer, you also need to map out start up costs (and likely get an accountant) and get your books in order for tax time. Consider how much money you need to pay for portions of your design business that you may not always operate yourself. For instance, a sales staff, seamstresses, a PR and marketing budget, bookkeeping, etc.

Commit to Losing (a bit) of Control

As a designer/business owner, you will have a great deal of creative control, after all, it’s your design and your business. Even so, you’ll need to be open to advice and guidance from those who are skilled in areas you struggle with. Allow your brand to evolve in ways you never expected, and be open to opportunities that come your way (just make sure they fit with your overall brand identity!).

A Case Study: Always be open to new opportunities

Our firm works with the fashion label Essence Flowers, known for designing gorgeous dresses – from cocktail dresses to ball gowns that appeal to an elite,  high profile crowd, including celebrities and dignitaries. In the last few years, however, the designer began to explore swimwear, which has proven to be a highly lucrative new channel. In 2010, Essence Flowers designed suits for the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneer cheerleading calendar, and the the NFL cheerleading team loved her designs so much, they asked her to design their 2010 uniforms. She has since launched a sports division to cater to this new market.

The transition has required a bit of adaptation, but has allowed her to maintain her role designing quality clothing for discerning consumers, while supporting her overall business. If she hadn’t been open to exploring other aspects of her field, she may not have ever come across, or made use of, the opportunity design for cheerleaders. And who knows, the next step may be designing the dresses they wear to fancy social affairs!

Are you looking at your designer skills through a business lens? What advice do you have for fashion designers just starting their businesses?

Design courtesy of Yazmina Cabrera,Girl with a Banjo.

Nancy Vaughn

Nancy Vaughn

Nancy Vaughn is an entrepreneur and principal, PR & Marketing Director of White Book Agency, a full-service public relations, marketing and special events firm, specializing in fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands. She excels at assisting media professionals and clients alike, and is called upon frequently by media outlets for her PR/business knowledge, coaching and industry connections. She leads strategic publicity and marketing campaigns for businesses across the country and her clients have been seen in/on: InStyle, New Beauty,, Forbes, Design Bureau, Luxe Interiors & Design, MSN Fitbie, E! TV, CNN Latino, Refinery 29, The New York Times, Daytime TV, Dwell and more.