THE BRUTAL TRUTH ABOUT BUILDING A FASHION BRAND
the story they won’t tell you.
I say ‘truth’ but it is of course just my truth; the sideways glance of a grey bearded stout booted baldy, with a love of dangerous 1950’s motoring, the loud and aggressive tweed, and a double stitched reinforced gusset.
But after nearly 30 years in the industry, almost solely working with brands, I may have scooped the occasional pearl from the countless, hopeless, washed up oysters. I may have learnt something true. So if you’re not too busy instagramming a photograph of your dinner, not too exhausted by your addition of the words ‘awesome’ ‘sik’ and ‘dope’ to a picture of a snap back, or hiking up an absolute mountain of selfies, please, feel free to pull up a chair. My name is Paul Stephenson, and I would like to tell you a story.
….because that is I feel, the beating heart of a brand. If I ask a new fashion label what their story is, a common reply might be ‘Well, it’s kind of like that thing where, we’re sort of aiming at cool people, and pretty much doing some cool stuff that like, they’ll kind of like, a lot…you know what I’m saying’
Sadly Jazz (we’ll call the brand owner Jazz, because it’s not his real name but kinda makes him sound like, kinda cool)…sadly Jazz, no I don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t actually bloody said anything.
Forget about whether you want to twin a drop crotch chino with a crushed velvet trilby for a minute, and STOP — what are you trying to say?
He could have said perhaps, that his brand was about creating awareness around issues which concern him in his environment….he may for example, and it’s just an example, want to encourage the re-instatement of old working class values, the pride of the honest labourers and their families, and community — he may even want in a deep down Disney moment, to bring people together….it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can articulate what he cares about, and have a desire to communicate that story with a particular group of people, using good graphic design which dare we say, is meant to be intellect made visible. This means I’m sad to report, that another picture of an anchor, a snake, or if you’re a real free thinker perhaps a sugar skull, might not be quite enough to cause a stir…’I’ve always had this thing about dragons’ may not be sufficient.
Oh, and a little humble suggestion/tip here; before you get your pencil case out and start drawing what this all looks like, with your tongue poking out the side of your mouth…write the story down – maybe six things that we really care about that form a collection, and then design a graphic to go with each one — that way when it’s being PR’d at a later date you can just refer to your original thoughts to explain your brand in a meaningful way, rather than it shaking down into an ‘About Us’ page that waffles on about ‘being yourself’, ‘seizing the moment’ ‘shooting for the stars’ and a load of old nonsense we’ve heard a thousand times before. When you get that meeting with Selfridges and they ask what your brand is about, what each design is about…you’ll have an intelligent answer, rather than an urge to shuffle awkwardly and a sudden fascination with your shoes. Say something new perhaps, ‘this brand is about social change!’…’the resurgence of old values’…or ’relationship breakdown’ — having seen it all before they might be bored, so freak them out.
So for me, lone voice in the wilderness and generally mad back woodsman, brand story is important — if you don’t understand yourself, how can you expect anyone else to understand you? And of course, we’re hoping to be understood by our…
…otherwise known as who the hell I’m hoping to tell my story to?
18-30 year olds with an over developed interest in trainers is not an answer to this question. That narrows our market down to a few billion people, their friends, their friend’s dogs, and some bloke we met in a pub, called Nigel. So what might be an example of a targeted group?
Let’s go back to Dave (that’s Jazz’s real name) — he wants to reaffirm what he considers to be the loss of the working person’s values – and where might we find that particular hard working demographic that may resonate with this sentiment? Just a wild guess, but a football stadium might be a good start. We know where 40,000 of our potential tribe might be on a Saturday afternoon, all neatly locked up in a confined space for at least 90 minutes, with a short break for a life threatening meat pie.
You know your story (beautifully, graphically told, through the magic of screen print), you know where your customer is, and so in this particular case we have…
AN AFFORDABLE MARKETING CHANNEL BETWEEN STORY AND CUSTOMER
This is the bridge, that connects us, to them…and in this model it’s called a football fanzine, which is cheap advertising, and one of many ways to talk to this particular group. You can have the best story in the world, you can know your customer, but if they are a Vogue reader somewhere amongst 10 grand a page advertising…we will be the greatest story, that’s never heard.
So, story, targeted customer, and a financially sustainable channel between the two – just put the ball down and pull the trigger right? Well nearly, but the whistle hasn’t been blown just yet, just spit and rearrange your gentleman’s parts for a moment, because we also need…
…of the graphic variety. Again, perhaps write this down. Whether they have story may be debateable, but Franklin and Marshall are unlikely to do anything unless it looks Vintage, Collegiate, and American, in the main, is that a fair point? So what do you want your signature to be Dave? Do your graphics all need to look vintage, does they need to have a whiff of the ‘Made in England’ must they feel revolutionary, or anarchic?
If we want people to look across a crowded bar and think ‘I can’t quite make that print out, but from here, I’d say it was one of Dave’s’…then we need signature. This is the distinctive handwriting of our story, and we will be brutal. If the design doesn’t fit our signature criteria, we will bin it.
Story, signature, customer, marketing channel…that’s it right?
There is more, so if you feeling sleepy, pop off for a milky drink and forty winks. When you get back we’ll talk about…
Looking like a brand.
Your T shirt prints or embroideries are only a vehicle to tell the story. If that is all we have we’re not a proper brand, we’re a ‘T-shirt brand’ and so merely qualify for the inside back page of a dodgy lads mag. Imagine if you will, a magazine page in your head that features your brand. It will look like either a beautifully moody shot of some gorgeous bastard looking into the middle distance while riding an old English motorcycle, or be a bunch of product. If it’s the latter, it’ll just be a few T prints, but then a lovely high definition badged polo, a brand carrying sweat, a tone on tone embroidered taffeta windbreaker, a little denim, a military jacket, and in the bottom corner a watch and a pair of shoes (which never actually went into production, or were a ‘limited edition that immediately sold out’ right? (This game is hard enough…sometimes, we lie and stuff a pair of socks down our pants, to look bigger than we are).
Now we can make all this stuff, not a problem, but with minimums you’ll financially be dropping 5 big ones here, 8 big ones there, and generally having a nervous breakdown and popping over to your Mum’s in tears. The trick is to find genuinely retailable off the shelf product, which can be used in really small quantities, re-labelled, buffed up, and pieced together to form a coherent collection. It can be done. If we had time, I’d tell you the story of the big order of re-badged Melton wool military issue Hong Kong police jackets, £9.50 from the local Army and Navy store, ending up at a RRP of £249.00 and one of our finer strokes…shall we’ll call it up-cycling?
One last thing before we attempt to fire up the rocket, and wonder why the massive after burn is the size of a small fart.
It would be standard in our meetings with fashion labels for us to ask, ‘Which brands would you aspire to be’….and the conversation can then go something like this…
‘Sik Silk man, they’re massive, quality…word, dope, and peace, having it…in the city’
‘Why are they so good?’
‘Well, because they just are…they’re er…sik’
‘OK – Just out of interest, where do you go on holiday?’
‘We go to the Island man, Ibiza, whistle, glow stick, banging, large…up for it…you know the score’
‘And also, do you like tattoos?’
‘Fuck yeah, I love my sleeves man, and my Mum’s lending me the money to have a baddass sugar skull’
‘On your badass?’
So what we have is some lovely photography, on the Island, using nicely tattooed models, possibly throw in a stick on beard, to such a massive extent that when you receive your product in the post, which amounts to a vest, with a palm tree on it, you’re convinced it is….sik.
Are people narcissistic? Using models that look like them, show your target market your product, beautifully photographed in their favourite ‘hang outs’ and hey smoke and mirrors presto,…job done.
A great photographer can make the ugly gorgeous, and the gorgeous ugly…if in doubt, contact The Magic Photography Company (turd polishers to the elite).
Checklist: STORY, CUSTOMER, SIGNATURE, LOOKING LIKE A BRAND, PHOTOGRAPHY…IS THAT IT?
Well almost, but picture the scene — a small boat fully loaded with all the above, crewed by laughing, clean limbed, stripy shirted brand carrying hopefuls, on a big blue shimmering sea…what could possibly go wrong? Hold on a minute. Does anyone know where we’re going, where are we going to sell our most gorgeous of brands?
WARNING — the next bit gets quite depressing. Keep going, there can be a fluffy ending.
WHERE ARE WE GOING TO SELL?
The most common answer. And why not. Print a few T-shirts, take a few pics, drop it on a ready-made website template, and if you believe what some might tell you (Shopify), it’s then time to pop off to the Maserati garage and put a down payment on something loud.
Is that true? Well sadly no. It is in fact the most enormous load of bollocks since Barry Big Balls inflated his scrotum with a tractor pump…in our opinion.
We know that if you’re top of page 1 you get all the traffic. If you’re 2nd you get less than half of Number 1…come in at 3 or 4 and you’re on the slide, 10, 11, or 12 and you’re in the toilet, with the lights off. Can we think of 100 brands that have been around forever, online for years, and do I often hear of labels that are spending fifty grand a month on internet marketing? Er, yes. Will you ever beat them to a reasonably top slot…perhaps not? Selling effectively online, could be a five year job….
Still, we do have to have a site, not for sales at first, but for brand building.
Not a problem we shout, hang the website, I’m an absolute wizard on the old social, with a steady queue of loyal followers who will stampede to buy…ping, hurray, someone else likes me. Which is nice, it’s great to be popular, but do we see a relationship between social and sales? Honestly, no. It’s not uncommon for us to place product on celebrities with a 12.2 million following, and then see a brand re-order our minimum run of 24 pieces — everyone is busy ‘liking’…and not so busy buying…
Still, we do have to have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, not for sales at first, but for brand building.
Stuff you then. If I’m not going to sell millions online, I’ll sell to shops. They must be looking for new brands right? Let’s have a think — say you and I have six shops, along the South cost, and let’s imagine we’re a lad’s wear retailer, for no particular reason. So we go to a trade show and split up — you go off in search of denim, I’m in charge of buying knitwear, and we meet at the end of the day.
‘I’ve played safe’ you say ‘And gone for the Edwin jeans — they shift, right?’
‘Nice work’ I reply, ‘But I’ve found this really amazing new brand called Hang Dang Knitwear, see how it shimmers in the moonlight, isn’t it lovely?’
Now you may entirely agree with the great quality, but you are also in that moment entitled to give me a Guinness book of Records kicking . I’ve spent 8 grand on a completely unheard of brand — why didn’t I play safe and buy a little John Smedley, we know that works!!?’
Independent retailers are unlikely to buy new brands, mainly because they’re not insane — why should they risk it in these scary times? And Selfridges and Harvey Nick’s won’t buy it with no Independent track record, and a full on range of product.
The wholesale road means very tight margins; at some point having to manufacture large quantities to improve that margin; sitting on large stock; half of that stock either not selling through or going into sale, flogging it off at a time when you’re trying to showcase your ace new range and perhaps de-valuing that in the process. If that wasn’t true, there would be no TK Maxx.
Still, we do have half a dozen retail accounts, not for sales at first, not even for great profit later, but for brand building.
What? Our own retail store? Madness…or is it?
To avoid sitting in a room listening to three blow dried SEO goons, all showing you a different path to internet glory and demanding cash; to avoid trying to wholesale your label to a high street retailer who is whispering about a 5 grand kick back (that doesn’t actually happen, does it?) and then trying to return unsold stock on some trumped up technicality…what about taking full control of the job, doing it yourself, and opening a store – old school?
There is a decent range of fully retailable kit now available off the shelf. In small numbers, to create a nice T, hood, sweat, polo, jacket story. So we develop trims, labels, swing tickets, high def badges…a range of graphic T-s and a nice brand carrying logo….and we begin to amass a little stock.
We picture a space in our head, maybe even put some garment rails in the back bedroom and begin to fill them out with product…let’s walk in.
On the left we have our screen printed T-shirt collection, re-labelled, swing ticketed, with a hem tab maybe; and then our polos with a nice high definition badge. Along the back wall, some brand carrying sweats (black on black gloss?), and then a few tone on tone embroidered bombers, and damn it, let’s have a splash of denim. Did we have to have any of these manufactured with a 300 piece minimum at three grand a pop? No, we just did a couple of dozen of each, using lovely product.
Plus, we did it vertically, straight out of a factory, straight into our store — most retailers would run over an orphaned rabbit to get a 3 x multiple mark-up…play our cards right, and we can get a 5 multiple.
But we need more product, while not wanting to start manufacturing bags, trainers and eyewear. What about a co-lab then? Let’s carefully intersperse our core product with a lovely leather back-pack, made by a couple of nice lads, in England, who we get on well with. And a trainer, UK made again, just a few but it helps us out, it helps them out, and the same goes for this nice eye-wear co-operation we have going on. And all the while we were imagining what pictures we’d have on the wall, what music we’d play, the DJ’s who would make this a destination shopping experience….we even know what coffee we’re going to serve to our special customers.
Hold on a minute. We’ve got a shop.
To answer the cynics:
This is all going to cost a load of money. Well yes, some, but more than an effective online strategy? And at least the costs are fixed…we know our rent and rates. If we don’t have it, we’ll crowd fund it — high interest levels yes, but no need to give away any equity. We have seen brands we work with raise 150K+…more than enough to open a store. The equity issue is important, don’t give it away too early, because after we’ve operated for 2 years and shown decent profit, we’ll go for an equity stake deal, ask for 4 million quid with a plan to open 8 stores, on a Tuesday, in six months’ time — that’s when we give up our 40%. It’s not easy, we’ve run stores, we know…but it is a real plan.
Mad? You might think so, in which case maybe go back to getting a semi every time someone likes your Facebook page.
If you’ve read this far, you’re either serious, or been driven to it by Strictly Bore Me to Death on a Dance Floor, or are you watching I’m A Talentless Egotistical Git Get Me Out Of Here?
Either way, this is the attention we apply to trying to help build a real, long term, sustainable clothing brand, and a relationship. Simply saying ‘Check out our awesome new snap backs’ ‘Hey, let’s work’ and ‘We also print shopping bags’ may not quite do the trick.
Finally, Handy hint #1 — if there’s a brand you admire. Don’t rely on the gossip from an industry ‘expert’ who tells you they’re ‘smashing it’ or ‘having it away’. Get their accounts from Company’s House — if they’re making decent profit 5 years down the line, do what they did. If they’re not, and you might be amazed who is not, don’t follow their road, unless you enjoy a nice cul de sac.
Bottom line — it can be done, just, and with much thought — we wouldn’t be here otherwise.