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Beginner's handbook

How to Run a Successful Clothing Line in the 21st Century

How to Run a Successful Clothing Line in the 21st Century
Marianna Zvaigzne

By Marianna Zvaigzne

20 min read

You opening this blog means you’re considering the idea of designing your own clothing line, which is great. The next good news is that fashion is much more accessible and democratic than it was back in the day. In the words of Anna Wintour herself, “Everybody’s now invited to the party.”

And what a party it is. We’re not looking at fashion just in terms of haute couture vs. ready-to-wear. There’s streetwear, athleisure, athletic wear, loungewear, and every niche you can think of, as long as you can come up with a name for it.

Even better news—with on-demand dropshipping services like Printful, starting your own clothing brand is easy, creative, and limitless. Your clothing line can be a starting point for a bigger brand or a complement to an existing business. Here’s a breakdown of who’d be doing what:

  • Apparel line concept: you
  • Product sourcing and development: Printful

  • Production and supply: Printful

  • Order fulfillment and shipping: Printful

  • Sales strategy, pricing strategy, and marketing: you

Your main task in this scenario is to create interest and demand—to go where your customers are and to create products and campaigns they’ll want to engage with.

a woman wearing a white embroidered t-shirt

Embroidered t-shirts are still all the rage. Source: Vogue

And now for a reality check. This won’t be the first time you hear that retail is seeing unprecedented levels of overproduction. The reality 21st-century fashion brands are waking up to is that there’s little point in making entirely new things because, to some extent, everything has already been made. 

It’s not all lost, though. The secret that successful designers won’t let you in on is that you don’t have to come up with something brand new; you have to uncover something forgotten and put it in a new light. 

The evidence lies in the fact that we see wonderful brands and exciting clothing lines pop up every year. And you can be one of them.

In this blog, I’ll talk you through some of the first steps you need to take to start making decisions and be on your way to setting up your clothing company.

1. Be sure you want your own clothing line

Reason: time is all you’ve got, so spend it wisely

I want to motivate you, but I also want to keep it real. For you to keep going with your idea of launching a successful fashion brand, I need you to be completely aware of what lies behind the vision you have in your head. 

The thing with running a business, any business, is—if you decide to go all the way, you’re not going to work 9–5 anymore. You’re going to work 24/7.

Jolie Noire clothing line
Source: Jolie Noire

“If you want to do this, you’ve got to dedicate yourself to the work and stay accountable.” Keyondra Lockett, Co-Founder of Jolie Noire

There’s lots of competition out there, so you’ll have to rely on your motivation and discipline. People will expect you to be assertive and confident because that’s what we subconsciously look for in every successful business we want to buy from.

The upside is all that work will be in the name of something you care about. So, if that’s what you’re looking for and you’re still feeling hyped about running your own clothing line business, good!

For good measure, though, let’s do another round of pros and cons laid out according to the three main ingredients of any business: money, time, and mindset. Check them out, and see where you’re at after reading.

Money

Con. Even though a lot of the tools you’ll need are cheaper than they used to be (or even free), you’re going to need money to run your clothing line.

And even if it’s “just you” and you’ll be running your brand in an online store instead of an offline location, you’ll need a computer, an internet connection, and a set of online resources, not to mention a decent space to work in and plenty of food to keep you energized.

With every next step—every subscription for an online tool, every staff member you onboard, every celebratory snack or drink—you’ll be adding to your expenses.

Pro. There are at least a couple of people out there (family, friends, online community members) who’ll do what they can to support and motivate you while you create and sell. And there are plenty of online tools and resources you can try with a free account!

Time

Con. Running a clothing line is time-consuming, and reaching success will take longer than you think. If you’re going to commit, you’ll have to live and breathe your brand identity, sometimes at the sacrifice of personal relationships. And even if it’s just a side hustle, selling custom hoodies, for example, you’ll still spend hours of the day focused on it.

Pro. When you go after something you really want, the people and the things you turn out to be uninterested in will fade away, opening doors for exciting opportunities. With all its highs and lows, building your own clothing line can be very rewarding, and you’ll definitely learn a lot along the way!

Mindset

Con. This might not be a con per se, but hear me out.

I’m willing to bet that when you think of yourself as the owner of a clothing line, you first think of yourself as a fashion designer. However, the key to a successful clothing line is thinking of yourself as the CEO first and a designer second.

Since it’s just you, at least in the beginning, you’ll have to take care of everything that goes into a brand: website maintenance, marketing and PR, business operations, taxes, product sourcing, design, the shipping process, you name it. You’re going to be doing things you’re not trained to do or don’t like doing.

On top of that, “building your own brand” will usually mean daily interactions with many people, which is no easy task. Ask any successful CEO, and they’ll tell you that people and relationships are your most valuable asset.

Pro. If you feel it in your gut that you don’t have the skill set to be an entrepreneur 24/7, it’s not all over for you, and you can keep reading! Instead of starting a clothing brand, consider joining one. Partner with someone you admire who can help you take your idea where you want it to go.

If you look into the pages of history, behind every great writer, there’s a great editor, behind every musician—a great producer, and behind every fashion giant—a business leader. 

Yves Saint Laurent and business partner Pierre Bergé
Would we even know who Yves Saint Laurent was if it weren’t for his life and business partner Pierre Bergé? Source: Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

Still here, still reading? OK, then you passed the test. Let’s move on.

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Customer with received custom jacket
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Start your own clothing line with Printful!
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2. Cultivate your taste

Reason: your taste is where your product and design ideas come from

Fashion is defined by the world around it, so to be a successful fashion designer or creator of any kind means to be a connoisseur of what’s going on and what people are interested in. To be able to deliver collection after collection, campaign after campaign, you’re going to have to cultivate and trust your sense of taste.

But where does one’s sense of taste come from? It comes from everything you know, do, and experience, so get into the habit of absorbing your surroundings. Everything you breathe in, you’re going to breathe out in your work. 

“If I’m awarded ten minutes to walk in the street, I kind of absorb. I absorb quickly and I react quickly.” Stella McCartney

Social media and the internet are seemingly never-ending sources of inspiration, but don’t let them become a substitute for real life. Make it a habit to read, listen, think, and travel outside of what you see online. 

Many of your design decisions will come instinctively, and you won’t put too much thought into it. It’s going to boil down to love it/hate it. However, keeping notes of some kind always helps, so consider making a home for your inspiration: a sketchbook, scrapbook, Pinterest board, or private Instagram account; it could even be something as simple as a note-taking app on your phone.

You’ll likely find that you’ll have several ideas coming together to make a new one, and that’s precisely what’s supposed to happen. Learn to arrange a mix of concepts into one cohesive message.

Take the houndstooth pattern, for example. Typically, you’ll find it on coats, jackets, and other formal clothing. So when you put in on athleisure items, as Bandier did, you end up with unexpected and fun results.

a woman wearing leggings and long-sleeve t-shirt with a houndstooth pattern

Source: Bandier

Don’t be afraid to look to the past for inspiration or fantasize about the future, but always come back to the now and how you can place your idea in a relevant context.

Speaking of context.

3. Accept that your clothes won’t take center stage

Reason: everything’s already been made, remember?

In the 21st century, your clothing line isn’t just a catalog of custom clothes; it’s everything around it. The success of your clothing line depends on its context.

Take any big player in retail, break them apart, and you’ll discover they managed to achieve cult-like status because they know how important it is to create a memorable experience (beyond the physical product) by fulfilling basic human desires. 

Let’s take a break from the clothes for a minute and look at IKEA.

IKEA is a strong brand that has been making fantastic, affordable furniture for over half a century, but it’s arguably more memorable for its cozy in-store vibe, bright blue shopping bags, catalog, and meatballs. 

a plate of IKEA meatballs
You know as well as I do that any IKEA-related argument can be quelled with a plate of these babies. Source: IKEA

There are plenty of home & living brands that try to copy IKEA’s design, visual identity, and even product naming conventions, but I’ve yet to find one that feels as warm and well thought out.

To play the game like IKEA, you need to find your meatball. What’s important is the memory your customers are left with after they buy your product.

4. Define your audience

Reason: lets you pick your products, set your prices, and create campaigns

Why does everyone writing an article on how to make a successful clothing brand obsess over “defining your audience”? If a product’s good, anyone will buy it, right?

Sure. If they can find it. But you can’t leave the success of your brand to chance. You need to know who you’re targeting and go after them in your marketing strategy.

When targeting, don’t be shy and think about the personal details of the audience you’ve envisioned for your own brand. To define your audience, you need to be able to picture their lifestyle, income, hobbies, likes, and dislikes. You need to be able to picture what they look like and what kind of world you want to build for them.

It’s not for nothing that fashion designers choose muses for their collections and campaigns. The designer chooses a person who embodies the look they’ve created, and the combination of the muse and the product creates a message that resonates with a certain group of people. 

a prada ad with a woman sitting and holding a bag

One of the faces of Prada is Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer. Source: Prada

What does this Prada campaign tell me? That the target market is younger generations with ample disposable income who are familiar with the Euphoria view on life and like to reinvent themselves. “Well, that could be anyone!” you say. 

Really? Well, do you think the target audience for the Prada campaign is a 100% overlap with this Balenciaga one with Kim Kardashian?

a woman in a store wearing a black jampsuit and holding a bag

Source: People

Next, you’ll say, “OK, but these are all clothing brands for rich people. What about clothes for normal people?” Indeed, what about them?

The reason I’m showing you the luxury examples is that the pricing for luxury follows the same principle as pricing for the high street or even fast fashion: the audience you target sets the price point.

That’s why every luxury make-up product has a drugstore dupe. And both luxury fashion brands like Balmain and retailers like H&M got in on one of the fashion trends of 2023—Barbiecore.

two side-by-side images with different barbie-themed t-shirts

Barbie t-shirts by Balmain (left) and H&M

So think not only in terms of what your potential customers like to buy and wear but also how much they can spend on it. If you target Balmain customers, you’re excluding the H&M crowd (but not vice versa!).

When all else fails, build your audience based on yourself. From the marketing point of view, for better or for worse, you are not unique—you are a niche. Build a world you would like to reside in, create a persona that’s a more heightened version of yourself, and you’ll find like-minded followers.

Got your ideal customer in mind? Good. Now, what are you going to offer them?

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Customer with received custom jacket
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Start your own clothing line with Printful!
Lets go

5. Decide on the mode of business for your line

Reason: helps you stay focused and develop a business plan for each collection

Do you think of yourself as a fashion industry disruptor or leader? Or do you want to be a more under-the-radar creator? Are your clothing collections going to be timeless, trend-based, or both? If both, how are you going to balance the two?

Finding answers to these questions will help you stay on track and make better business decisions for your clothing brand and how you want to be perceived by your customers.

For example, while it’s a legitimate strategy to go trend-based since trends come and go at a record pace, you’ll have to create designs on par with the speed of the internet. Will you have the resources to meet this challenge? And will this approach align with your other values?

On the flip side, if you want to build a timeless capsule of garments and accessories, you’ll have to develop a way to keep your designs relevant and market them to more and more customers. Because once someone buys from you, as per the capsule concept, they won’t have to buy from you again soon.

Many successful clothing brands go for mixing the timeless and the adaptable. They have a set of core pieces customers will always covet, and they change up the rest of their line from season to season.

Generation after generation, fashion lovers across the globe make room in their wardrobe for a Chanel classic like the timeless tweed suit or the iconic 2.55 handbag. At the same time, when you compare the Chanel couture or ready-to-wear collections season to season, you’ll see similar concepts but not a lot of obvious repetition.

a black handbag and a woman wearing a black t-shirt with flower embroidery

The 2.55 (left) and a top from the Chanel Fall-Winter 2023/2024 pre-collection. Source: Chanel

Whether you’re creating a campaign for your bestsellers or a new collection, your approach stays the same. Start by mapping out where you need to be (message, design focus, marketing campaigns, number of items sold, etc.) and evaluate where you are now (what resources you need, how big your marketing budget is, etc.).

Time to dive even deeper.

6. Define  your clothing brand’s unique selling point

Reason: guides you in a sea of ideas

I’ve noticed that many custom clothing creators focus on “quality” as a selling point; as if every other clothing manufacturer in the fashion world offered poor quality that needs to be dealt with immediately.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with valuing quality, and there’s quality at every price point, but in a world where other brands like Hermès or Saint Laurent exist, the word seems to be losing its value.

If you’re starting small, don’t set yourself up for failure by competing with a level of quality you can’t yet reach. Remember that for some brands, a single zipper will cost more than your entire apparel product. Or, if you want to make quality your thing, make it as specific as possible. Quality in terms of what? Fabrics? Print quality? And what are your quality benchmarks going to be? How will you measure what’s good enough and what isn’t?

I think the best selling point for an up-and-coming fashion business is a clever reference to today’s collective cultural space. With an accessible and affordable business model like print-on-demand, you have every opportunity to provide unique selling points (USPs) on the image and design front. 

Dogecore t-shirt design
It’s plain to see that Dogecore isn’t here to compete with Dior, and it doesn’t have to. Source: Dogecore

Here are just a few ideas for USPs:

  • Comfort  
  • Creative expression 
  • Support for a cause
  • Exclusivity

Every point can be broken down further.“Comfort” can mean being comfortable when working out, keeping cozy at home, or even being comfortable in your own skin. “Exclusivity” might mean giving fashion and luxury lovers a breath of fresh air with limited-edition design pieces.

In the process of defining your unique selling point, you might discover your fashion brand offers more than one. And that’s OK—just don’t execute them all at once. Otherwise, your clothing line and brand concepts are going to get fuzzy. If you have to combine several concepts, one of them has to be at the forefront:

  • Affordable and luxurious anime-inspired loungewear = too much to juggle 
  • Anime-inspired loungewear = the focus is on the designs, hinting at exclusivity without having to mention it
  • Affordable anime-inspired loungewear = implies your competitive advantage is prices, not designs

Come up with a short and clear definition of how you want to improve your audience’s life and deliver that fix, collection after collection. Always in a slightly different format, of course.

As Virgil Abloh put it,

“Hyper-focus, and then repeat.”

With so many ideas to try, you’ll need something to keep you from getting sidetracked. This is where the next point comes in.

Learn more: Brand Story: A Definitive Guide to Brand Storytelling

7. Define your deal-breaker

Reason: helps you find your way at a crossroads

When defining your clothing brand, you’ll need a bottom-line value that’ll help you make tough design and business decisions. 

Let’s imagine that the core values for your clothing business are the playfulness of your designs, a global way of thinking, and sustainability. What are you going to do when they clash? 

For example, let’s say you sell custom t-shirts, and your best-selling piece in Europe and the US is a canary yellow eco-friendly cotton shirt. Your supplier has announced it’s about to be discontinued.

You don’t want to change the supplier, and they’re offering you three options: choose a close duplicate of the original that’s only available in the US; switch to a pale yellow t-shirt that’s also eco-friendly and available worldwide; switch to a neon yellow non-eco option (available worldwide).  

  • If you’re all about your designs, you might keep the canary yellow dupe for the US and choose an entirely different color for Europe. 
  • If your guiding light is sustainability, you might sacrifice playfulness and go for the pale yellow. 
  • If your focus is on creating a global presence, you might just go with the bright non-eco version.

Now let’s talk more about how to bring your vision to life.

8. Think beyond the classic marketing channels

Reason: keeps customers coming in

With all the ecommerce platforms and tools available and with the help of services like Printful, building your clothing brand is easy. Even setting up your marketing channels is easy.

The hard part is actually marketing your brand—creating a demand for your garments and accessories, putting them in front of an audience, and directing customers to your store.

However, before you get to the point of choosing any marketing channels for your products and brand, I’d like you to really take in the fact that people don’t just “happen” to stumble upon products that are “relevant” to them. It’s all strategic placement.

Seeing an ad for airPods on your Insta after googling “wireless headphones” is no accident. Discovering a brand you love while away on a trip is no coincidence either. For the customer, it feels like a happy accident. For the seller, it’s just marketing.

The last time I was in Prague, I “discovered” a wonderful handmade cosmetics store right in the center of the old town. And I know my discovery wasn’t accidental.

Bear with me.

The store is tucked away in a part of the old town frequented by tourists (me) of a certain disposable income (me). The store is a classic, apothecary-style boutique, in other words, a trap for people who appreciate local artisanal skincare (me). 

Apothecary-style boutique photo
One of each, please! Source: Botanicus

This is a reminder of why everyone (myself included) keeps repeating the advice about defining who your ideal buyer is. If you can describe their lifestyle (work hard, travel hard), interests (skincare, supporting local businesses), and behavior (splurging on soap), you can figure out where to place your product (a cute rustic store in the heart of the city).

Look beyond your online store, social media advertising, and email. Those are classic online marketing channels by now, but they work best when you’ve grabbed the customer’s attention somewhere else.

Think hard about all the places your customers go online where you can surprise them and give them the illusion that they “discovered” you all by themselves. Think SEO, influencers, and targeted community-building activities.  

More on this: 

9. Stay ahead with ongoing market research

Reason: lets you stay relevant in a fast-paced market

All those steps I outlined earlier? They’re not just a one-time thing. You constantly need to think about your audience and how it changes.

In the whirlwind world of fashion, what was in vogue yesterday might be a passing memory tomorrow. It’s not just about launching a collection that captures the audiences today. It’s about ensuring your clothing brand evolves with the beat of the market’s heart.

Now, I’m not saying you must chase every viral social media trend. Absolutely not. But it’s crucial to keep up with the changing interests and attitudes. Remember that you have to be where your customers are, and they don’t stay in the same spot forever.

Constant vigilance and adaptability are your best friends.

You need to dive deep into the ocean of market trends, customer behaviors, and feedback. Listen to the whispers and shouts of your audience. What are they craving now? What will they want to get their hands on tomorrow?

a woman looking at the camera backwards and wearing jeans and a pink hoodie

The Y2K trend is still going strong, but be on the lookout for the next big thing too. Source: Vogue

Picture this: you release a line that’s the talk of the town, the gem of the season. But then the winds change. Suddenly, what was adored is now ignored.

That’s where your ability to adapt shines. Pivot. Morph. Transform. Use your clothing industry research to steer your ship and course correct. Whether playing with patterns or maybe even revitalizing your entire identity, it’s all about staying relevant and resonant with your audience.

And here’s a little secret: adaptability can become your brand’s signature. In a world where predictability is a snoozefest, your ability to surprise, delight, and engage your customers with fresh, on-trend ideas that keep in line with your brand identity keeps the spotlight firmly on you.

So, keep your finger on the pulse, and let your clothing brand be a living, breathing entity that evolves with grace, intelligence, and an eye for the future.

Because it’s not just about being part of the conversation, it’s about leading it.

10. Create your designs and campaigns within a context

Did you notice that I left the design part for last?

In a world where nothing is ever really new, the success of your clothing line isn’t about the design or the product; it’s about targeting, context, and reference.

For this reason, a “design” can be as simple or as complicated as you want. What matters is how well you market and price your clothing items. One of the crop tops below costs about $10, one costs about $30, and one is closer to $100. Can you tell which is which?

Crop t-shirt examples

When it comes to the design of your line, you can literally do anything. Print, embroidery, tie-dye; monochrome, neon, pastel; futuristic, retro, vintage; minimalistic, glamorous, camp; color blocking, patterns, outlines; photo, illustration, text… 

To turn your design into a hit, you need to know why it exists.

Then, you need to wrap up your design concept in a purposeful visual campaign (photo, video, illustration, etc.) that strengthens the point you’re making with your collection. Know that your visuals will add to or take from your concept, so don’t publish rushed, second-rate content if you want people to take you seriously.

As far as creation goes, your options are limitless, but the final result must work in a way that your customer takes one look at your output and says, “I get it.”

Dream big and work hard

After reading this, I hope you’re left with the conclusion that there’s no right or wrong when designing your clothing line—it’s all about figuring out what exactly you want to do with it. 

And if all my words of warning and reality checks have left you unscathed, it means you’re ready to create the clothing brand of your dreams.

So here it is—an official sign for you to get started. I wish you the best of luck, but more importantly, I wish you the strength to keep going when things get rough.

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Customer with received custom jacket
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Start your own clothing line with Printful!
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And if you have a friend who’s been thinking about starting their business and is still waiting for a sign, feel free to share this blog with them too.

Comments, questions, musings? Let it all out below!

Read next: Athleisure vs. Activewear: The Ultimate Sportswear Comparison

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By Marianna Zvaigzne on Feb 16, 2024

Marianna Zvaigzne

Marianna Zvaigzne is the Head of Brand Language at Printful. With the help of her team, she’s pinning down what it means to “sound like Printful” and keeps Printful copywriters on their toes with animated editing sessions and writing workshops.

Marianna Zvaigzne is the Head of Brand Language at Printful. With the help of her team, she’s pinning down what it means to “sound like Printful” and keeps Printful copywriters on their toes with animated editing sessions and writing workshops.