Two Years Until Now – Breaking Into the Fashion Industry

Robert Slivchak - Blog - Breaking into the Fashion Industry

The last two years have been an incredible learning experience for me. After just typing that, I almost shuddered at how cliché it sounds and void of true emotion. I’ll try that again. The last two years have been filled with excitement, anger, worry with hair pulling and let downs, but there has also been a hell of a lot of hope and irreplaceable experience gained. I will never forget that the opportunity of breaking into the fashion industry has been afforded to me by my incredible wife, family and peers with their unconditional support. Unless you’re independently wealthy, have endless amounts of credit, angel investors or you’re the world’s smartest man or women, getting a start-up business off the ground would not be possible without people like those in my support network.

Many of you have had dreams of starting a business, are in the midst of, or are lucky to currently be living that dream. Regardless of the stage you’re at it’s fair to say that there have been hurdles or walls that you have repeatedly run into. It’s in these times when you spin around in your chair to ask a co-worker “What the frick am I supposed to do now?”, but the room is empty and the stack of bills never reply. It’s during these lows where entrepreneurs say to themselves, “I’ll figure it out, I always do“, and that’s why I’m here. Let me change my hat.

I’m writing this to share with everyone, my experiences of breaking into the fashion industry, my changing thought processes and the reality of trying to do too much for too many different reasons.

As an artist I wanted a way to make my work more accessible to more people and do it in a way where I still had control over the product in terms of design and monetary compensation. I also wanted to make sure that what I was going to create wouldn’t be kitschy or gift-shop-esque. There are enough artist mugs, t-shirts and greeting cards (don’t get me wrong, some are great). It was on one summer day in my friend Brandon’s parents’ backyard when I was rocking a pair of designer swim shorts, purchased when money grew on trees, that another friend Colin said “Why don’t you put your artwork on men’s swim shorts?” Having already thought that the design of the shorts I was wearing resembled a popular painting that I had done, I was almost embarrassed that I didn’t spit the same words out first.

Not knowing a thing about the process it took me some time to get going. I wrote a business plan and when I look at the original copy now, I realize that it was more of a business idea with numbers that made me feel good. Feeling confident with what I had, I went out and found a pattern maker that also manufactures knit garments. They said they can create my patterns for me but said no to manufacturing the shorts. I was confused. As it turns out, different manufactures are set up to work with different materials and it’s not feasible to switch the machines over to produce a one-off. Well, they still took my money and gave me two pairs of shorts that instantly made me sing “Can’t Touch This”. Nothing against the Hammer, but not quite the mid-length, designer shorts with clean stitching that I was looking for. Yes this was a step backwards but it was also proved to be a valuable learning experience. Don’t give your business to those who are unsure of their ability to give you what you want and never assume they know what you want. Talk to as many competitors and people in the industry as possible and see what they have to offer. Never mention what other vendors have suggested. It is in my experience that most in this industry will tell you why the other one is no good and why they’re better. Make decisions based on your own research, not by the biased opinions of people that only want your business. Integrity is important. I can’t tell you how many times I talked to one vendor and they instantly started rattling off names of others and how flawed they are. Don’t buy into this. It’s incredible how quickly your name will get floated around if you do.

The more that you do yourself the cheaper things are. Makes sense right? I started off by trying to find a shop that would do everything for me. Source the fabric, the hardware (snaps, zippers and drawstrings), print the fabric and manufacture the shorts. “Here’s what I want, here’re my designs, and I’ll pick up my product in four weeks“. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. Though these magical places do exist, they come with an increased cost of 100% + on physical materials. This may be cost effective and work overseas, but definitely not here in Canada.

I’m not an economics major though I do know that the strength of our dollar, fair wages and industry standards are a part of what makes Canada great. Though unfortunately, it’s also what makes our homeland a very difficult place to feasibly manufacture products. I had this idea of keeping everything close to the heart and support local people and Canadian businesses. The reality is the fabric, hardware and printing materials are not produced in Canada and depending on what vendor you selected, though geographically located here, are not Canadian. This was the case with the vendor I selected and I did so because they were the most economic and had the ability to pump out quantities in a short period of time (thinking ahead). So sure, you support the workers and put some money back into our economy, though chances are you will have a tough time being competitive if you want to be profitable. I’m only speaking from experience and not slamming all manufacturing here in Canada. My production quantity was low (100 units), the product is 100% custom and not “give me 100 of those”, and because of the nature of my product being full-print artwork, printing the fabric alone was 43% ($30 CDN/unit) of the cost. Again these costs are due to low volume. I realize as I type this, this sounds nuts. Why the heck would I move forward with my line here in Canada when the costs were so high and quantity so low? A few reasons… Take note, none of them are good ones.

  1. I had orders to fulfil and I promised customers that I would have the Canadian made shorts in time for Christmas. I was under the gun and had a deadline. I also had a previous vendor say they would take me on then after four weeks of detail ironing, they bailed. In retrospect I should have taken a step back, refunded my clients, apologized profusely and recalibrated my approach. If you think your timeline is too tight, don’t do it. Being in a position where you feel like you don’t have a choice is a terrible position to be in.
  2. I wanted to create a high end brand to keep pace with my high end artwork, so there will be plenty of margin. Makes sense right? Unfortunately few people are willing to spend $175 CDN on a pair of swim shorts when they have never heard of the designer or only know him as an artist. Who would have thought? If you are one of these people and happen to be a size 36, I have some shorts for you! Seriously. (most popular sizes by far are 30, 32, 33 and trailing off at 34) In my opinion, having a cost of around $75/unit, forced me to retail a lot higher than a designer starting out should have. My break even retail price would have to be $150/unit. With mass volumes in big box stores, a retail profit of $25/unit might work, though I’m not there yet. When a boutique store picks up 10 units, this covers a little more than the cost of obtaining that business.
  3. Closer to home and my watchful eye. This is pretty self-explanatory though completely naive. Mistakes happen no matter where they’re geographically located and ownership of these mistakes depends on the individuals and the pride they have in their business. From my experience the location is irrelevant. I’ve had great service and solutions to manufacturer error here in Canada and I have also had nightmare mistakes that would have sunk my business if I didn’t obtain the services of a lawyer. To date there have been no major issues with my business overseas and minor issues were resolved effortlessly. I contribute this to being a lot more careful because of my getting burned baggage as well as testing the waters with multiple vendors before committing to one. Before I get into the details with any vendor I have a basic screening process.
  • Capability – Can this vendor meet my immediate and future needs? Quantity, timing, affordability.
  • Communication – How easy is it to communicate with this vendor? How long does it take them to reply to correspondence?
  • Comprehension – Do they understand my needs?
  • Attention to Detail – Do they answer all of my questions when they reply to my correspondence? Do they find mistakes or make suggestions? Do they consolidate my requirements and provide a document to sign off on?
  • Quality – When I ask for a sample, I ask for their best work then I absolutely shred it. Not literally, but I look over all stitching and the types used in each part of the garment. Are the stitches straight? Loose threads? Puckering?
  • Trust – Can I trust this vendor with my designs and money? Limp in. Provide them with an old design for your samples. Did you feel comfortable with the payment process for these samples? Are you using Alibaba? Did they try to convince you to pay in a manner that would forfeit Alibaba’s Trade Assurance?
  • Attitude and response to confrontation/objections – There are way too many competitors out there to have to put up with a crappy attitude. I think it’s important to keep people accountable for business practices by going elsewhere. Your time and sleep are too valuable to put up with it. I like to see how vendors respond to pointing out a minor mistake they’ve made, how they resolve it and/or objecting to a fee they impose. If this is done poorly, then you have to question how they will handle a major one. You’re the face of your business, not the manufacturer. If you put out shoddy merchandise, then that’s on you. You are viewed as a whole and no one cares who you point your finger at.

Manufacturing clothing here in Canada can be great. If you’re an already established, fine tuned and oiled, product selling machine with a mission statement that includes “Made in Canada” that’s awesome and even more awesome if this works for you. I would love to hear from you and learn how you did it. If not, it’s even more important to have a full understanding of the industry in Canada with a detailed plan about how to put it in motion. Understand branding and what it takes to command the necessary price points to make it work. If you’re ever not certain about the choice you’re making, hit pause, talk to other people in the industry and based on what you learn, seriously consider going elsewhere, locally or abroad.

This all brings me to where I am now. I have moved production to China, reduced my retail price to $45.00 CDN for the pre-order ($75.00 projected retail). This is and will be my entry level into my brand of men’s swimwear. This is both strategic and due to affordability. The minimums are lower and the cost per unit is a lot more affordable at these numbers. This price point will also open the doors to a larger market. I’m stoked and I really mean that. The quality is fantastic and the amount of detail that I have put into the new line surpasses anything else that I have done. These shorts will fall under the prefix “Relaxed”. They’re trendy, original shorts that will not break the bank. Once I can establish myself with the lower price point swimwear, I will start production in Eastern Europe with the higher end tier of my brand that will be competitive in quality with the Orlebar Browns and Vilebrequins and a more palatable (my opinion) price point. From here, my goal is to branch out at both tiers, into casual shorts, hats, active wear and eventually woman’s swimwear. Stay tuned.

Thank you for reading about my experiences of breaking into the fashion industry. If you have made it this far let me know, I would love to hear from you! If you think you have a great connection for me, please share this link. Be sure to read previous posts and check out my work often, as the content changes frequently.

Robert Slivchak