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It's easy to make mistakes when you're a new fashion designer launching a line. Mine cost me $25k, but I learned a valuable lesson.

First, thanks to everyone for coming to my FREE fashion tele-class! I met a lot of great new fashion designers, and can’t wait to see you launch some successful lines!

One thing I’ve talked about repeatedly is that you need to be a business person first, fashion designer second if you want to launch a line that makes money.  As a brand new fashion designer, I made tons of fashion business mistakes.  I made one of the biggest when I didn’t trust my gut, and it ended up costing me $25,000 in sales. Here’s what happened:

I get my first big order

I was 25 and barely out of fashion design school when I started selling my designs out of my own women’s clothing boutique.  Just two months after I opened, a buyer from a major department store walked in, and soon I shipped my first order to three of their stores.  I was thrilled!

I ran into trouble with the second delivery.  I had ordered the fabric with plenty of lead time, but when it was two weeks late I finally heard from the fabric supplier.  The black fabric I ordered was out of stock, and could they replace it with a “charming forest green?”  I had promised the store outfits in two colors — red and black — and I was afraid I’d lose the whole order if I only delivered red.  Since there was no time to order this exact fabric in black, I sent a swatch of the green to the department store buyer and to my surprise, she approved it.

I get a sinking feeling in my gut

I was surprised.  Because I had a sinking feeling in my gut.  There’s a reason why black is so popular.  It’s slimming, hides dirt and goes with everything.  Women know this, I know this.  I should have listened to my gut then, but I really knew things were wrong when I was packing the boxes of red and green — it looked so Christmasy — but after all, the buyer had approved the swatch, so it had to be OK, right?

Well, my gut was right.  The green did not sell.  It was a disaster.  The department store buyer told me I had two options —  I could take the green outfits back or I could give “markdown money.”

What is Markdown Money?

I was a new fashion designer and had never heard of markdown money, which is when the designer gives a credit to the store when the designer’s merchandise has to be marked down. I was horrified, but I agreed to it because I was afraid of losing future business.  I agreed to give a credit on a future order to the tune of $25,000. My business would take a major hit, and I was scared.

Learning to trust my instincts as a fashion business owner

I was mad at the buyer — why should I give the markdown money when she approved the green fabric swatch?  She should have taken it out of her own check.

But then I realized I was equally to blame, and I was just as frustrated with myself.  I KNEW that green color was wrong.  I literally got a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw it.  It just wasn’t right.

The good-news ending: this didn’t put me out of business.  I learned from my mistake, and these days I don’t ignore that feeling in the pit of my stomach.  My mistake was costly and embarrassing, but I was determined to learn from it.

What was your biggest fashion business mistake?  What did you learn from mine?

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6 Responses

  1. Man, I know mistakes. I don’t even know what my biggest one was. Maybe it was starting my business without knowing anything about my customer, market or costing. About 3 years after I started selling my designs in boutiques, I realized I was selling my merchandise for a price lower than the cost of my goods. I was pricing them out of emotion and not calculating what it cost to make them.

    I was making one of a kind pieces from fabric I had already purchased, so I had no idea what the fabric actually cost until my entire inventory was stolen from one of my stores. I had to fill out a police report with the cost of goods and only then did I realize I was losing more money than I could have ever imagined.

    Now, 1o years later, I know what I’m doing.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      I hear ya! About 3 years into owning my boutique, I was burglarized and half the clothes were stolen. It was devastating but not debilitating. Maybe my other biggest mistake was not getting an alarm system for my shop???

  2. Years ago, I had a t-shirt business and a prestigious gift shop in San Francisco placed an order and asked to pay with a credit card. As a result, I rushed into several vendor contracts with a credit card companies (did I really need to be able to accept Discover!?) and a card-processing company without reading the fine print. The shop ran into financial problems and never reordered, and I ended up locked into several year-long contracts with monthly fees. I paid several hundred dollars to cancel my processing contract alone. Thankfully now there are many online options, and I plan to take a moment to research the options before I jump into anything with my new business. Anyone need a credit card machine? 🙂

  3. I hate to be the guy who says “You should’ve done this, instead of that” but I always look at mistakes as great learning curves. $25K is a lot to lose and when it comes to making quick last minute decisions, making the right choice is always the difficult one.

    Personally, I love dark green. I think it goes with much more than what people seem to think it is, but there’s a reason why in most fashions, there are usually three base colors that people are driven to. I see those three base colors as navy, charcoal gray and black. These three colors can go with anything, I haven’t really found something that they don’t go with. In men’s suiting charcoal gray and navy are the two main colors to work with, black isn’t even an option.

    I’ve always wanted to start a blog or create my own fashions, primarily for men, and offer advice, but am always afraid to start something new. My kryptonite, I suppose.

    I’m not trying to rub salt in the wound with this comment, I just feel bad as I know how hard it is to make the right decision, at the last minute, especially when there’s so much money or profit at stake. I’m sure regardless, the fashions looked great and I’m not sure what the company was who you worked with. In my opinion, it should’ve been the responsibility of the buyer, not you. If she agreed on the green, she should’ve known whether or not it’s going to sell. You’re just the designer, she made the decision to spend the company’s money on your garments and she should take the responsibility that she made the improper choice. That’s the role of a buyer, to decide what’s going to sell and speak to their clientele. Afterall, you’re not responsible for their profit margin.

    I hope there has been much more success in your dealings with other buyers and much more success in your own store. Fashion is such a tricky business and kudos to you for putting yourself out there! I’m glad my cousin sent me your blog, I’m going to start following it now, hopefully, it will motivate me to just put myself out there! And again, so sorry that about this mistake! =(

  4. This business IS tricky. With that said, it’s also very expensive to have your own line, which is why I’ve decided I would be extremely happy just to be a designer’s assistant, or some part of that team so I can be creative but at the same time make money. So if anyone is looking for a pair of hands and good head on their shoulders do not hesitate to ask.

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