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How to Design Your Own Fashion Business

Always wanted to start your own fashion design shop? Here's how.

Thanks to extravagant shows every season and the addictive Project Runway, being a fashion designer looks quite glamorous. But experts say you shouldn't get distracted by all the pretty products because building a fashion brand can be an expensive endeavor. Here's how to get started without racking up too much debt:

What's Your Handle?

Not only must you figure out what you want to design, you also need to decide if you will be a wholesaler, a retailer or a Web retailer. These days, it's prudent to do all three, says George Simonton, a professor at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology and longtime Seventh Avenue fixture. In fact, given how easy it has become to start an e-retailing business, an e-retail store can pare down the start-up costs.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Write a business plan to bring your brand's identity into focus. Are you a high-end product aspiring to be in Barneys? Do you strive to be fashion-forward but affordable like H&M? Hot areas are contemporary and unique labels, says Alice Demirjian, director of the

AAS Fashion Marketing program

at Parsons School of Design, noting, "People are looking for creative designs and one-of-a-kind products."

Just make sure the plan is carried throughout, from the images to the media pitches. After years of working at companies like Victoria's Secret and fielding complaints from friends who felt they had outgrown the lingerie giant, Juli Lee decided to launch a sleepwear company that catered to women from their 30s to 50s.

Julianna Rae

opened its Web doors in 2004, but it wasn't until 2006 that the company finally took off.

One problem, says Lee, was the disconnect between the company's aim and the message its images were sending. "The models we picked for our photo shoot were fabulous, beautiful but young and skinny," recalls Lee. "We looked like a lot of other sleepwear companies. We over-corrected it and took models that were far too old and not what our customers aspired to. At the end of the day, it still has to be aspirational."

Seek Help

Not sure how to handle the non-creative side of things? Take a course at fashion programs like FIT or Parsons. Parsons has made it even easier by offering an online associate fashion marketing degree.

Find a partner. Graphic designer Julie Lazarus and lawyer Esther Barron co-founded

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, a handbag company, in 2005. Given their differing backgrounds, these childhood friends were able to keep start-up costs down because, between the two of them, they were able to draw up contracts, incorporate, create a Web site and handle brand identity.

Creating Buzz

Frankly, fashion is a lot about buzz. So budget for marketing and PR. Reign in costs by joining a group showroom, recommends Demirjian. Some group showrooms even provide PR. But the best spokesperson is you. So network and start small. You won't necessarily land Neiman Marcus, so try for hip boutiques like Scoop or Intermix.

Reach out to editors whose pages you want to be in. Court stylists who can help with editorial placement. Hit the trade shows, which can provide access to industry people in one convenient location. But, warns Lazarus, be sure to have at least one sample of the colors and styles you plan to sell. "Buyers generally will only buy what they can actually see. It is difficult for them to imagine a shape in another color."

Don't Stock Up

Make samples but don't go overboard. Handbag company Elezar does two samples of each bag in each color "so one could be used for sales calls and the other for editorial." That way, you're not laying out too much right away on raw materials like fabric, trim and hardware. It also allows you to move quickly if a design doesn't catch on.

"You can't fall in love with your own products," agrees Lee. "You have to be willing to cut your losses on some products." After all, the next season is always around the corner and manufacturing takes the largest chunk of any fashion company's budget. Another huge expense is rent. Little inventory means low warehousing costs, says FIT's Simonton.

So What's It Going to Cost?

Creating a fashion brand is not for the faint of heart. Parsons' Demirjian estimates that you'll need at least $50,000 for that first year. And more often than not, the money will come directly from you or from friends and family. Lazarus and Barron raided their personal savings to raise $75,000 to organize Elezar, create the Web site, protect certain intellectual property, produce samples and throw a launch party to introduce the brand to industry insiders like fashion editors.

Juli Lee and her partners raised nearly $1 million from friends and family to turn Julianna Rae from a company that would sell other people's products into a designer of fashionable intimates and sleepwear for women in their 30s to 50s.

Email if you have a small business idea


Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.