How to start a sustainable ethical kids fashion label

If you’re thinking of starting your own fashion brand, here are the must-knows to save money and time. Whether you’ve just graduated in fashion design or wanting to be a mumpreneur, this guide can help you get started.

Mumpreneur

1. Treat your label as a business not just a passion

Let’s face it; a fashion business that doesn’t make money is really just an expensive hobby. The business of fashion is competitive – you’ll need sufficient start-up capital for materials and production, good relationships in your supply chain especially in the ethical and sustainable space, a strong understanding of your customer target market and time investment to make your brand known.

Before you begin, draft a business plan which should contain:

  • Brand positioning – what are your brand values and ethics? What is the gap in the customer market that you want to fill and what are other brands doing in that space?
  • Business structure – who is your team and what capabilities are missing that you may need to fill or outsource (these days, one can outsource almost anything on global online platforms)?
  • Business model – are you thinking small batch to sell direct to your customers or large quantities aiming at wholesale and retailers? Or somewhere in between? Your business model will determine how you market your brand and even the product designs you choose.
  • Marketing and sales plan – create your social media accounts 3-6 months before officially launching your brand to build your social media presence and community. Create your virtual shopfront on an e-commerce retail platform (even with pre-set themes, you’ll still need time to set up all the webpages including blogs). Research bloggers, magazines and influencers that can help promote your brand.
  • Budget – start putting in some preliminary costings to get a good idea of how much you’ll need to launch your label. The ballpark total budget to launch a small collection (7-10 product styles) in Australia is about $30,000 to $50,000. The cost is much lower if you sew the clothes yourself and sell in local markets with perhaps an Etsy shopfront.
  • Timeline – plan your timeframes even if they are tentative. The pattern making and production timeframe (more on this below) is typically nine months and you’ll need to book in early with your manufacturer (approximately 2-6 months in advance). Bespoke design fabrics can take up to three months to get made and delivered.

Fashion supply chain

2. Build your supply chain

While sustainably made fabrics and materials and ethical manufacturers are limited, the good news is that there are more choices available now than ever before thanks to growing demand from customers.

Think of your supply chain as circular.

  • Fabrics – consider the way the fibre is grown to minimise impact on soil, water and surrounding communities, the way the fibre is manufactured including use of chemicals and water treatment, and whether the fibre can biodegrade. Recycled synthetic fibres can minimise environmental harm by “saving” materials that might otherwise go to landfill. Research fabric manufacturing companies (not just the resellers) and check for their international certifications. To read how natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic fibres compare, click this article.
  • Haberdashery – there are non-plastic options available for buttons such as shells and bamboo. Certified non-toxic metal, elastic and threads are also available.
  • Ethical manufacturing – there are pros and cons for Australian made vs. offshore ethical manufacturing. The biggest disadvantage of offshore manufacturing can be the minimum order quantities (at least 100-300pcs per garment style) compared to 20-100pcs garment style for local manufacturers, as well as the shipping costs. International shipping has risen in cost (and time) due to COVID-19 restrictions. The biggest advantage of local manufacturing is a closer relationship which is a huge plus if you’re starting out. For the conscious consumer, ethical manufacturing goes beyond compliance with labour laws. Manufacturing is the most crucial part of an ethical supply chain and it’s worth being able to have close contact with your garment-makers.
  • Packaging – you can source eco-friendly clothing tags, wrapping and parcel bags from a variety of suppliers.
  • Postage – explore courier pricing and carbon offset shipping.
  • After-shelf – if your fabrics are non-biodegradable but can be recycled or repurposed, consider offering buy-back discounts.

3. Create your design aesthetic

If you’re already a designer, then you probably already have this part sorted! If not, do not fret. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Mood board – create unique attributes so that your brand becomes identifiable and recognisable. This of course gets refined with time. Imagine your target customer wearing your clothes (who are they, what are they doing and where are they going) and let the inspiration be displayed on your mood board.
  • Plan for two collections or clothing lines – the recommended size for the first collection for new brands are 7-10 styles. 

Fashion manufacture

4. Develop your products

  • Fabric print design – if you’d like to create exclusive prints but you’re not a graphic artist, you can outsource this to freelancers. The cost can range from a few hundred to thousands depending on the complexity of the design. Fabric printers and manufacturers can print samples of your design.
  • Trade sketches – draw clear outlines of your designs on croques (2D front and back) with key measurements and sewing details. Describe the fabric and accessories to be used, even better if you can send your pattern-maker actual sample materials.
  • Pattern making – consult with your pattern-maker (may be in-house with your manufacturer but does not have to be) to ensure they understand your vision and to discuss feasibility of your design. The relationship between the designer and patter-maker is absolutely important to translate your design ideas into tangible products. Depending on the size of your collection, this process can take 2-4 weeks.
  • Sample making – your pattern maker will make the first sample (mock-up) to estimate the sewing costs and fabric meterage required. You can hire trade models (or use friends) to try on the first sample and make sure the fit and style is exactly what you want. The second sample should be in your actual fabric and should be very close to your final product with minimal tweaking. In some cases, there may be a third sample. Sampling is costly and may take weeks, however it’s worth getting it right at this stage. This process can take 2-6 weeks.
  • Grading – the sample will be made in the base size. Your pattern-maker will grade (adjust the measurements) each pattern piece per product style for your size range. The more sizes you have and the more complex your design (many pattern pieces), the more costly it’ll be.
  • Product sample – you can send your product sample and technical or specification sheet (construction, measurement, quantity and colourway details) to manufacturing factories for quotes.
  • Manufacture – to avoid delays, send all materials with clear spec sheets to your manufacturer ahead of production. Using technology, patterns can be laid out to minimise waste. Most manufacturers will expect a deposit. For a small collection with minimal variants (colours and sizes), production time is typically 4-6 months. Smaller factories may take longer. Defects are to be expected and each manufacturer will have their own quality assurance and repair process (may not be feasible for offshore).

Brand coming soon

5. Launch your brand

While your products are being made, get busy with the launch plan.

Arrange for professional photography, models, hair and makeup, props (and styling). As the brand owner / creative designer, you will be busy directing during the photoshoot (unless you hire a fashion stylist) so it is worth paying for professional photography and post-editing. Ditto for modelling. Relatives and friends (or even yourself) are great for social media.

Set a launch date (the month will do). You could work with influencers as well as offer promotions to build up the hype leading up to the launch event and potentially garner sales, which will be a great confidence booster!

Buy a fashion business

Buy an existing new-ish fashion brand

Sounds a bit overwhelming?

You could buy a 2-3 year old fashion label and leverage off their brand experience instead of doing all the legwork yourself.

If you’d like to spend less than $30,000 (the typical start-up capital) and inherit a loyal customer base, over 7000 social media followers, listing on The Iconic (and other stockists), business templates and supply chain contacts, email hello@lilyandlord.com to buy the Lily & Lord women and kids Australian made ethical and sustainable fashion label.

What I adore about this brand is that we're creating pieces that children will want to wear over and over because they love it that much.

Evelyn Leow, Creative Director of Lily & Lord