How to launch a menswear brand
Despite the uncertainty in the world right now - and the economy in particular - it has never been easier to launch a brand.
Indeed, I suspect that in the next couple of years most of the new, interesting designs will come from small start-ups, rather than the big retail operations that are suffering so much.
Every few months a new brand seems to pop up, driven by a young team with a fresh view on menswear. The democratisation of social media, the ease of creating an online shop, and the increased knowledge of manufacturers have all lowered the barriers to entry.
Whether it’s a good thing for the industry is complicated. It certainly keeps things fresh, and I wouldn’t want to be without many of the products. But there’s also a tendency for online brands to compete on price, and perhaps undermine physical shops.
Leaving that aside, it occurred to me recently how many of these young brands get in touch asking for my advice. So I thought I’d put together some recommendations, based on seeing dozens of them launch over the past 12 years.
Of course, I’m no industry veteran. I’ve interviewed many brands, and developed a good number of my own products - but I’ve never run a menswear company.
So I called around a group that has done so, and asked their advice as well. I deliberately picked a range: some that launched 18 months ago, and others that have been in the industry for 20 years.
I hope the resulting ideas are useful. There is no right way to do this, but there are some obvious ways to go wrong.
1. Find a niche
Back when I was a product manager, studying ‘lean’ business methodology, the focus was always on finding a problem to solve. Identify a need and fill it: that was how you created a successful start-up.
I’m not sure most things in menswear could be described in the same way. Ronnie at Colhay’s may have launched because he wanted slim knitwear, and Oliver and Carl at Rubato may have wanted short knitwear; but most of the time, menswear doesn’t solve such specific problems.
However, good brands are still always original in some way. And I’m constantly surprised how many guys contact me saying they’re starting a brand, yet when asked, have no identifiable USP. They seem to be starting it purely for fun. Because they can.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. You can start a tie company that uses the same makers and patterns as everyone else, if you want.
But it will be much harder for it to succeed. Because how can you build a sustainable business when no one has a reason to buy from you, rather than someone else?
You need to be different - ideally by making a better product, or an original product, but if not that, at least one that’s cheaper or more accessible.
I think menswear guys forget this because their focus is not making money - it’s often just getting their passion project out there. But if they ignore a USP, they could end up losing a lot of money, or just not giving their product the chance it deserves.
Alice Walsh, founder of jewellery company Alice Made This, says: “I think to stand out from the crowd you need to have a point of view. You need to offer something unique, and stand by it. It makes you different, and it makes it easier to be consistent in your messaging.”
Adam Cameron, founder of The Workers Club (below) adds: “Nail down that USP, build a picture of who your customer is and then stick to it. The worst thing a brand can do is flip-flop from one season to the next, chasing what they perceive a buyer/consumer wants them to be.”
2. Know your producers
Although there is a lot more openness about manufacturers now - whether it’s Belvest for tailoring, Scott & Charters for knitwear, or Crockett & Jones for shoes - I often find young start-ups don’t nail down their producers early enough.
Knowing who will make your product is just as important as the product itself. Indeed, it’s not unusual for a brand to be launched based on discovering a great manufacturer. And many brands get into trouble because their relationship with their makers breaks down.
Don’t assume that a factory will make for you just because they make for another brand. Don’t assume that they will both accept your small initial order, and be able to produce everything you need as you grow. And don’t assume they won’t change either: they are an evolving company, just like you.
One manufacturer Permanent Style works with has had its ownership change; split off from a larger operation to a much smaller one (dependent on us); and moved its supply chain, all at different points in the past five years.
There’s a reason brands and their manufacturers go out for dinner, and that people say the best thing about a UK factory is not quality, but proximity. The relationship with their maker is absolutely fundamental to what they do.
3. Understand your costs
A standard mark-up from manufacturing cost to retail price is 2.5x. That can seem a lot: less than 30% of what you pay goes into the product. But it’s worth understanding all of the costs.
Of course, 20% of that is VAT. At least 5% is credit card charges and other finance costs. If you use an external company to store, fulfil and manage your stock, that could be another 10%. There’s a good chance 20% of your things won’t sell, need to be sold at discount, and even then it won’t all go.
Packages get lost in the mail - and the excess on the insurance means it’s not worth claiming. Or on fraud, usually. That insurance (against much bigger losses) is itself another cost. Free shipping might not always be standard, but free returns are. Another cost.
When young brands put their prices up, customers can be a little cynical, thinking they’re just trying to maximise profit. But it’s much more common, in my experience, for the brand to have miscalculated its costs. To have looked at that standard margin and thought: ‘I’d be happy with half of that, and I undercut everyone else. Great.’ Then a year later they have unexpected costs and a lot of money tied up in unsold stock.
Ronnie at Colhay’s hasn’t been operating long, but this was one of his early lessons. “Talking to other people that have owned menswear businesses was very helpful, because they gave it to me straight about the commercial realities of running a brand like this.” he says.
“One thing that’s easy to underestimate, for example, is packaging. You need to decide whether you want branded packaging or not, and if you do, there are high minimums. Then the smaller your order, the higher the per-unit cost will be. You might also need different sizes of boxes to make sure you don’t overpay on shipping. It’s worth taking all these things into consideration in your budget and pricing before you launch.”
4. Execute well - it’s not hard
All you need to look like a viable company today is an Instagram account with some nice imagery.
A website helps, and is often underrated. But a good-looking Instagram page, which plugs into a pre-built Shopify site, is initially enough. Photographers aren’t hard to come by either.
So given that, take a little bit of time to do it well. Pay the photographer a decent amount; buy some good-quality packaging; get advice on branding or imagery from someone you know.
Tailors are the worst at this, with seemingly no understanding of how easy it is to create an appealing impression online. But even brands get it wrong sometimes: a few too many shots of the founder eating pizza, not enough serious information on the product.
Alice Walsh again (below): “I always say it’s important to articulate your visual DNA. This will of course evolve over time, but it’s important to be clear from the start. It helps you stay true to who you are, as well as communicate your identity to PRs and anyone freelance you work with.”
5. Embrace change
Some brands have a very clear idea of this visual DNA - their look and their aesthetic. It’s often a key reason behind their success. But it can make them resistant to change.
Trends in classic menswear are longer than mainstream fashion, and certainly than womenswear, but they do exist. You will have to move with them. What’s more, everyone likes to see something new: if they didn’t, they’d be happy wearing exactly the same clothes every day.
Your imagery and your look will have to evolve, although again, slowly. Look at brands like Margaret Howell, which presents something different every season yet maintains a clear identity. And Ralph Lauren is the epitome of this.
I think menswear brands can make the mistake of assuming that because they’re more classic, they don’t have to change. They do. No matter how powerful that initial look, after three or four years of the same tonal imagery and abstract ‘inspiration’ shots, it will start to get old.
Sometimes as a customer, you’re not even aware of this change. Ethan Newton of Bryceland’s (below) says: “We started off intending just to sell bespoke and made-to-order, but now sell mostly manufactured clothing. Sometimes things don’t work as you expect.
“And the zeitgeist changes. People want to wear clothes differently, and you should always be interested in that - in leading your customers somewhere different.”
Those are the biggest mistakes I see among young brands, but there are many others.
Here are some other points of advice from the people we chatted to.
Dag Granath, Saman Amel: "Be a part of the change you want to see in the world. Build your business and your brand in a way so that you can contribute to changes you actually want to witness. This will make like-minded people gravitate towards your brand and you will more easily find customers, co-workers and partners you enjoy working with."
Luca Faloni, founder of Luca Faloni: “In the early years, focus on a limited number of designs, in one or two categories. There should then be a continuous conversation with customers to receive as much feedback as possible, so that products can be improved year on year. Perfect what you are selling already, rather than introducing too many new things.”
“I’ve found it’s helpful to anticipate, for the next 6-12 months, what your working capital requirements are and what your sales will be realistically, and then asking if that’s enough. It’s looking at the worst case and saying even then, I have enough left to re-invest in the brand. Very basic accounting, I know, but it has helped me sleep at night.” Ronnie, Colhay’s.
"Always take pieces of advice with a pinch of salt. As a young brand - particularly if operated by young people - you will get advice by the minute from people who will argue with conviction how you should manage your business. Being open to opinions is important, but you need to develop your own voice, as this is primarily what will navigate your business. As a brand, your voice is your primary asset," Dag, Saman Amel (above).
“It's really important for us to not relinquish control of what we are doing - we didn’t found this brand to work for investors. We're aware of other brands that have taken investment too soon, and risked diluting their message and becoming margin-led. The downside of owning it 100%, of course, is that it can be much more stressful, as we constantly have to manage the cashflow.” Adam, TWC.
“Cash is essential. Never lose track of it.” Alice, Alice Made This.
“I think new brands should avoid wholesale. Go direct, either online or with the support of your own retail stores. When you look at wholesale, the downsides for the brand and for the customer are too great compared to its benefits.” Luca Faloni (below)