How to launch a menswear brand

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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)

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Gus

It all goes back to Ralph.

Anonymous

The last point raised there by Luca I think is very important and the way social media etc is facilitating this is possibly one of the biggest reasons we are seeing more small brands emerging. My wife works in fashion and over the years I have witnessed her and her contemporaries venture into start-up clothing and accessories brands. The biggest issue was often only being able to manufacture in small numbers and therefor at high cost and then having to apply the their own mark up followed by the retailers mark up. This resulted in a prohibitively expensive product. This was before the social media explosion when setting up an online shop and marketing it effectively was not nearly so easy. Now with Instagram the way it is this has become allot easier and means that new brands can sell direct to customers with a smaller mark up and still be making a higher margin per unit than they would selling wholesale to a retailer. I often note Simon that you mention the reduced margin on the PS products which is a perfect example of this model.

Sam

Good summary Simon.

One from me – especially for newer brands with little web presence – don’t underestimate the impact of small reviewers, blogs and reddit on your brand’s SEO.

Example – google any smaller brand name + “review”. The first results will probably be Trustpilot or review aggregator sites – it’s up to you if you want to engage with that as it has its own caveats.

Second or third organic results could very well be people on Reddit or Styleforum reviewing your products. Reddit has massive search authority, and will take precedence in the results over bloggers or smaller sites reviewing your products, who you may have sent samples to and expect a more positive review from.

Whatever you make, there will be a niche of the internet that is interested in it. And if that review puts your company in a bad light, that will be the first and potentially only thing people see about your product.

And related to Simon’s point around social media use – do get involved with threads on Styleforum, Reddit etc. that are about your brand. Try to represent your brand honestly and openly and helpfully.

But don’t be *that* person that gets snippy and argumentative and ends up in tit-for-tat arguments with dissatisfied customers in said threads. It looks amazingly unprofessional, and it’s something you constantly see smaller brands do (especially where most social media is going through the very busy, probably stressed owner instead of a dedicated team). Social media engagement is not the same thing as customer service.

Anonymous

Simon,

This was a fantastic article, very interesting, very detailed and very well written. I for one would love to read more in a similar vein.

Noel

Plenty of good advice Simon. Much of it could he applied to new product lunches in other industries too.

Albert De Graaf

Great article, Simon. Thanks for investing your time also in giving back and in promoting others. So refreshing to see.

Interestingly, a lot of the advice would be applicable to startups in other industries, too.

Chancellor

Small suggestion: there are a couple of acronyms which are industry jargon that I’m not sure all of us understand. It took me a minute to figure out that USP means unique selling proposition. PRs, I’m guessing means purchasing representatives? These should probably be written out in full the first time for clarity to those of us not in the industry.

Robin

The cost / costing bit is interesting .

Always difficult to get one’s head around why so much discussed on PS costs so much.

One forgets that in buying, for example, that Luca Faloni shirt , whether you like it or not , you’re being ‘costed’ for the (few) stores they have …..even if you buy online.

No such thing as quality and cheap ….unless it’s cheap quality !

Anonymous

Thanks for a great article Simon.

Another point worth noting in my view for brands is that while for the brand itself, a mark up of 2.5x from the manufacturing price is fairly standard, if they plan on doing wholesale (for example, selling through Fortnum & Mason’s), the retailer (Fortnum & Mason’s) will need to mark it up another 2-3x, which means that the price tag at Fortnum & Mason’s is going to be c. 5x the “manufacturing cost”.

Most of the time, the retail price for a garment has to be the same across your own retail channel (i.e. your own shop) and your wholesale channel (Fortnum & Mason’s) – otherwise no wholesaler will work with you, as you essentially undercut them on price – which means that the mark-up, even for your own retail channel, has to be c.4-5x. This is why most brands (that turn a profit) mark up at least 5x.

Another excellent point in the article is that a lot of menswear brands undercut prices as the business is started without profitability in mind. The long term ramification of this is a reduced profit pool for the industry, as brands go into a price war. This pricing pressure is often passed through the supply chain, and threatens the survival of the artisan manufacturers that we cherish. If brands truly care about the long term survival of the industry, and in particular, the manufacturers, please don’t compete on price. Instead, create a business model that supports a resilient profit pool, so you can pay your suppliers a fair price, and on time. If you run on razor-thin margins, the industry cracks whenever there is a negative event – be it coronavirus or Brexit – and hasten the long term demise of quality manufacturing which we have already observed over the past few decades.

Over the long run, the more quality manufacturers there are, the more options there are for brands, and the lower overall prices would be for consumers.

Jason

Some interesting points.
Personally I think USP in this day and age is simply a hollow buzz phrase.
It evolved from the more classic marketing expression ‘ Sustainable Strategic Differential Advantage’ when business leaders realised this is no longer possible.
The most important thing is to have a ‘Perspective’ that others share and to remain completely true to the DNA of that perspective.
A solid example of this is the A&S Haberdashery.
The founder’s perspective was clear. It was to provide their bespoke customers casual wardrobe and to attract new, younger customers by association.
They did this in a terrific qualitative fashion and have remained fearlessly loyal to that mission whilst simultaneously evolving their offering in a way that completely respects their DNA.
LVMH on the other hand are often masters of the reverse. They buy businesses that have a perspective . Exit the founders that developed that DNA.. Replace them with corporates who haven’t the same emotional attachment and try and make the thing work by optimising synergies. Berluti and Aqua di Parma being good examples of this phenomenon.
If you have a perspective and you develop a good product, the enemy is dilution resulting in people not knowing if they want to be Arthur or Martha !

Anonymous

Completely agree and to a certain extent this is starting to happen on Savile Row too (Gieves and Hawkes owned by an Asian conglomerate and increasingly pushing their rtw which seems to always be ‘on sale’)

Nj

Agree on standard pricing/mark up but there are still those charging 10x cost i.e. H and M, Gap, and most low level high street which given the cost price suggests they could either reduce the cost to consumer ( Accountant says no) or pay a fair wage to a Third world worker ( again no way). I would rather buy less and go for classic quality every time such as Smedley, Sunspel, your local bespoke tailor.

Daniel

Respect to those companies that don’t go on sale. Ethan Newton was correct when he said in a Handcut Radio podcast “Don’t shop on sale. It is of compromised value the moment you pick it up”

Jason

There speaks somebody who doesn’t want to go on sale !
I don’t think for a minute that the value of a Sunspel, Private White VC or Begg & Co garment “is of compromised value the moment you pick it up”.
The harsh reality of life is that many brands are fighting to live another day and if this helps them make it thru’ – so be it.
Furthermore, I don’t think a ‘sale’ damages the brand the way it used to. I think the discretion afforded by e-commerce affords a level of protection to brand equity.

James

I’m not a fan of sales either – one inevitably buys for price not for product and regrets it. I only ever shop sales when I want something… and then it goes on sale.

But what did Ethan mean by his comment. I don’t really understand it?

John

I disagree. A year or so ago I bought a pair of Alden shell cord shoes for $70 on clearance. Last pair. Put them online for $400 and sold them in 6 seconds. Should have asked $500.

Rob

Full credit to anybody who sets up their own business – given the risks and potential downsides they deserve every success when they get it. I know nothing about this sector but I despite seeming counter-intuitive setting up in a recession seems to work – a great many of my most successful and enduring clients set up in the last recession.

PaulS

Interesting choice of photo below “the best thing about a UK factory is not quality, but proximity. ” Why did you choose to use an image of the American flag hanging in a clothes makers workshop rather than the Union Jack?

Justin T

Fantastic article Simon! I have been running a menswear related side business for almost 3 years now and it has been one of the most challenging things I’ve taken on, but it is so rewarding. I really enjoyed these tips from other business owners in the menswear industry, and will be applying a couple of these to my own brand. Another thing that is so important whether you’re a business owner or not is focusing on building genuine relationships with people. You never know who that person may know or what opportunities could open up from a friendship.

Alex

This was such a good read. Super fascinating, and provides good insight. I actually think numbers 2 and 4 are incredibly important. Both share more in common than they appear to, because functionally they are both an emphasis on relations. #2 is the relationship the product and the merchant and #4 is about the relationship between the merchant and the customer. Strengthening both ends of that linkage is a I think what I would call the “soul” of a brand.

Of course all the points are important, but those two jumped out at me because I don’t think it’s intuitive to break them out in this way, but it makes perfect sense to do so.

Nazim

Dear Simon,
What’s a great content 😀 I really appreciate your article. I Have worked during 20 years for one of the biggest Italian independent brand as retail manager. I agree with your opinion on the subject. Actually I do have a preference for tailored outfits but with a style. It would be very interesting to read more articles in a similar vein. Why not a symposium in Paris? 🙏🙏🙏
Nâzim from Paris

Anonymous

🙏 looking forward to meeting you.