Launching a New Fashion Brand: What Comes First, Online or Offline?

Launching a New Fashion Brand: What Comes First, Online or Offline?

For so many emerging designers and new brands, the digital space is the only one in which they exist for their customers, having made the decision to forgo the traditional brick and mortar store. Many advantages exist, of course, including lower upfront costs, savings on staff and renting a retail space, and the ability to reach an audience well beyond the local consumer…just to name a few.

Carmen Busquets, the serial online entrepreneur and investor in several digital fashion brands like Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter and CoutureLab recently made the decision to set up an actual storefront for her digital ecommerce retailer, CoutureLab. At the Hot Luxury conference in Sao Paulo, Carmen cited that the decision was based on needing to offer the customer the ability to interact with the products in a detailed way that could not be achieved online.

However, more often than not, starting digital and going brick and mortar is the exception, rather than the rule. But there still exists a large gap in both knowledge and skills for emerging designers online. Though launching a brand online carries less financial risk at the start, many designers are unfamiliar with the tactical methods to use in order to be successful both in terms of the ecommerce and design experience, as well as in the social media marketing strategy that will ultimately get them noticed.

For example, Mark Charles, a new to the scene footwear designer who is debuting his first boot collection Fall 2012.

His experience has lead him to create a platform and website focused on providing a listing of curated resources that would be of value to the fashion student, brand marketer, designer and entrepreneur (a list Fashion’s Collective is proud to be part of). On his site he features ‘The Fashion Designer Guide’, a free ebook comprised of 32 interviews with some of the most talented individuals from Temperley, Vivianne Westwood, Ferragamo, Tommy Hilfiger, French Connection, Nine West and more.

The Fashion Designer Guide aims to answer many of the questions faced by new designers who plan to start a fashion label.

We sat down with Mark to talk about his experience as an independent and emerging designer on the scene.

Q: Was your plan from the beginning to launch solely online? Why?

A: Yes, absolutely, with such limited funding my initial plan was to launch and retail exclusively online via Being totally self funded, it was essential that we were able to keep overheads to a minimum and still produce a world-class luxury product that I was proud to put my name to.

Q: What were some of your biggest challenges in launching and how did online either help or hinder you at the start?

A: The biggest challenge (after production) is creating the right sort of buzz on a shoestring budget without the help of a large PR agency and a huge marketing budget. Fundamentally, you need the skills and expertise in order to achieve this before consumers would consider purchasing an unknown luxury brand, especially one that they cannot touch or feel in person.

Our approach was to focus heavily on social media at a grass roots level, from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to other sites in order to network with the right people. That was pretty much how ‘The Fashion Designer Guide’ ebook came about.

Q: In your conversations and interviews with some of the most successful designers, what did you find your businesses had in common? Was there anything drastically different in your approaches?

A: The most interesting thing that caught my attention was that every single person that I had spoken to agreed that launching your own brand would be extremely difficult and very costly. This is something that becomes more and more apparent every day.

On the other hand, most of the people who I interviewed also agreed with the more traditional route for launching a brand; study at a well known fashion school, work in the industry for a number of years to gain experience, make the right connections and then think about launching your label….and in an ideal world, I would totally agree 100%.

For myself, this was not really a suitable option as I had already finished studying, I had strong graphic design skills and at the age of 28 with no industry experience, I doubt that many design houses would be beating a path to my door in order to acquire my services.

I instead decided to work with bespoke shoemakers in the UK, Italy and China in order to ‘learn my trade’, as it were, before I decided to launch Mark Charles Boots.

Q: What role has digital played in getting your brand out there?

A: The digital space has been absolutely pivotal, not only in raising brand awareness but actually starting a brand from the ground up. I used LinkedIn religiously in order to find suppliers and producers, mentors and everyone else in between.

Later on, with the focus moving more towards marketing and PR, we decided to enlist the support of online magazines and bloggers to help raise awareness. In addition to this, sites like Twitter have been instrumental in building relationships because it allows you to spectate and then participate with meaningful content or general chit-chat, as the case may be.

Q: What went into researching The Fashion Designer Guide? How do you envision it being utilized by the fashion community?

A: The Fashion Designer Guide is honest information from seasoned professionals who have been kind enough to share their knowledge and experiences in order to help others.

It’s funny because it pretty much took on a life of its own, as it was not my initial intention to produce an ebook. I had originally planned to meet up with all the people whom I admired and I thought I could learn from.

After a few weeks of creating my ‘To Meet’ list, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a logistical nightmare. So I decided to interview everyone via email and telephone, which probably took me the best part of 9 months. As the interviews started to come in, the information was so useful that I decided to create an ebook for other designers in my position. After contacting over 200 people within fashion industry and hounding them for months, I finally managed to pull enough information together to create the ebook.

My graphic design skills and my love of writing enabled me to design and edit the ebook within a few months, in which time I decided to knock up a website where it could be downloaded from.

This was a major investment in time and resources, both of which were very limited but I really believed that this would be a useful project that I wanted to share with others.

The ebook also serves as a valuable marketing tool that offers (semi-branded) expert advice that is freely available and easy to share.

Q: What do you think the pros and cons are of being an online only brand from the get-go?

A: Pros: would definitely be the low start-up and running cost and also the opportunity for international trade via the website. We are able to cater for a global market which is something that every online trader should consider from day one.

Cons: I’d have to say the fact that customers are not able to touch and feel the product face to face has to be the biggest hurdle. Everyone who has tried on a pair of Mark Charles Boots has immediately commented on how comfortable they are and how snug they feel but this can be very difficult to convey online.

Also, the amount of hours spent in front of the computer can actually be quite counter productive as I think it’s just as important to get out there meet people in person. I think a careful balance between the two is the elusive harmony that we all strive for – so here’s to life outside my inbox!!!

Q: How do you think you’ll make the decision to take your brand offline, is this even a consideration?

A: I will be focusing heavily on developing effective sales channels both online and offline in the form of specific, hand-picked boutiques and maybe exclusive department stores later in the future.

This year is definitely all about getting out there and making things happen…the reality is that whether your business is online or offline, people do business with people, and the best way to cultivate theses relationships is to get out there and let the world know you are.


Photo Credits: Andy Medina


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