Now that you have made the foundational decisions, we can talk more specifically and concretely about exactly how one can go about turning their dream of having a successful apparel line into a reality. By the time people come to me to get the apparel printed, they usually already have the things discussed in chapter one figured out and are in the process of implementing their grand strategy. I’m always encouraged when I see this, because it shows they have taken initiative and they truly believe in what they are doing – I like the motivation and long-term planning. However it is also at this point when people usually need the most crucial advice on how to proceed. In this chapter I hope to go over some of the things I have learned over the years watching both the successes and failures of different people and how it related to the artistic vision of the product they were creating.
The Importance of Originality
I can usually determine the initial success of a clothing line just by looking at the artwork people bring me. There are some people who will try to convince you that the artwork is relatively inconsequential when compared to the soundness of your business model. This makes very little sense to me because, in so many ways, the artwork, and the process of creating it, are determinative of the business process and marketing strategies you end up choosing. The artwork is the seed, it is the origin of everything that follows, and as such I would place it at the top of the hierarchy of things that are most important. You don’t get a fruitful crop without first having planted a healthy seed; and that seed is your artistic vision for the clothing line.
For most people, it is the artistic vision that is the initial inspiration to attempt to start a clothing line in the first place. But perhaps you are the type that wants to start a clothing line for other reasons and is relying on someone else as a creative resource for artwork. Either way, it has been my experience that one of the characteristics of a successful attempt at a clothing line is the originality of the artwork that is being printed.
I will spare you the soul-crushing technicality of a college-level art history lesson and just make a few general statements about originality and capturing the creative impulse.
The first thing to realize is that originality does not just come from outer space and introduce itself out of nothing. You are not like the Hebrew God who created the earth and heavens out of the void. The human capacity for creativity and originality always either builds on what has come before or is some sort of response to it. For instance, a lot of modern art movements are a response to classical realism, because they see themselves as appealing to a deeper and more fundamental aesthetic sense that goes beyond the facility of rational representation. It is not important for you to develop a theory on aesthetics; just remember that originality is always related in some way to what has come before. Whether it builds on or is in opposition to what came before is of little consequence.
Using modern art is probably a bad example to use because there are a lot of ways in which the standards for creativity and originality are different for artwork you print on apparel. What matters most with custom apparel artwork is that it makes some sort of unambiguous statement which others can understand and relate to. Obviously this is not the same standard by which abstract art is judged. Even though the artwork for your apparel line needs to be creative and original, it can’t be creative and original in the opaque and esoteric way a lot of high modern art is.
Of course the greatest restriction to your creative impulse when it comes to apparel artwork is going to be the audience you are trying to sell your product to. In the discussion about branding I emphasized the importance of developing an intimate knowledge of your prospective customer. The same insight that inspired your branding concept is also going to be the guiding principle for your artwork, and it is important to take this seriously when making decisions about what artwork is appropriate to use. Try to stick to a common theme. Don’t start a muscle car brand and then wake up one day and decide you want to print shirts with surfing designs under the same brand name. Of course this seems like common sense, but you would be surprised how many start-ups I’ve seen that think they can just try to be all things to all people and end up meaning nothing to anyone.
One thing that saddens me is when I get people who come to me with an artistic vision that is unknowingly lacking in any originality. They are a clone of another clothing line and are unaware of the fact! This type of situation is easily avoided by being honest with yourself and doing the research. There are also those people who are knowingly trying to replicate the success of a previous brand and are hoping to catch the wave by selling the same concept. This is a very shaky foundation on which to build a business, even if it is mildly successful at first. By the time you have caught on to what sold in the past, the originators have already moved on and are defining the next big thing to set the trend. While you were thinking about what sold in the past, they were busy developing a new artistic concept that is going to transform the market and make what you’re trying to copy obsolete. I don’t recommend trying to beat an existing clothing line at their own artistic game. They already have the successful business model and production machine in place; this means they have the time and resources you don’t’ have to dedicate toward exploring the outer limits of the artistic concept they originated.
The custom apparel industry is saturated with people aspiring to start their own clothing line. And the fact is a lot of these people may have advantages in numerous areas, whether it is monetary resources or business acumen. But no matter how much money and resources they may try to throw into it, there is one thing they will need which they can’t succeed without: an original artistic vision. Having this is what will set you apart and make the difference in determining your relative success.
Your goal in starting a clothing line is to set up a new conceptual space that is differentiated from what others are already doing, and you accomplish this by developing your artistic vision. There is no method for doing this. It largely depends on your creative capacity and ability to recognize opportunities in the world as they arise.
When it comes to artwork, you also have to accept the obdurate fact that no amount of planning or strategizing is going to guarantee success. You can have a solid concept and artistic vision that simply doesn’t sell for inexplicable reasons. Market trends – and this is especially true in the apparel industry – are always in flux and cannot be predicted with any amount of certainty. No matter what you do it is always going to be a risk, and if you fail you need the resolve to learn from your mistakes and try something different. There are many business ventures I’ve made which simply failed, but it’s the one out of five that actually ends up paying off and being successful that matters in the end. If you’re not taking a risk, then something is probably wrong with your artistic vision, and it may be lacking in that one thing that sets you apart from the thousands of other people trying to start a clothing line.
Overcoming Some Challenges
It’s important that you be honest with yourself about how difficult it is to succeed in a market with fickle customers, fleeting trends, unstable prices, and an unusually high amount of hopeful startups.
Perhaps one reason the market is so saturated is that it’s just so easy to get a website and print some shirts. At least it’s easier and requires less capital and specialized knowledge than a lot of other business ventures I can think of. The moral here is that you shouldn’t be trying to start a clothing line simply because it seems like the easiest option you’ve considered so far. If it seems easy to you, chances are it also seems easy to everyone else, and this is no reason to invest your time and money. If you want a convenient investment with the same odds, you are much better off betting all your money on a hand of blackjack.
One big mistake I see people make is to not think seriously about how what they are selling is different or better than what is already being mass produced on a large scale, and in some rare cases I see people who have absolutely no clue about the state of the market they are trying to break into. It has been my experience that the successful start-ups have put a lot of thought into how their artwork and artistic vision relates to the market and what niche it fulfills.
We previously discussed how important it is to make branding decisions based on an explicit familiarity with your target customer. What I would like to emphasize here is the importance of linking your artistic vision to an unfulfilled market niche that has not yet been exploited. One fatal error I consistently see being made is that people have not done the research and don’t have a good understanding of where their product stands in relation to what is already out there. True, they may have good artwork, and maybe they have also put thought into how it appeals to their ideal customer, but without knowledge of the market and what types of artwork are already available for mass consumption, they are taking an unnecessary risk.
Just like the investment of time and money, research is another one of those things that’s easy to do and requires no specialized knowledge. Ask yourself a series of questions. Who am I selling this artwork to and is there anyone else already providing this type of artistic concept on apparel for them? If there is, then you need to ask yourself if the artwork you are providing is different in any significant way. Think of yourself as the customer walking into the store and having to choose between similar brands. Is there something in the artwork that makes it distinctive and easily distinguished from the other brand names on the rack? And if there is then make sure you take note of those things, because they will help inform the trajectory of your artistic vision and guide you as you make artistic decisions in the future.
So doing research to insure you’re not just a redundancy in the apparel market is one of the artistic challenges; another artistic challenge to overcome involves making sure your artistic vision and artwork is not so wildly original that it has no definitive place or position in the existing market. This is not as big an issue in my experience as being unoriginal and trying to make money by copying what has already been done. My theory is you at least have a fighting chance with artwork that is hyper-creative and inaccessible, because you never know whether or not it could just catch on for some inscrutable reason. Whereas a clone clothing line is never open to that possibility.
There are some instances I’ve seen where the originality and aesthetic appeal of the artwork was unimportant because the person was opening up a new market or drastically undercutting the prices in an existing market. These are possibilities you should take seriously if you want to start a clothing line but don’t’ have artwork and are unsure about where to begin. Think about a given demographic and then try to come up with artistic concepts and themes that are currently not being marketed to that demographic. Maybe you find a lot of sport fan apparel out there but don’t see it being provided for a sport that has not yet become popular. If you have good reason to believe that sport will become mainstream in the future, you can build a very successful apparel line by simply being one of the brands who started selling to that market first. Notice in this case that the artwork isn’t really that important, it’s being one of the first to anticipate the new market and figure out how to successfully exploit it.
Of course I am not suggesting that you should take this strategy and try to start a clothing line dedicated to selling t-shirts with team logos for the “sport” of curling. You really need to be in the right place at the right time and be able to recognize the direction of a given trend. MMA recently became a wildly popular sport in America, but we have no reason to believe curling would have the same impact or arouse any interest in the future – so we can check that one off the list.
This discussion may have seemed largely discouraging with all the talk about the importance of originality and the saturated state of the market, but this is not the intent and it’s not what should be taken away from it. What I hope to have accomplished here is to have been pessimistic enough to provoke thought but not so much as to discourage you from energetically and enthusiastically pursuing your goal to start a clothing line.
I cannot explain why a lot of artistic concepts succeed, it is much easier to look back and understand why some things fail, and this is the topography I hope to have provided for you. A sort of map to avoid the land mines I’ve seen people step on in the past. Keep in mind however that I have not been able to provide you with a method of success, only a guide to avoiding certain mistakes. For instance I can tell you that originality is important, and I can offer some tips on how to evaluate your artwork, but I can’t tell you how to be original or creative or explain why exactly some things succeed and some things fail.
Hopefully I have been able to inspire you to engage in some thorough market research to try to articulate explicitly where your artistic concept and aesthetic appeal fits in the larger scheme. This task can either provide you with insight or just make you more confused than when you started. If you find yourself unsure about your particular niche, don’t’ discourage; it may be a sign that you have simply opened a new conceptual space that has an ambiguous relation to the existing market. Take that uncertainty as a sign that you may be onto something truly original and worth pursuing despite the risk. Remember, it’s always the originators that take the greatest risk, but they also reap the greatest reward.