Starting up in fashion with no investment doesn't seem like a very sane thing to do; especially in this financial climate. Last week, in fact, I was told by an industry consultant that I'd find it "very difficult" as I don't have a money-laden family or boyfriend. I liked his honesty; money would definitely help, but I think there's big change a foot in the fashion industry.
Last week Belgian designer Bruno Pieters launched his e-tail store www.honestby.com. The store sells limited edition non-seasonal men's and women's wear and calls itself The World's First 100% Transparent Company. For example, say you browse men's shirts and see one you like, if you scroll to the bottom of the page you can find a full breakdown of, well everything. You can see what it's made of, the factory it was made in and even how long that factory has been running. More interestingly you can see the price calculation, so how much the fabric was per metre, how much was used, and so on including how much the garments are marked up by, and why.
This sort of enterprise has been coming for a while. The internet has been allowing more of us small-fry designers to articulate our reasons for pricing, from why it's cheap to why it's not. Most recently online-only store Everlane has been causing quite a stir with its simplistic diorama of the fashion industry. They use their price structure as a marketing tool, saying as an online only business they cut out the costs associated with having a three dimensional store; and as fascinating as all this is, the most important thing for me as a start-up is that internet has lowered the barriers for entry into the fashion business.
As the high streets decline, e-commerce is booming. I set up my online store in an afternoon and it reaches customers all over the world, whereas a few years back I'd be competing for a for shelf space in a shop which would only reach a limited audience.
Honestly, anyone can do it. All you need is the internet, a camera and a PayPal account and the best thing is that as small business with an online presence, like the above examples, you can easily adapt your business to meet the needs of a global community.
But there is still one hurdle we start-ups are struggling to jump. At a lively debate on the Future of Fashion in the UK, Harold Tillman (chairman of British Fashion Council) quoted the value of the British Fashion Industry as £21 Billion of the UK's GPD, more than the value of the publishing, and car industries added together. Yep it's a big deal.
These figures come from the BFC's 'Value of the UK Fashion Industry' report, which highlights challenges facing the fashion industry, including a lack of business skills among many smaller fashion labels and a need to encourage the growth of a UK manufacturing base.
If you work in fashion you won't need to read the report to know the problems facing designers who choose to manufacture in the UK. While it's getting much easier to set up your business these days, being able to source and manufacture your (hopefully) best selling items is not.
According to a report by the CFE (Centre for Fashion Enterprise) gaps in skills and training (for designers and manufacturers) combined with lack of investment in new equipment has resulted in an inconsistent service. Who can blame them? With the vast majority of companies producing abroad UK manufactures haven't had a great time of late.
The thing is we want to manufacture here. It's important for the economy and it gives a company more control. The winds of change are blowing though, and consumers are becoming wiser. You only have to dip your toe in the waters of the blogosphere to read how, "I resisted the Zara sale and bought an investment piece..."
We're coming out of a very strange 10 years. The price of clothes in 2006 dropped to the price of clothes in 1986, and it's hard to tell now what our clothes really should cost. However the emergence of the middle class in China and the rising price of wool and cotton are making it very difficult for retailers to keep their prices the same or drop them and this makes British made goods more competitive. Hurrah for us!
There's still a long way to go for fashion manufacturing in the UK, but clearly a sector as valuable as fashion is one worth government investment and we are starting to get it. There are already some great organisations working on getting UK manufacturing back up and running. The UKFT's "Let's Make It Here" campaign is a useful resource and Fashion Capital has a particularly good scheme with their own factory and workshop which employs local women from the Haringey area. Another is DISC, which launched only last week and is a direct response to the CFE's report. Working closely with manufacturers and designers to combat the lack of skills and technology they say it's the first step on the ladder in making the industry one that young people aspire to work in. And that's exactly what we need.
So back to my original point - perhaps with the hope of new investment in our manufacturing, coupled with changing consumer habits and the freedom of ecommerce, setting up a fashion business in these difficult times (albeit with no rich father) maybe is a sane thing to do after all. I'm still learning and making a lot of mistakes as I go, but the tides are turning and if you want to take a dip, I'm pretty sure the time is now.