Giving new designers a leg up

April 10, 2016

shannon whiteheadStarting anything new is intimidating and full of the unknown.

Where do you start? What do you need? How the heck do you find out what you need? Where do you go for help? What’s been done before? Why are you doing this? SHOULD you do this? OMG this is bat-sh*t crazy. Don’t do it. HEEEEEELLLLLPPPP!

I may be generalizing here, but I’m guessing this is what every single entrepreneur who’s ever decided to launch a business thought at any given time during the process of bringing their dream to life. I’m no exception. These kids of fears may be even stronger in those entrepreneurs trying to launch a sustainable business.

Shannon Whitehead knows what I’m talking about and she’s built a successful business helping fashion entrepreneurs get started on the right foot.

A while back, I spoke to Whitehead about Factory45, her innovative online school for aspiring fashion entrepreneurs that she launched in June 2014. Whitehead and her business partner, Kristen, experienced the ups and downs and many roadblocks of trying to start their own sustainable clothing line in the U.S. in 2010.

Factory45 is a start-to-finish online accelerator program that takes aspiring entrepreneurs from idea stage to launching an apparel product.

They learned the hard way that most suppliers won’t speak to you unless you’ve been referred to them or you can promise large orders. Through her dealings with suppliers, Whitehead learned that they just don’t have the time to school a new designer on industry lingo and on what questions to ask, so they generally ignore any inquiries from inexperienced designers.

Lesson #1: Just because you reach out to suppliers, doesn’t mean they’ll return your call or respond to your email.

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Read: 4 Mistakes to Avoid When Sourcing Fabric: http://bit.ly/1W3nBuH

You expect people to respond to your business. But this isn’t how it works. You have to push, you have to hustle, you have to follow up. You have to stay on your game. If you put enough emails and voicemails out there, something will stick.

It was this realization that gave Whitehead the idea to share her business experiences and teach budding designers the basics of starting up a fashion business, from helping find fabric suppliers and manufacturers to how to submit an order, what terminology to use and where to save on business costs.

The suppliers to whom Whitehead has since referred her students thank her regularly for sending them informed designers, she says, and the designers greatly appreciate knowing how to talk the talk and walk the walk.

Since its launch in 2014, Factory45 has had more than 70 entrepreneurs come through.

Factory45 has clearly struck a chord with aspiring entrepreneurs. Thanks to the internet, you don’t necessarily have to go to fashion design school to become a designer, but Whitehead saw a knowledge gap between an idea and a product – one that was holding a lot of brands back from coming to life and one that she could fill with her connections with suppliers and entrepreneurial experience. Whitehead’s program gives people with an eye for design the necessary information and skills to launch a brand or product without the hefty price tag of a conventional design program. The program even had three Canadian designers take part. One of Factory45’s most recent success stories is VETTA, a capsule collection for women of only five versatile pieces that can be worn 30 different ways. Its founders successfully raised $89,000 on Kickstarter, nearly trippling their fundraising goal last month and just visited VOGUE head offices in New York City earlier this week.

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VETTA’s wildly successful Kickstarter campaign nearly tripled the clothing line’s crowdfunding goal last month.

“This is the age of entrepreneurship.”

You’d have to be living under a rock to not see that the entrepreneurial lifestyle has grown in popularity. “This is the age of entrepreneurship,” Whitehead says. “It’s never been easier to start a clothing business. The barrier to entry is lower now thanks to the internet, and more resources are available such as crowdfunding platforms and email marketing”. I would love for Factory45 to have a Canadian version of its program available online. Whitehead’s suppliers are all currently just in the U.S., but the skills and knowledge that you get from Whitehead is valuable regardless of where you live.

If you’re toying around with the idea of launching a fashion business, or if you’ve already decided to take the jump, but don’t know where to land, here are some tips from Whitehead to get you on the right track.

Lesson #2: Offer a product or clothing line that solves a problem for people.

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Factory45 is Whitehead’s personal way of combating fast fashion. She strongly believes that the local, independent designer has a place in the fashion industry and that they can compete above and beyond the cheap and disposable goods that big corporations churn out.

“My ideal entrepreneur, the person I look for to work with is someone that has an offering, a product or clothing line that solves a problem for people,” says Whitehead. “It’s not just another t-shirt company with screen printing on it, it’s actually something needed in the market place.” One woman, for example, was in a car accident at 21, paralyzed from the waist down. She signed up to Factory45 to start a blue jeans company for the wheelchair bound.

Another woman created a nursing accessory for young mothers that was chic and fashionable. Other people have created sustainable womenswear lines and designed capsule wardrobes. “The student profile ranges,” says Whitehead. “But everyone who comes through Factory45 sees a need and wants to fill it.”

Lesson #3: Fashion is a closed-off industry.

“In terms of trying to reach out to suppliers and connect with production partners, so much of this happens through referrals. It helps designers to be able to refer to me when reaching out to suppliers.”

Lesson #4: Money is always a challenge.

It costs money to start a business. Whitehead tries to make the costly tasks as easy as possible for students by referring them to freelance pattern makers and more affordable website designers. One of Factory45’s biggest benefits is helping create crowdfunding campaigns so that designers can make back the money that they’ve invested in the program and raise funds for their first collection too.

Lesson #5: Basic industry knowledge is key.

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“It’s weird to call knowledge a challenge,” says Whitehead. “But in apparel manufacturing, you have to have a baseline of knowledge to know what you’re talking about, to know where to look and who to connect with.”

If you’re going at it blindly and trying to cobblestone it together through Google search, it doesn’t work as well.

Lesson #6: Earn suppliers’ trust.

There isn’t a lot of transparency in the industry yet. Whitehead explains that American-based manufacturers and suppliers lost faith in clothing companies when the majority of them outsourced their manufacturing in the 1990s to cheaper markets.

“Now, as business is starting to come back to the U.S., there is so much distrust from suppliers, and understandably so,” says Whitehead. “I don’t blame them either. They have no guarantee that all of this won’t happen again.”

Thankfully, U.S. manufacturing may be here to stay, in large part due to consumer demands for more transparent manufacturing. Whitehead is pleased to see a growing demand for transparency from people. They know that just because something is made in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee that it was made ethically.

She’s grateful that people are more interested in learning about where their clothing was made and by whom. This interest from consumers is not only encouraging brands to take root at home, but also calling established brands back to the mother land.

“I think we’re at a ground swell when it comes to sustainable, ethical fashion,” Whitehead says. “Food has seen this, beauty products are next,  and then fashion.”

Quick facts about Factory45

Factory45 visits with Kathryn Hilderbrand at Good Clothing Company (GCC). GCC is Factory45's New England partner and is one of the production "hubs" for local Factory45'ers.

Factory45 visits with Kathryn Hilderbrand at Good Clothing Company (GCC). GCC is Factory45’s New England partner and is one of the production “hubs” for local Factory45’ers.

  1. By the time Whitehead and her partner’s Kickstarter campaign finally went live 1.5 years after launching their line called Revolution Clothing, they had already spent $10,000 on start up costs, travel, etc. and depleting their savings accounts.
  2. Factory45 is here to make sure designers don’t spend $10,000 unnecessarily to get started.
  3. Factory45 is an online course that runs for six months.
  4. Featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, Business News Daily, Design Sponge, Huffington Post, among others.
  5. Revenue has grown 580 percent from 2014 to 2015.
  6. Applications open for the next round of classes May 18, 2016, sign up here!

4 comments

  • Emmanuelle Chiche

    It has been a pleasure and fun to work within the Factory 45 community that Shannon created and grows with gusto, intention and attention.

  • Jess | Rose & Fig

    Tip #1 is so true. I heard someone describe it rather cleverly as “the entrepreneurial theory of relativity”. It seems like it’s taking forever for someone to respond, but that’s just because they have a million other things going on, whereas you, as the entrepreneur, are *depending* on their response to decide if you can even go down that route.

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