Thursday, December 8, 2011

Some Lessons Learned

Well, it has been a very intense autumn - not just because of the business side of my activities, but also because I have had a moderately heavy teaching load at the university. Tomorrow I give my exam and then, aside from the corrections of the latter, I'll be "home free".

On the business end, it has been a very busy time with a lot of lessons. I will need more time to harvest them all, but here is some of the learning. In retrospect, I was rather naive about how the online sales would work out. It has been explained to me that because my product is viewed as "new", that my company operates with the product development cycle typical of high tech companies and products - that is, that a few "innovators" will buy the first generation of the product, following which a larger percentage of "early adopters" will buy, but that the mainstream is only accessible later when the "early majority" buyers see the product enough in and around town that they become interested. So our marketing model needs to be aimed at those who are more adventurous in their purchase decisions.

Secondly, we have found that a typical "trying on" session may take about 30 to 40 minutes. It takes that amount of time for the potential client to really understand what the garment does for them, and typically this involves trying on 4 or 5 combinations (although some people got the combination right the first time and then needed to try on 2 or 3 other combos to double check their choice). Once a person understands the garment, then the use of the web site becomes a powerful tool for ordering, but until the garment is properly understood, the website alone is inadequate. So I am rethinking my marketing strategy towards placing the garment in relatively high end designer boutiques and/or market specific boutiques (such as travel-oriented sales points) which will give the garment the attention it needs to sell, and towards the possibility of organizing direct-to-consumer sales (i.e. independent sales reps, or the "travelling salesperson").

I shall also be looking into the possibility of videotaping a "trying out session" to give online customers a better feel for how the garment is worn. In a lot of ways,

I'm quite pleased about these changes in marketing strategy, because it puts us closer to the client, and I believe that contact is essential to our eventual success with the garment and its sister products. I have some ideas about developing garments which are "designed to be adjusted" so that they may be semi-custom fitted to clients, with the final adjustment carried out by local seamstresses and tailors according to the needs of the individual clients.

However, coming up with a viable and sustainable business strategy that serves these needs is a major challenge for me. Furthermore, money is a bit tight until I can extend our sales, so my ability to manoeuvre is quite limited. I'd like to design and develop several new items, but right now the priority is marketing the existing products so that they can sustain the company and give me some breathing room to develop the next set of products. I have found some additional help to do this - in particular, a micro-financing outfit in Quebec City has agreed to help me with my marketing requirements. What is great about this is that they offer direct business coaching which has already been a huge boon.

Although the challenges in front are huge, the territory covered to date is also huge! Within less than 12 months I have developed a company, a product line (well, two product lines, actually), an online boutique and a network of partners that should see us into the future. I've had to reduce some of our scope in order to keep the funding under control (this has meant letting go of my salaried assistant and the fabulous workshop space I set up), and am now gearing up for a series of marketing initiatives that will take us through to spring 2012. Over the November-December period we have sold fewer products than I had hoped, but we have nonetheless sold several dozen and our ability to sell should increase over the next few months as I work to improve our marketing program. So a pretty good end-of-year bilan, all things considered.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gearing Up!

Well, we are under two weeks away from launching our online store (at www.gdotmoda.com) - opening day is set for October 25th, 2011! This is an unbelievably exciting time, although also an extremely busy period as well! This isn't helped by the fact that I have a major teaching commitment this fall and by the weekend just before the launch I will have some 50 exams to mark as well as getting the store up and running!

We will have two garment lines on sale at the store within about a month of the opening. We are focussing on the g-zip line to begin with. We have to learn how to track the inventory, ship the products, manage the returns and so forth, and I want us to focus on one product line to begin with before introducing the second line. Fortunately, I have my assistant to help me get this organized, otherwise I would be going absolutely nuts right now! The patterns took an age and an age to finalize - each time a change (or a set of changes) was made, we needed to make a new set of garments to check the pattern, and this is complicated by the fact that there are five sizes to check as well. So the "update pattern-print&deliver pattern-make up a new set of samples-validate the samples&determine new changes" cycle typically takes about two weeks each time, which quickly spreads out into months of work!

However, we overcame all our technical problems and are very, very happy with the final product. For a long time I was worried about being copied, but although a "cheap copy" may be possible, the engineering that went into the final product was formidable. Even knowing how it can be done (now we've solved the challenges) doesn't mean it's going to be easy to "knock off", so I'm somewhat less worried than I used to be.

Today our packaging paper and labels arrived - again, really cool stuff! I'm thrilled by the quality of what our business partners have created for us.

Our second garment line is called "g-cielo" - it is our hat line, but the hat is being transformed in a number of new and surprising ways, so the result will be "garments for the upper body", hence the use of the Italian word for "sky"! Originally we saw this as a simple accessory, but with the extensions we have begun to make, it has become a garment line in its own right, hence the change in marketing strategy.

The initial offering is all ready to go, but as indicated above, we are waiting until the g-zip delivery system is fully set up and tested before launching the g-cielo line (we are still waiting for the new set of labels to come - every distinct garment line has its own label, and the fabric composition of the g-cielo line is different from what we had for the g-zip line, so the fibre composition label required by law has to be updated as well.

One of the challenges has been setting up manufacturing alternatives so that we can handle demand, whether this turns out to be low, modest or high. We are expecting a low to modest number of orders based on our knowledge of who is interested, but surprises in this regard are always a possibility. So we have set up a manufacturing arrangement that would allow us to accommodate a much larger order than we are expecting, just in case!

There's still a lot of work to be done before the 25th. The photoshoot for the catalog is on the weekend, the website is being delivered Sunday, and the catalog photos have to be integrated with the website over the course of next week. We have also prepared a press release that must be sent out to hundreds of addresses, and the manufacturing has to move forward. All of these tasks are demanding and challenging, so it's going to be a busy time. And I also have to prepare next week's exam for my students!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

On the Art of Fashion Designing

I really have almost nothing to say about designing from a general perspective. Rather, I want to talk about my own style of designing, which is, I suspect, different from that of many, perhaps even most. Also, my designing procedures have changed substantially since I started my own fashion company.

I really don't follow in any design tradition. I have no formal training in fashion design, or even in design, although I have been involved in research concerned with design for more than ten years. I do not sketch, much, nor do I make an abundance of clothes of different types (although I have, to some extent, done this before). I am a self-taught designer, following my own methods and instincts.

However, I do not lack for inspiration, either. I am an "idea mill", and have been for most of my professional life as a scientist. I typically generate several new ideas a day - although across many fields, not just in fashion design. Some of these ideas are harvestable or usable, others are not. This comes from a wide interest in different things. For example, I am reading right now several books about Harry Potter (Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, The Psychology of Harry Potter, Looking for God in Harry Potter) - these are books by academics that attempt to make sense of the books, movies and other aspects of this publishing phenomenon. I am also reading a book called The End of Growth, about the economic turmoil in the world today and its relation to the environment. I am reading Isaac Asimov's autobiography, a James Bond thriller, a science-fiction book (The Boy Who Lived Forever), and several other things. These readings all help generate ideas, not necessarily in fashion, but also there. Yesterday, I was making some notes on a device for stiffening bones on a corset and thinking about bra design.

As I've spelled out in several postings on my company blog ("Function-Oriented Design", "Design principles", "Why fashion engineering?"), I am more interested in an engineering-like design process than a purely aesthetic one. What do I mean by this? I mean that my ideas about fashions and clothes are organized around their utility. I want to make clothes that look great, yes, but I particularly want to make clothes that serve a person's needs, usually in several ways. I want to design clothes that fulfill a function. To some extent, clothes do that inherently - they cover/reveal us, protect us, etc. Of course. But they may also serve additional needs, and that is where I get interested (although even as covering, as revelation and as protection they interest me!).

I don't know why I want to do this - it perhaps has something to do with the same wellsprings that led me to become a scientist. I understand the importance and role of art and aesthetics in design, but I want more than that in the things that I make.

Before starting my business, this desire to make things that are used found expression in making clothes for friends and family. I would ask what they would like, why, and then I would design and make a garment to suit what I had learned. The fabric had to be right for the person, of course, and the whole had to be checked with them. In this stage of my development as a designer, I made a dozen or more clothes each year (not a lot all told, but this was very part time and I was still learning and developing procedures and practices).

Although since I started my own business, my production of new designs has dropped still further, but there are signs that this is changing. The process of setting up a company is hugely challenging and takes inordinate amounts of time to do even the simplest tasks. I've had to do much of the grunt work myself, and I'm still not through all the procedure inventing stage. Also, we have narrowed our focus as a company on fine tuning one "idea", albeit a complex, multi-level idea, and most of my design efforts have gone into overcoming the hurdles in the process of making this first garment (I call it my first collection, because the garment comes in eight mutations, well, technically, 24 mutations, since the garment looks different at each size). We call this a "transformable garment" as it parallels efforts by other designers along similar lines. Our "g-zip" garment, however, is rather unique in how it achieves its transformable goal.

The ability of a garment to transform into another type of garment (or simply another color) is a fascinating example of serving a function. The need to transform is omnipresent in our lives today - hence transformable garments should be of wide interest (this is, of course, one of the reasons we selected this type of garment for our company's first offering).

Although working on the g-zip garment series has been a real adventure, our company is already (and of necessity) thinking about the next projects, and this is leading to a more playful and sustained design effort. However, design has shifted from an idea-focused effort to a more collaborative, hands-on process. As we've gained partners, especially people with both the technical expertise of making clothes but also the ability to be playful and creative and extend my original concepts, we've come up with new designs that are as interesting if not more so than my original ones. This ability to engage with others collaboratively has, in fact, been at the core of my scientific productivity over the past thirty years, so there should be no surprise that it turns up in my commercial endeavour as well!

Collaborative design is not only challenging and exciting, it is probably also the secret to a company's ability to innovate over the long term. Interestingly, the fashion industry does not, in general, favor design collaboration. There are examples, but the reward system is set up with regard to individuals. Most of the accolades go to individuals. This is regrettable, as fashion would benefit from a greater recognition of and role for collaborative design. As a designer, there is nothing quite like generating a cool idea, then having someone else take it into a new direction you hadn't thought of, allowing you to take the concept to a new level.

Perhaps the "g" in my company's name, "g.moda", should refer to "group" rather than my name "geoffrey"!

(My summer read: The Fashion Designers Survival Guide - a super, super book chock full of tips for designers and people in the business of fashion design!)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Super Cool - Our First Fashion Shoot!

We did our first fashion photoshoot today with the advanced prototypes of the clothes. There have been a number of contexts in which the ability to show our clothes would be a help, and so we need a preliminary set of prints before we finalize the production look.

I found a great studio in Quebec City called Focus One (www.focus1.ca/mannequins) - they're actually a combination of a photo studio and a modeling agency. This is a great concept that gives them a lot of flexibility. They are located just down the hill from where I live. The founder-photographer, Jocelyn Bernier, is a guy who obviously has vision. We got to talking about the fashion business in Quebec City, which is not as strong as it could and should be. Like g.moda, focus1 is aiming for the international market and is seeking to act as a catalyst for the region. Although there are a lot of young designers in the city, many are organized into small boutiques which sell locally only. There is so much potential to do more with this talent. From my perspective, the stronger the fashion industry in Quebec City, the easier it is for g.moda to find good talent to support our business, Since we are aiming for the international market, we are not necessarily in direct or heavy competition with other designers in the area - rather, they help to solidify the Quebec branding.

This was my first photoshoot ever, never mind that the model was trying on MY CLOTHES! What an awesome experience. And, even though I say this myself, the clothes looked absolutely fabulous! It was great to see the different variations of our g-zip line and notice how the look of the garment, even the way in which it moves, changes through its different tranformations. The models and stylist were also quite taken with the garments. We found several new ways to wear the clothes that even I hadn't thought about before, as an added bonus.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fashion start-up : The Light at the End of the Tunnel

After five months of intense work to get the g.moda business under way and the g-zip garment line in production, there is a light visible at the end of the tunnel! On Friday (two days ago), I signed a lease for commercial office space for the company - so from June 1st, we will have what the French call "pignon sur rue", that is, a street address and a home base for the company that is different from my house. Although a commitment, this is a huge step forward for setting the company on its feet. Production is finally ramping up after having vetted the patterns by a specialist and producing versions of the pattern for all three targeted sizes - small, medium and large. We have a confirmed date for the company's official launching (August 25, 2011), and the online store is scheduled to go live by July 31st. So all the hard work is coming to fruition. The only major source of uncertainty (I say that with my tongue in my cheek, however!) is how well our products will sell! (And hence whether we shall still be in business this time next year!)

Still, starting a company bears with it the risk of failing, and it is a risk I understand and accept. If it fails, it fails - it won't be because we did anything less than we could have, because we have put months of hard work and effort into getting it ready!

This is interesting, and I think a comment on the nature of the stress I've been dealing with. The stress doesn't come from risk of failure. The stress comes from needing to be sure that if it fails, it doesn't do so as a result of anything I could have done differently. And likewise, if it succeeds, it does so as a result of the effort we've put into it. Anything less, and I would feel disappointed in myself.

So the light at the end of the tunnel is not necessarily the light of success, but the light that indicates when the success or failure of the business is no longer strictly within my own hands. Once the public weighs in, we move forward with a different spirit, or not at all. I am confident we WILL move forward, that our product WILL be a success. Through our current efforts, the product is not only innovative, it is also of high quality manufacturing. I am also confident we have done our best to position the product well in terms of marketing, and recognize that we will continue to need to do this, especially after we launch the product line.

We are already at work on designs for the second, and possibly third, garment lines, as well as extensions to the first, so there will be no difficulty fueling the development of the company and its product sales from the production end. It is the sales that will be the determining factor, and the launch date is fast approaching!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Garment Production

If someone had told me last September, when I finished my first prototypes, that it would take me nearly a year to get the clothes into production, I would have treated it as a bad joke. And yet, here I am, eight months later, and the job is still not done!

It doesn't help that I've had to learn how to launch and operate a business along the way (and I've still a lot to learn on this front!). I typically put in 80 hours of work a week to stay on top of both my jobs, my university job and my fashion business. I get to do some design work, but far less than before I started my own company.

The trickiest thing about doing this is getting the garment production on track and up to speed. In retrospect, I spent about four months working on moving the garments forward more or less on my own, whereas that work might have been done more profitably and faster by experts. I have now been referred by one of the businesses with which I'm working for the sewing, to a full time "patternist", someone who works with patterns 24/7. Although this feels a bit like a setback, in fact I think this is going to move things forward faster, once we get the "bugs" out of the patterns I've developed on my own. She's going to do the grading to get different size versions as well as clean the pattern up.

Before I started, lots of people said to me, "you don't need to sew to be a designer - you get other people to do the manufacturing". Sounds simple and straightforward, but the reality if far from this. In reality, it's a good thing that I can sew, and manipulate patterns, even if I'm not doing the final work. In reality, the more "techniques" you can do yourself, the more control over the whole process you have. Even with these advantages, however, it takes weeks, months even, to develop the set of contacts and business partners you really need to have a "production chain" in place. In addition, everyone seems to think that they "know better" than I do - I constantly have to "fight" to get my ideas/needs/goals recognized and keep them front and centre, even though I hold the purse strings! As in many other industries with which I've worked, people have a "standard" way of doing things, and when you innovate and step outside of normal practice (which is what innovating means!), people resist. It is a real struggle to get them to work with you, rather than working at cross purposes or even, in some cases, against you!

I'm not at the end of my learning curve in this regard, but already with what I know now I would start "at the other end" of the production chain and work backwards if I could do it all over again! That is to say, I'd start with the patternist, work back to the manufacturer and then work with the seamstress to get the prototypes ready... It sounds "backwards" but it would be far more efficient than the process I've used. Still, I had to go through it to learn the "right way" to get things to work!

It also doesn't help that the garment manufacturing business in North America is in a shambles, due to the offshoring of manufacturing contracts. Although the tide is beginning to turn on this, the past decade has led to massive bankruptcies in the garment industry, and finding reliable outfits to do the work is a real challenge. In Quebec City, for example, the manufacturing businesses that are still in operation have specialized, for the most part, in providing medieval garments for the burgeoning cosplay movement, or into developing uniforms and specialized garments for industry.

Maybe by August we're going to be "in business", that is, finally selling our products, but it's been a long haul to get all of this underway. And you have to be persistent, keep your moral up, and push and push until you get things to work. Otherwise, we'd still be at it next year without any products for sale!

I have a whole new respect for businesses that break into the "garment business" and make a successful go at it. There is nothing particularly "simple" about it. I still get a great deal of satisfaction out of each major step forward, and am looking forward to the day when our products are actually available in our online store (also under development). But it's been a tougher road than I expected, even knowing it was going to be tough!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Costs of Launching a Collection

Without going into details about the costs of starting up a fashion design business, which are significantly higher than those of "merely" launching a collection, I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the costs involved in launching a modest collection and give a sense of the global amounts. It is possible to do things for less, by cutting corners and relying on friends and acquaintances for a lot of the upfront tasks, but to do the job professionally involves engaging a certain level of investment.

For my initial launch, I will have about eight outfits on display ... I say this with some hesitation, because what I'm offering doesn't fit within standard categories, but let's say that it will be the equivalent of eight outfits, more or less. Eight outfits is a very modest collection - a recent fashion show by a major Montreal designer involved about 40 outfits, and these were "seasonal", aimed for the Spring/Summer period, whereas mine are an "Annual" collection, again a choice for a startup.

The minimum global cost of launching a new line of about eight garments is about 50K$ (50000$). This, in general, excludes the manufacturing costs of the garments themselves. The money is used for organising the fashion show and photoshoot for the website - the cost of photography, video production, organisation, and paying the models, as well as paying the team of people involved in the effort - stylists, make-up, an announcer, music, etc. The reason one pays for all this, is that the fashion show "buzz", the website and the video footage all contribute to driving sales in the initial period. A bill of 50K$ is actually quite low - for larger collections and bigger events, the bill will be much, much higher.

As a "newbie" designer and business man, I found it very difficult to obtain reliable estimates of the costs of doing business before actually embarking on the process. I rather naively thought we could "introduce" new garments on an adhoc basis as the business grew. But although this is always possible, there are timing and marketing issues that affect what generates the best sales, and the "adhoc" approach is often not the best approach. A structured campaign with appropriate marketing will, in general, drive stronger sales that the ad hoc introduction of new elements. This is why people use the "collection" so consistently within the fashion industry.

Finding the right strategy to follow for a start-up company is tricky. Remember, they say that nine out of ten business start-ups will fail. There are lots of "shoals" to wreck the ship in - it requires careful navigation to get through the coral reefs of the start-up process. Underestimating the funding required is just one of the larger dangers that loom!