Even the most cursory of glances at the business pages on your way to the sport – or style – section will tell you that menswear is growing faster than Selena Gomez’ Instagram following.
How then, do you go about cutting yourself a slice of that sweet, sweet pie and starting your own fashion brand? Well, first, by forgetting about money for the foreseeable (more on that later). Like a Sunday league football side, you need passion; but you also, paradoxically, need precisely the experience that you don’t have.
Thankfully, we know a guy. Or three. All of whom have set up their own labels and are willing to share their hard-won wisdom – a bit like consultants, only less expensive (and more wisdom-ous). But be warned: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will be blood, sweat… and stitches.
1. Take Inspiration – From Somebody, Anybody
Graeme Gaughan, who by day is a director of fashion PR agency Sane Communications, started working nights on his label Tourne de Transmission in 2010. “I had been making band T-shirts, so I started taking that a bit further and started to develop statement tees with what I hoped was a slightly different spin,” he says of what is now a fully-fledged streetwear brand. “I think, like music, it’s OK to be influenced – as long as [your work] has its own personality and isn’t just ripping someone off.”
Christian Kimber, supremely stylish founder of the shoe and trainer brand of the same name, was in turn inspired to combine his two loves of classic menswear and streetwear. But he also had a baser motivation. “I wanted a pair of olive tassel loafers to wear with denim, but I couldn’t find a pair I could afford,” he says. “That kind of ignited the idea in my mind to create them for myself.”
Samuel Bail, a former banker turned co-founder of luxury leather goods label Troubadour, followed a similar logic. “We [Bail’s business partner is ex-investment banker Abel Samet] spent years in pursuit of a well-designed, high-quality overnight bag that could transition seamlessly from business trip [to] weekend away with friends,” he says. “The longer we searched, the more surprised we were to find that it didn’t exist.”
Troubadour set out to create the perfect business to weekend bag
Whether it’s a totally original concept, a riff on an existing one or simply doing it better than everybody else, if it’s something that you want, and you can’t source elsewhere, then there’s a decent chance that other people want it too.
2. Find Your Passion
Before you go too far, you might want to question your commitment to go all the way.
“Do you have the passion and drive to sacrifice your time?” asks Kimber. “Not like, ‘Oh, OK, I might stop watching so many cartoons.’ I mean every weeknight, every weekend.”
Bail also stresses the importance of dedicating yourself to your brand: “Are you absolutely passionate about, and inspired by, the vision? Is this something you want to pursue indefinitely – say, for the next 10, 20 years? It’s a wonderfully rewarding experience, but it’s also a wild amount of work.”
For Gaughan, the question is even more existential. “Why am I doing this?” he asks. “It takes time and passion, and won’t usually be a quick payoff. In fact, if you think about the monetary side too much, you won’t end up with a pure expression.
“That’s why I always worked alongside doing Tourne de Transmission: I didn’t want to rely on it for an income. But I had to put in a lot of hours in order to fit it all in, and still have a life.”
Tourne de Transmission
If you’re in for the long haul though, then – as somebody once told Kimber – you will receive the most valuable pay-off of all: “Do what you love, then you never work a day in your life.” Or, conversely, ever have a day off.
3. Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, Work Experience
Obviously it helps if, like Gaughan, you are already plugged into the industry like Neo in The Matrix. But if you’re on the outside, you can still get your foot in the door – by getting in the room.
“If I hadn’t been doing what I did, work experience is the way I would [have gone],” says Gaughan. “If you’re serious, spend time in the [menswear] world – ideally under someone you respect – so you can see how it works and soak up as much knowledge as you can.” If it’s good enough for Kanye – who famously interned at both Louis Vuitton and Fendi – then it’s good enough for you.
It was good enough for the Troubadour guys, too. “We dedicated a great deal of time to learning,” says Bail. “We can’t overstate the benefit of seeking out people you respect, asking thoughtful questions and really listening to the answers. Find out who impresses the people who impress you, and go and learn from them.”
Kanye interned at Fendi and Louis Vuitton to gain experience and learn how the industry worked
The other, often overlooked upshot of work experience is building contacts with designers, PRs and buyers face to face, rather than spamming them with unsolicited LinkedIn requests. What’s more, you borrow some of the company’s credibility: you’re no longer just a random guy, you’re ‘that guy from X’. Even if you’re just there to do the photocopying.
“Buyers especially can be quite poker-faced – and they need to be, as everyone wants their time,” says Gaughan. “But getting to know them through meetings at a brand they [buy] gives you a headstart. It creates confidence in you through association.” Provided you get their coffee order right, that is. No foamy lattes, Todd!
4. Build It And They Will Come
At some point, you have to put your notion into motion. “The first thing is a really basic business plan,” says Kimber. “It doesn’t have to have exact: it’s good to get all your thoughts out [in] one place. Then focus on the product, find manufacturing and packaging and do it, in a really small way.”
This can be really, really small. “I did the first prints for Tourne de Transmission myself, by hand, in a print workshop in Brixton that has [since] sadly closed down,” says Gaughan. “I met Sam of [London menswear label] Agi & Sam there.”
The hands-on approach can give you close-up insight: “It gave me a lot of technical knowhow for when I had to start to use factories.” Kimber adds that manufacturing is “possibly the most important part – it took me two years to be happy with our manufacturing, and a lot of travel and work to get there.”
Chrisstian Kimber SS16
Indeed, before you start concepting your slick ad campaigns or worrying about social media likes – or bringing in the cash required to do so – you need to make something worth shouting about.
“We spend our days focusing on design and development, materials, packaging, securing the right stockists, evolving our team – every single detail as it relates back to the Troubadour collection,” says Bail.
“It’s about dedicating our present resources towards besting each piece we create. We believe the ‘noise’ will follow.”
5. Put On A Show
Menswear’s exponential growth has coincided with the increasing prominence of London Collections Men, the biannual international showcase for labels from Burberry to Bobby Abley. But there are a few things to know before you chuck your nascent hat brand in the ring.
“For starters, it’s expensive,” says Gaughan, who marshals other brands’ shows as part of his day job as well as Tourne de Transmission’s. “So you need to ensure your label’s turnover can take that size of investment.” But if you can speculate, even by means of sponsorship or other outside help, then you could accumulate a lot of heat.
The next question is: catwalk or presentation? “Catwalk is over very quickly, and it’s purely about the clothes in most cases,” says Gaughan. “A presentation is more about creating a sensory experience: building sets, mixing media, even creating smells that bring the whole thing to life.” There are more pragmatic pros too: “It’s much easier to get up close to the clothing, and the audience has much more time to see and touch them.”
For those reasons, a presentation can actually cost more than a wham-bam catwalk show – but you could get more bang for your buck.
Tourne de Transmission SS16
6. Stay Humble – But Not Too Humble
One of the biggest mistakes that Gaughan sees in new brands with his PR hat on is “an overall lack of perspective as to where you are in the grand scheme of things… and not being humble”. You’re not Karl Lagerfeld. Yet.
At the same time though, you need to stick up for yourself – especially on the manufacturing front. “Being bullied by factories or stores into [over-production] or bad sales terms is a real issue in the business right now,” he adds.
It’s all about that classic catch-22 characteristic, confidence. “It’s something I have struggled with, going into an industry where everyone goes through similar channels of schooling etc.,” says Kimber. “But you need it, and it’s maybe only now that I’ve got it and really believe in my own vision.”
Christian Kimber SS16
That’s the other thing: it’s your vision. “There are lots of mistakes to be made, and to not be pushed around by or swayed by other opinions is a key one,” says Gaughan. “It takes time to be sure-footed in your approach, so listen to your gut.”
Go it alone, and your own way, but remember: no menswear brand is an island. “Your business is very much a reflection of your team, so finding great people is essential,” says Troubadour’s Bail. “Not to mention, it makes the long days more enjoyable.”
Got a bright idea for a menswear brand? Or more advice for those who have?
Let us know in the comments. And remember us when you make it big.
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Image: Christian Kimber SS16