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Fly solo or join the band?

Go it alone

Drapers explores whether the fashion industry’s young talent should branch out alone or become part of a bigger business.

Up-and-coming stars in the fashion retail industry have a big choice to make: whether to amalgamate their skills into the cogs of a larger retailer or go it alone and launch a brand with their own name above the door.

Some of the industry’s young talent – such as London Fashion Week designer Richard Quinn, an alumnus of Central Saint Martins – start building their fashion empires fresh from graduating. Others, like Samuel Ross, founder of London Fashion Week Men’s label A Cold Wall and the subject of this week’s Drapers Interview, hone their skills at a bigger brand before striking out alone. Others still choose to permanently lend their talents to a larger organisation such as Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of Dior, who has spent her career at fashion houses including Fendi and Valentino.

Both bring opportunities and challenges. Launching your own venture promises creative freedom but the considerable challenges of funding and running a business. Working for a larger retailer brings structure and a good commercial grounding but can lead to creative compromise.

Both camps

Designer Daniel Fletcher is the founder of his eponymous menswear brand, which is stocked by Opening Ceremony and Liberty, and he is the menswear artistic director of Italian label Fiorucci. He is an advocate of working for both larger companies and launching your own brand, having balanced the two throughout his career.

If you’ve never worked for another label, then how can you start one yourself?

Daniel Fletcher, founder of Daniel Fletcher and menswear director of Italian label Fiorucci

“[Working for other people] is something I’ve always done,” he explains. “When I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015 with a degree in fashion menswear and Opening Ceremony bought my graduate collection, I hadn’t even thought of starting my own brand.

“I’d also been offered a job as a designer at Louis Vuitton. I ended up working three days a week at Louis Vuitton and dedicated the rest of my time to my own brand. If you’ve never worked for another label, then how can you start one yourself?”

Fletcher adds that working within larger luxury brands has given him a valuable grounding in how to run his own business.

“When I first started working with Opening Ceremony, I made loads of mistakes – like pricing things for less than they cost to make.

Debenhams gave me the chance to launch my own brand in a safe environment

Hannah Gibbins, winner of the Debenhams Menswear Graduate Fashion Award at Graduate Fashion Week

“The reality of launching a label is very different to how you think it is going to be. Meeting with lots of different teams at Vuitton, like marketing and merchandising, really taught me how to put a collection together and how to meet commercial expectations.

“My advice to young designers who are currently studying or looking to get a foothold in the industry is to get as much varied experience as possible. While I was studying, I interned at a PR agency, I assisted stylists, I worked in shops – all of these things helped me learn the elements of what it takes to build a brand.”

Experience matters

Recent graduate Hannah Gibbins also extols the benefits of gaining experience in the fashion industry before going it alone. After graduating from the University of Brighton in 2018 with a degree in fashion and business, she won the Debenhams Menswear Graduate Fashion Award at Graduate Fashion Week. Gibbins spent a year working at Debenhams and also launched her own 13-piece menswear collection for the retailer. Currently, she is an assistant designer for HCKT, menswear brand Hackett’s diffusion line.

“Debenhams gave me the chance to launch my own brand in a safe environment and I wanted to gain a couple of years experience in the industry to make sure I have all the knowledge I need to launch my own brand later in my career. Working for a big retailer taught me how to work with different suppliers, how to make the product wearable for the customer, the design process, how to market a collection and about different fabric weights. It has taught me what it takes to create a collection from start to finish.”

She adds: “My advice to young graduates is not to pigeonhole yourself – get as much experience as you can to help you get a foothold in the industry.”

Fashion journalist Hilary Alexander is a judge at Graduate Fashion Week, and namesake of the Hilary Alexander Trailblazer Award.

She tells Drapers: “We wouldn’t actively encourage graduates to launch their own brands weeks or months after graduating, unless they have private funding, a financial adviser or some knowledge of business. We try to persuade graduates to spend at least one or two years working at whatever level – be it a high street chain or a supermarket – to get some understanding of the industry.

”Graduates need to take any opportunity that present itself. Retailers and brands are looking for innovation and creativity.”

Lone path

Those who do choose to fly solo and launch their own brand need to have a distinct creative vision that gives them a clear point of difference in the market. One such designer is Mariah Esa, who graduated from a degree in fashion design at De Montfort University in 2019. She was chosen by members of the public as the winner of the Shein People’s Choice Award at last year’s Graduate Fashion Week for her graduate collection, which used more than 20,000 waste garment labels.

I wasn’t always set on launching my own brand. I was applying for jobs while creating my final project and kept getting rejected

Mariah Esa, graduate of De Montfort University

The collection has since been bought by Browns – Esa’s designs were shown at a pop-up concept store the luxury retailer held in Berlin in November last year.

“I wasn’t always set on launching my own brand. I was applying for jobs while creating my final project and kept getting rejected. I threw myself into my final project instead, because I wanted to create something that could make a difference. There was a lot of positive reaction after the collection was shown at Graduate Fashion Week.”

She urges other young designers to utilise the resources around them and to set clear goals: “There’s a lot to learn when it comes to launching your own brand. All of the business side was completely new to me. My advice would be to do as much research as possible into the facilities available to you. Browns were very good at introducing me to manufacturers and a lot of help and guidance came from my university’s enterprise team, who help students who want to set up a business. Have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. I knew that I wanted to make a difference by reusing a waste product and that has helped motivate me.”

Young designers will also set themselves up for failure if they have not understood the basics of running a business – from accessing funding to accounting, managing a team and thinking commercially. Building a fashion brand is not easy: London-based knitwear-focused brand Sibling went into administration in 2017, just a year after winning the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) Newgen Men award.

Asya Ter-Hovakimyan launched her label, Omniss, in 2015 while still studying fashion design technology at the London College of Fashion.

“I met my business partner [Francisco Zhou] in my second year,” she explains. “I had the opportunity to show my collection in a private members’ club during London Fashion Week and it went really well. We made some sales. That got us excited and I started working with the university’s enterprise team, who helped us polish the business idea and provided training on running a business.

“Everyone know it’s hard to launch a fashion start-up, but not everybody knows just how hard its going to be,” she cautions. “My advice to those looking to launch their own brands is to be realistic about how much of your financial and personal resources – like your time – it is going to take. We’ve funded the brand through personal resources and taking part in competitions.”

London-based womenswear designer Riona Treacy adds: “I always knew I wanted to be a designer, ever since I was a child and have vivid memories of making clothes for the tooth fairy. The CFE offered a lot of support for emerging designers, I took a few of their courses on business and production. The UKFT also offer great support for designers and have a wealth of knowledge about the workings of the industry locally and internationally. The largest challenge as a new designer was finding fabric suppliers with low enough minimums. Most of the suppliers at trade shows have 1000 MOQs, but with lots of research I have built up great relationships with local fabric suppliers and as the brand grows so will our quantities.”

High flyers

Richard Sant is head of careers and employability at University of Arts London, which includes Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion. He tells Drapers a high proportion of the university’s students go on to launch their own business after graduating.

“Our destination survey at the end of year tracks what graduates are doing and around 20%-30% are self-employed. What is extremely important for students looking to take this route is that their creative idea becomes a business idea. That can be a big mental leap and is an extremely important first step [in launching your own brand.]”

He adds: “Those looking to launch their own fashion brand need to have that drive to make things happen, they need to be able to inspire and persuade other people, and to receive feedback and really listen to what the market and what customers are saying.

“Crucially, they need to be able to navigate change and be resilient. Anyone looking for a career in fashion needs to be really clear about their own voice and what makes them unique. Being able to articulate what makes you stand out, either as a designer starting a business, or being able to express that to a potential employer, is so important.”

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