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Building A Fashion Brand with A Purpose

Building A Fashion Brand with A Purpose

ROSEN Sophora Dress

With the completion of each ROSEN collection, I find I must isolate myself in a quiet place to recover from the ordeal surrounding the release. When I designed the first few collections, they were so much simpler and the process was carefree. Today, this self-imposed complexity often feels as painful as diving underwater with a single breath – each release taking longer and longer and needing more and more time to recover afterwards. Having released AMDO – I travelled to a rural village nestled in the mountains in Songyang for some respite.

While sitting on a balcony overlooking the tea plantation, I reflected on my experience competing in this cutthroat industry we call fashion. From the perspective of a small business owner, this industry is losing its attractiveness for independent players;
; it is still a fashionable career, but its viability as full-time work is becoming increasingly dim as conglomerates swallow everything in their path. The larger they grow, the higher the barrier to economic sustainability for independent companies.

I take great joy in seeing my ideas come to life. I’m sure many of us took up this calling bI take great joy in seeing my ideas come to life. I’m sure many of us took up this calling because we wanted to create beautiful (or functional, depending on your priorities) clothes that people enjoy wearing. In their purest form, unique creations, objects and artefacts gives the viewer hope and optimism, or sometimes even escapism and a coping mechanism to ride through tumultuous times. While it might be borderline naive to think that fashion was created solely for the sincere love of design, craftsmanship and aesthetics, it should offer a perspective or value that puts it above commercialised commodities.

To design with humility is to understand that the pursuit’s existence has a greater purpose than making astronomical profits or boosting one’s own ego.

The truth is that garments have lost their importance to branded merchandise. Far too often, we can no longer discern the offerings of one brand from that of another unless we refer to the logos emblazoned over the clothes and accessories.

Fashion has evolved into a celebration of image over substance. Much like any industry in 21st century neoliberal economic system, the packaging and the hustle take precedence over the product.

The neoliberal fashion system does not serve the needs of workers and consumers. Speed of production, year-on-year growth of profits and paying shareholders’ dividends are prioritised over the organic growth of ideas, the education of customers to appreciate beauty and creativity, or improving the wages of the working class. Mid-tier managers are paid just generously enough so that they are more motivated to maintain the status quo rather than fight for the majority of their workers.

In lieu of this business practice, I would like to propose a different type of fashion business that is humble and meaningful, one that values fashion in its purest form while also prioritising customers and workers. The ability to balance creativity and commercialism can be the key to achieving a competitive edge over fashion behemoths. Many of us who do not possess a vast amount of wealth to partake in the marketing bonanza of corporate fashion can still compete in this space with integrity and courage. 

Here are the four major considerations that have guided my business practice.

Work must serve a purpose

A sense of purpose is the rudder that directs a person’s trajectory in life. Some people spend their lives not having one, which often leads to the feeling of being lost, anxious and depressed. Work can only accrue meaning and direction if it has a purpose, especially when it comes to creative endeavours.

Fashion is a very competitive industry with a currently low barrier to entry thanks to social media, global logistics infrastructures and dynamic production services. Anyone with a sewing machine or access to materials and machinists will be able to create a few collections for as long as they have the financial means to do so. An industry with a low barrier to entry is littered with businesses that come and go in the blink of an eye. Fashion is no exception.

I understand the appeal of fashion as a career choice. In an increasingly lonely, fragmented world that constantly promotes celebrity culture, careers that provide street cred promise to plug any self-esteem holes in our lives. It is no surprise that fashion design is now a popular career option, much like how being a YouTube influencer or a music star has become a dream occupation for many youths. Going to the moon or discovering a cure for cancer is now less appealing than amassing the adoration of strangers.

Some entrepreneurs began their fashion journey in their spare time or as a side Some entrepreneurs began their fashion journey in their spare time or as a side business. Others sought out investors because they saw an opportunity to make money – using clothing as a tool to accumulate more wealth.

Let us take a look at the brand Entireworld as an example. Established in 2018 by Scott Stenberg, who designed Band of Outsiders (think Brooks Brothers but younger and thrift-store like), it went bankrupt by the third quarter of 2021 . Lauded as the perfect pandemic sweatshirt brand by all the most important PR publications (ie. NYT, GQ and the lot), it did not survive the pandemic. 

“I fell into fashion when it hit me what a unique opportunity it presented - build an intricate world through a super personal brand vision, meticulously design all of the products that make up that world, and if I’m doing it right, people will literally live in it every day.  Cool, right?” 
- Scott Stenberg’s parting words before shuttering Entireworld. 

We can swap fashion for bathroom supplies or furniture and the statement still applies. Considering that the majority of Entireworld’s offerings were plain sweatshirts and sweatpants, ‘personal brand vision’ rests entirely on the narrative to prop up the brand’s product strategy. Sadly, companies like Entireworld are a dime and a dozen, presenting commodities that can be easily swapped for similar offerings sourced directly from factories. 

“I love to make clothes, I love to make garments. The only goal I have is not to have a beautiful fashion show, it is that people buy the clothes and wear the clothes.”

Dries van Noten

I would not hesitate to argue that all creative endeavours stem from a narcissistic origin. We believe in our opinions enough to tell the world about it. But for those of us who seek something loftier, we should use our ideas to return to fashion’s core mission – to create a unique point of view that enriches customers’ lives via the garments they buy and wear. Everything else is a commodity and should be priced as such.

When the going gets tough and you have given all your blood, sweat and tears, the only thing left to propel you forward is a just cause and the passion to create meaningful work that gives everyone involved a sense of pride upon seeing the completed product.

Put in the hours

Just like any meaningful endeavour, results do not appear immediately. The average person does not lose weight within the first workout session.

And when it comes to fashion, it can be very, very hard. The barrier to entry may be low, but the summit to financial sustainability is not that easily surmountable. If you are in it for the money, you are better off being a corporate accountant or lawyer in the industry. It is almost impossible to achieve astronomical financial gains under a short time unless you are already wealthy, well-networked, or have generous investors to accelerate growth. The money made from running a fashion business is atrociously low for the hours you put in. And that is why the previous point is so important. Without passion and a sense of purpose, there is little source for motivation to ride through the bumps that will be littering the long road to each sale and collection.

Khando Suit

Those whose work have remained relevant for decades have found their stride and embraced their personal beliefs – from Rei Kawakubo to Issey Miyake to Rick Owens – staunchly avoiding the common tropes of sexuality and gender that dominate European fashion. However, it took them some years to hone their vision before they found their place.

Work with others

A financially sustainable fashion brand with the aim to scale up cannot be operated by a single person. One of the most important concepts in economics is opportunity costs. For every time slot you dedicate to a task, there is a loss in the benefit that can be gained if one chooses an alternate task. If I dedicate one hour to sewing, that’s one hour less for website design or answering customer emails.

It takes a village to produce a high-quality garment. In a small company, sampling may still be done in-house, but the production stage has to be delegated to others so that the business owner can concentrate on designing and selling. A designer can draw all the best sketches and ideas in the world, but they have to rely on experienced hands and dedicated minds to convert an image into physical products.

A major challenge that determines the longevity of a fashion company is finding the right people who are willing to execute your ideas within your time frame and capital investment. The smaller the company, the harder it will be to find capable manufacturers. A good manufacturer never has a shortage of clients, hence they do not need to advertise their business. The likelihood of them taking on a low quantity order decreases for brands they have not worked with. To that I say, persevere and ask around. Seek help from other industry people wherever possible. 

Another method would be to start on simpler designs that can be made by most workshops and factories, and only increase the complexity of designs when opportunity to work with specialised factories arises. Simpler does not mean less interesting. Some of the most beautiful wearable clothes in the market are differentiated from general offerings by the details, cuts and textiles, while retaining a similar number of steps in the work flow that can be executed by anyone with a few years of sewing experience. 

Tsering Suit

Have integrity, courage and conviction

It is very tempting to build a business on a high-volume low-margin strategy that rehashes ubiquitous garments presented with a catchy marketing campaign. But to do so would be to ignore the real issue of scarcity in natural resources. It also negates the contributions of the blue collar workers and technicians whose labour is downgraded to mere cents and dollars. 

Resisting the temptation to adopt a traditional business model is extremely difficult. For that you can refer to the Business of Fashion – a website I have long abandoned for its irrelevance to small businesses. I am sharing my personal experiences for those who want to do meaningful work within the realms of fashion in the hopes that we can continue fighting the good fight.

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