How To Build A Clothing Empire

From DIY PayPal shopfronts to mainstream high street stores, Tom Dennis explores the best ways to sell your new range of designer apparel to the world.

Breaking from the confines of logo, web or editorial design into the international arena of fashion is the creative zenith for many designers and illustrators. From tees to bags, trainers and hoodies, apparel design not only offers an extra source of income, it also builds your reputation as a designer, cements your skills as a trend-defining creative, and promotes your work at every avenue. From cottage-industry T-shirt designs, to Topshop-stocked illustrations, there's a wealth of opportunities to put your designs into production.

With the empowerment of the web, anyone can sell their wares directly to paying customers. A simple site is all that's needed to display your work, with ready-made payment schemes such as Big Cartel and Merchline taking care of the financial end of the business.

Further along the line, PayPal or a major credit card service, combined with a bespoke shopping cart design, can lift your retail operation into a professional business outfit, while getting your work stocked in major retailers means delivering large quantities of stock on a sale or return basis.

Yet the gulf between homemade and the high street isn't as broad as you might think. Jeffery Bowman is one such designer whose illustrative work has graced everything from self-financed T-shirt designs to a limited edition Converse sneaker range.

"T-shirt design is the one thing that might make sense to people outside of illustration," he explains. "You might be able to reach them better than with, say, a poster, and they're a credible product for many illustrators. It's an investment when it's done off your own back, and I think it heightens your reputation as an illustrator if you're successfully selling them."

Importantly, the process of actually creating differs little between self-financed and high-end work, according to Bowman. "The first thing I did for Converse was to illustrate part of the Laces '09 campaign, which went out across the UK in Office shoe stores," he recalls. "That was fun. The brief was basically to illustrate the history of the Chuck trainer. More recently, I was asked to customise two pairs of trainers and two box frames for their Marketing Awards '09 - these had set themes specific to the award. Since then, the rest of Converse Europe has used me on other projects after seeing the work I'd been doing with the regional team."

Bowman's work sits comfortably on any line of apparel, as is evident from his portfolio, and he readily admits that contacts, timing and having a style that fits high-end fashion lines helps. But the route from bedroom designer to the high street is far from straightforward.

Of course, the internet has encouraged a DIY approach to apparel design. It's now affordable and easy to print your own T-shirts, belts, bags or hoodies, set up a blog-based web store, and allow the likes of PayPal or Big Cartel to take care of the money game.

It's a well-used business model, and one that Slovenia-based design studio Kitsch Nitsch subscribes to. Its dazzling design site encompasses a web store and apparel lines to rival any high street brand, yet is based solely on a PayPal payment mechanism and retains the duo's enigmatic and original visual style, which the team says is as important as the fashion lines themselves.

"Our web shop tells us what works and what doesn't," explains David from Kitsch Nitsch. "If we don't find any customers for a tee in a specific design, it usually means we won't find any clients to use that design anywhere else. As far as style goes, people always buy an experience instead of a product. We try to incorporate as much of ourselves as we can in the outlook of the website - not by using some elaborate design concepts, but by simply showing who we are. When people see two designers who are making a joke out of themselves and decorating clubs instead of doing corporate design, they will want to buy something from us."

It's certainly an ethos that has served Kitsch Nitsch well. As well as providing a creative outlet, its apparel lines add an extra spoke to the studio's output, and act as another portfolio canvas upon which to market its style.

This was a philosophy followed by Hydro74's Joshua Smith, who has a similar webstore built into his main site. The Hydro74 operation began as a Big Cartel-powered online shop, before distribution became an issue. According to Smith, success brings with it a new set of business responsibilities. "It got to the point where trying to juggle selling products and designing was a struggle," he admits. "That's why I switched over to A friend and I were doing the Back in Black apparel show and we talked. They said, 'Send us the product; we'll take care of the rest.' I couldn't be any happier with the relationship and assistance from them."

Ready-built payment schemes like Merchline and Big Cartel offer a handy solution for creatives. They offer your potential customers a secure, reputable method of paying via credit or debit card, while allowing you to update stock and size information without having to redesign your site - something of a lifesaver if you're only producing short-run designs.

When the ins-and-outs of distribution and accounting overtake the process of actually creating, you know your stock is on the rise. Unless you want to strike out on your own as a product-seller and distributor - employing hired help to package, distribute and account for your burgeoning business - having your designs stocked by an existing distributor is the sensible next step. There are hundreds of web stores selling design apparel, many of which are open to offers of collaboration or stocking your products. The trick is to approach those into whose existing lines your work will fit.

Dan King is co-founder of Urban Industry, the online and physical apparel store that stocks street brands including the likes of Fly 53, Stussy and Zoo York. According to King, it doesn't matter how broad your experience, reputation or skill sets are, saleable apparel boils down to the design and design only.

"Some of the most over-hyped streetwear brands out there just don't sell. Some of the most underground, never-heard-of brands do really well as soon as we put them in the store. It literally comes down to design," he says.

So how does a designer with an idea for a range of T-shirt lines or apparel designs get stocked in a reputable distributor such as Urban Industry? "I like to see finished designs, preferably on the actual T-shirts you plan to use, and any finishing touches like swing tags and neck labels," reveals King. "Urban Industry is a store, we sell products, so we need to see the product," he continues. "We always help out, though. Down the line, if the brand needs guidance on sourcing T-shirts, printers, or factories to make the brand easier to sell, or produce a better product, we're always on hand for that."

YouWorkForThem's Michael Cina takes a slightly different approach. Since its creation, the award-winning group of artists behind the collective has sold self-made typefaces, stock designs and art prints, as well as T-shirt designs by up-and-coming illustrators and designers. "I look for people with their own look, voice and style," he explains. "When you look around, what really makes someone different? Being heavily involved in design, it's easy to see 'influence' and trainspotting. I stick with original work, even if it's not as polished."

In this respect, YouWorkForThem serves as a platform for groundbreaking design work, where commercial success is placed secondary to genuinely inventive and independent design.

Of course, the end-goal for any designer is to have their work in a reputable store, either through a collection range with an existing high-street brand, or working in-house at one. Topshop, for example, rarely takes on creative pitches, preferring instead to rely on the trend-predicting powers of its army of buyers.

Yet while the likes of Topshop may seem impenetrable to most, getting your creations on the high street can be as easy as walking into an independent apparel store with a selection of your stock. If they like it, there's no reason they won't take you up on a sale or return deal. Stores vary their stock greatly, but most online and physical stores will want an initial run of around 12 T-shirts with six to eight designs, in order to show the diversity of your label and test its popularity.

If they like the response, they may even commission you to produce work directly for them. Like any design job, this approach relies on the strength of your portfolio, commitment to the cause, and professionalism.

One label that does encourage pitched and collaborative apparel ideas is Uniqlo. Its 2009 UT T-shirt line collects designs from creatives as diverse as Japanese designer Osamu Tezuka, and bands like New Young Pony Club and Cut Copy. Each year Uniqlo puts out over 700 different tee designs via the UT line, all of which are produced to an open brief, as Uniqlo's UK Marketing Manager, Amy Howarth explains: "We don't specifically choose graphics for the T-shirts, but we send an open brief to various different designers and illustrators whose work we admire and believe is on-trend.

"The key for Uniqlo's UT collection is diversity. By putting out so many designs, we hope we're providing something for everyone's personal tastes."

Of course, there's no tried and tested route for working for the likes of H&M, Topshop and Uniqlo, and neither is there a golden rule for what sells and what doesn't, as Dan King from Urban Industry points out: "I often joke with brands and customers that there are sure-fire winning designs to put on T-shirts, so from the book of Urban Industry these are my observations: one, anything with an animal in the design, preferably a bear, wolf or ape; two, anything with a woman on it, naked, half naked, outlined or close up; three, anything with Star Wars on, done well; four, anything using CMYK colours.

"I'm still waiting to see the woman fighting a bear dressed in a Storm Trooper's outfit all in process CMYK - it's a sure-fire winner!"