Build Your Business:

Ready to Start an Apparel Line?

January 12, 2015

The following happens at T-shirt printing shops around the globe at least once a week: A random person strolls into the office with “the greatest idea ever” for starting an apparel line.

Usually, this person hasn’t put much thought into it at all, and is simply armed with some scribbles for an idea and a lot of nervous energy as the mountain of questions start. In most cases, just about each such person will fail at this new “business,” and will be stuck with cases of shirts in his living room that even grandma won’t want.

Even some great ideas are doomed from the start because the person doesn’t do some basic homework first to understand the scope of the situation. If there is one notion you want to understand completely before you leap off the high diving board, it’s how big and deep the pool below will be. Don’t just launch yourself and hope you’ll make it.

Below are nine tips that can set you up for a better chance of success. Are you starting your own apparel brand from your kitchen table or work break room with your friends? Use the following to prepare, develop and position the idea for success.

1. Write a real business plan. Before you spend any money with a screen printer, designer or trademark attorney, do your homework first and write a business plan. This will involve researching the industry from the supply chain, to distribution, to marketing. Who is your competition? What cost factors influence manufacturing your line? Can you design your own images? If not, what does a great designer cost? How will you sell your shirts? (Usually, it’s either to a store or on a website.) What are the challenges in selling on both of those platforms? How are you going to overcome them?

2. Understand your production costs. Printing a T-shirt sounds very simple on the surface. However, it can quickly get complex when more locations and ink colors are added to the design. Make sure you talk to a few screen printers and understand their cost structure before you start designing. Get written price lists that you can use. Most apparel lines sell for the same price, regardless of whether they are on a website or hanging on a rack in a store. There’s a big difference in cost, though, between a one-color full-front design and a six-color full-front design. This means you’ll make less money per shirt if you use more ink colors. The more print locations and ink colors you add to your design, the more it will cost to produce. This is critical information to have before you start designing your apparel line, as you need to work out the cost structure before you develop your creative ideas.

3. Success is 50/50. The best apparel lines are very choosy about the garments used for their lines. Color, style, cut, fit and hand are all critical factors. Half of the buying decision for the consumer is based on the shirt. Let’s face it: How many times have you liked a particular shirt only to not buy it because it was in the wrong color, or you didn’t like the style or cut of the shirt? Maybe you loved the design, but just wished it came in other choices. The most popular T-shirt colors used are black, white and some sort of gray (ash, light steel, oxford, charcoal, etc.) — in that order. These shirt colors look good on anybody and are the basic lowest common denominator for color choices. Once you start throwing other colors into the mix, then there usually is a reason behind that color selection. Maybe it’s a team color or associated with the theme of the design. Make sure you pair your design with an appropriate shirt color and style. Know, like the back of your hand, what your target demographic prefers. And don’t choose what you like, but rather what your customers like. Sometimes, there’s a huge difference between the two.

4. Design, it’s crucial. Unless you are a good designer, it’s vitally important that you spend some time (and money) choosing the best designer for needs. Yes, your next-door neighbor’s kid just finished one semester of design school so he can probably do it, but is that really the best choice for your needs? Don’t take the cheap way out. Although you may not know them personally, there are many extremely skilled and creative apparel designers that can help you. There is a big difference between someone who can design a T-shirt, and someone who can design a T-shirt makes someone walk across a store, grab it off the rack and scream, “I’ve gotta have this!” Are you sure you want to go with the “save-a-buck” plan?

5. Don’t rip off others. Thinking of taking someone else’s logo or idea and changing it so you can sell it as your own? That’s not only unethical and illegal, but it’s also just plain lazy. I’m sure if you scour the Internet long enough, you can find tons of comments about how changing someone’s logo or art 20% or so makes it just enough to get by legally. However, that isn’t going to stop someone from suing you. What is 20% of an image anyway? My take on it has been to always try to shoot for the high road and just design something unique. If you don’t have something unique to present to the market, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board until you do. Having audacity to rework someone else’s idea into your own doesn’t make you a good businessperson; it just makes you a scumbag.

6. Should you change out the neck labels? The answer is “Yes, definitely.” Of all the lines that make it, the neck tags are always removed and something else is sewn, heat pressed or printed to replace them. This makes your idea appear to be bigger than it actually may be and adds gravitas. It’s not really that expensive, and if you add a website to the information, it can even be a good marketing endeavor. Starting out, using heat press transfer labels is probably going to be the most economical method, as these can be manufactured by the same printer that is helping with the rest of the order. When making them, print a few sheets more than you need and just keep them ready. Once orders start rolling in, you can switch to woven labels.

7. Get some samples printed and pay for them. Trying to test out your line or sell it to shops? Working with your printer, print “sell samples” and use these to gain traction for your line. Pay for them and don’t try to negotiate a lower price with the plea, “Can you help on the price? This line is going to be huge!” Printers hear this at least once a week, and honestly, it’s not going to be huge. There is a tremendous amount of effort, and a little bit of luck, that goes into making your idea work and getting it into stores. Samples are basically prototypes and there will be some developmental costs with these. Remember, this is a business. Work your sample costs into your business plan.

8. Remember, your printer wants the print business. When showing the idea for the first time, most people say, “What do you think?” Every printer out there is going to say, “Hey that’s great! Let’s get going!” A few may start talking about how talented their art department is, which always is code for: “Your art sucks, maybe we can help.” If you really want an honest opinion about your print line, find people that don’t know you. Nobody wants to disappoint a friend or make a potential customer angry. Before you print a bunch of shirts that may not sell, show a mockup to as many people as you can. The fancy term for this is a market survey. Companies use these to gauge interest and tweak products before releasing them into the marketplace.

9. Treat your supply chain right. Your lifelines for success are the people and companies that help you. The best advice I can give you is to remember to pay them. People don’t work for free and you can’t cash promises. Want to be successful? Make sure you compensate the ones that are going to get you to the finish line. This includes your design team, who usually gets stiffed.

People strike gold all the time from their kitchen table, building up a side business into a lucrative apparel line. A gazillion others crash and burn for the same amount of reasons. If you are serious about starting your own line, and not just resigned to selling 20 shirts to your beer-swilling buddies, then you should treat the venture like any other business start-up and think it through. Do your homework and understand everything before you start spending money. Although there is no guarantee for success, the ones that have laid a firm foundation generally come out ahead in the end.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee, Wis. A frequent contributor to Impressions, Marshall also lectures on sustainability at Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) events and has participated in numerous industry webinar panel discussions. He is on the board of directors for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP), and serves on the SGIA Leadership Committee. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at