Basic Steps in Starting a Modest Clothing Business

Designer drawing clothing designs in a fashion studio

Experience working in the fashion industry can be a valuable stepping stone toward starting your own business producing modest apparel. Even with no prior experience, an entrepreneur's knowledge of the target market is the first key to success. Most small entrepreneurs are part of the group they target, allowing them to innately gravitate toward correct product and marketing choices. Small businesses must aim for a target market with laser accuracy in order to compete with large brands that offer generic styling. Outlined here are several basic steps that aspiring fashion entrepreneurs should consider.

Design beautiful clothing

You are probably reading this essay because you already have in mind styles of clothing that will contribute value to the market. Keep that dream alive and nourish it. As you design, consider the following factors:

  • Pick pretty colors - A study within the last decade, published in Women's Wear Daily, suggested that color is the first thing that attracts most people toward a clothing purchase. Mainstream designers don't always get this right. Sometimes the trends emphasize dark, bland or masculine colors for women's clothing. Other times the colors are too bold or clashing. A modest clothing designer can capitalize on the need for feminine, beautiful color combinations and thereby stand out among brands.
  • Design for wearability - Creativity is good, and so is moderation. Eccentric design may be entertaining, but when it comes to women purchasing and wearing clothing, they generally appreciate designs that are comfortable and not overly embellished. Study couture designers throughout history and notice how often utterly simple lines are used. Tight clothing is not comfortable, nor is it usually modest. Give your customer room to move in your designs, and subdue the designs so that the wearer "owns" the clothing rather than the clothing overpowering the wearer.
  • The casual factor - Clothing in most of life's public arenas has followed a path toward casual. Even bridal gowns are now relaxing into slimmer silhouettes. Because modest clothing design usually focuses on a dress or skirt and top combination, the silhouette is inherently more formal than average daywear. Challenge yourself to create at least a few casual, understated designs in whatever clothing category you have chosen to target, and seek feedback from potential customers. You may be surprised how often a casual look wins out over a more formal one.
  • Respect trends - Leaving behind the old and welcoming the new is one of life's harder lessons. We grow comfortable with what we have known in the past. Professional designers work to overcome this inertia and expand their fluidity to change. Some trends are intrinsically immodest and cannot be adapted to modest clothing design, however, many trends such as color and style lines are adaptable. The modest clothing market is overflowing with designs from the 1980s and 1990s that were popular once, but that was then. Never before in the recorded history of the world has fashion changed so rapidly as it does in our culture. The clothing market is wide open with opportunity for clothing that is not only modest, but also modernized.
  • Inform design with business structure - The remainder of this essay touches on technical considerations in starting a clothing business. Though these business decisions may seem secondary to great design, they can actually provide a valuable framework to help guide design. By working through size range, marketing structure, fabric selection and other issues first, the target for design comes into focus.

Choose a size range to target

While wearers of women's and girls' modest clothing could be classified as a niche market as a whole, enough variation among them exists that it is most economical for small entrepreneurs to target a group within this group. The two areas that will help define that target are the size range and the level of modesty. Starting with size range, the high cost of creating patterns in different size ranges calls for small entrepreneurs to launch with a size range that can be graded (drawn larger and smaller to create a range of sizes) from a single base size rather than two or more base sizes. Once success is achieved with the first size range, other ranges may be added later, if desired. An exception to this might be with production of a single product, such as a single style of culottes or swimwear. If a handful of the same styles are produced year after year, then it would be economical to invest in initial development of several base patterns and grading for multiple size ranges. However, when selecting a size range for fashion that changes seasonally, the following considerations apply (North American sizing is cited here, but the same comments on shape are valid to other international sizing systems):

  • Babies - Modesty is not much of an issue for babies, and plenty of full-coverage clothing exists for them in the market, so designs for this category should be based on some advantage other than modesty.
  • Girls' 2T to 6X - The primary concern for modesty with girls' clothing in the 2T to 6X range is length of skirts and dresses. Rather than manufacturing an exclusive line for this size range, entrepreneurs might want to ask if clothing from other retailers could be cheaply sourced and then panels or ruffles used to lengthen the hemlines. If not, then consider a size range centered around a 3T or 5 base size, extending anywhere from 2T to 6X. The grade should not extend beyond 6X, because a girl's dimensions begin to dramatically alter after this, requiring an additional base pattern or extensive grading work. Sales of modest clothing for this size range may not be strong as a result of style and price competition from large manufacturers and thrift stores. Matching mother-daughter outfits may boost sales for this category, since modest clothing for women is harder to find, making modest matching sets rare.
  • Girls' 7 to 16 - The older girls' size range shares almost the same dimensional shape as the juniors, possibly making this a better size range than juniors for small entrepreneurs to use in targeting pre-teens and teens who are seeking trendy clothing with a modest edge. An older girls' size range typically utilizes a base size 10 and is graded down to size 7 and as far up as a size 16. Most manufacturers actually stop their older girls' size ranges at 12 or 14, since the girls' 14 and 16 sizes overlap into the juniors' and misses' dimensions. For a small manufacturer utilizing just one base pattern, a size range of 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 is worthwhile.
  • Juniors' 1 to 13 - Modest clothing for juniors is the most popular search term we see in our Google Webmaster data for size-related modest clothing searches. Part of the reason for this may be that juniors are the most trend sensitive of any age category, and most of the modest clothing available on the market today is classic in style. It could be that women who really fit better into a misses' size range are searching for "modest clothing for juniors" to find updated style rather than primarily the slimmer fit offered by the junior range. The other possibility is that so few modest clothing targets junior sizing that teens in that range don't have many options and turn to the internet to shop. A juniors' size range fills in the odd numbers opposite a misses' range. For example, 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 13. Junior dimensions fit a straighter figure than misses', so some teens may have developed a womanly figure early enough that they may not fit comfortably into juniors' sizes. Because of the overlap of juniors' sizes with misses', we recommend choosing between either girls' 7 to 16 or a misses' size range to appeal to more customers. You can still create trendy styles that appeal to juniors and take a misses' size range down to 0 or 00 to include them, but staying with a misses' or girls' size range will help capture more of the market overall. The exception would be if you have a very clear marketing concept to reach wearers of the slim junior silhouette. The market is starving for modest lines with short manufacturing turnaround times that can capitalize on trends of the moment, and that applies to all size categories, not just juniors.
  • Misses' 0 to 16 - The misses' range has expanded over the years to cover sizes 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16. Some brands add an 18, but the 18 overlaps into what would be called a 1X, or the beginning of the plus size range. Some would say that misses is the size range containing the greatest number of women in need of stylish, modest clothing. For the Fashion Belle sewing pattern collection, we have chosen to focus on a 0 to 18 size range based on Size USA standards that are reflected in Alvanon Dress Forms ASTM series. Adding the extra size 18 will not dramatically affect our cost since we produce only the patterns, and it will help bring in a few extra customers.
  • Women's 16W to 34W - Getting the right style is important for this size range. Some companies focus on custom sewing for this range, since weight becomes more uniquely distributed as the size increases. This category needs modest clothing as much as the others, though the number of customers are fewer.

Choose a level of modesty to target

"Modest clothing" is used to describe several sets of standards among different groups. The small entrepreneur should note that these standards often exclude each other. It will be most effective in building an initial customer base to center designs around a clear, single standard.

  • Low - Women who claim to adhere to a faint level of modesty avoid the word "modest" in describing their clothing and dislike seeing the word used by any brand from which they would shop. When faced with an ultimate decision, they choose trends over modesty. An example comes to mind of a friend who selected a strapless wedding gown (and wanted her bridesmaids to wear strapless) after a lifetime of claiming to be religiously conservative in areas including dress. That decision exemplifies how hard this group is to reach because they waver between modest and immodest choices based on how beautiful they think a style makes them look. To them, modesty is nice but dispensable. Price and style competition from larger manufacturers is strongest in this category, so designs that offer a low level of modesty similar to what is generally available elsewhere must provide some attraction other than modesty.
  • Medium - A medium level of modesty is best embodied in styles favored by the Latter Day Saint (Mormon) movement. In addition, women who have no religious affiliation or who consider themselves part of a "contemporary" Baptist, Catholic, homeschooling or other progressive group also choose this level of modesty to blend in with current culture. These styles offer an improvement in modesty from the general market, yet they are not different enough to make the wearer feel out of place most Western European fashion settings. Usually for this group, skirt and dress hemlines are just below the knee, sleeves are present and must be at least cap length of a couple of inches long, necklines may be several inches below the collar bone (stopping short of cleavage), and fabrics may be woven or knit and loosely or tightly fitted. Pants are also worn, usually not shorter than capri length, though knee-length shorts are seen for sports. At a minimum for swimwear, tank suits or tankinis cover the midriff. Swimwear necklines range from high to right above the bustline, lower than the daywear neckline standard.
  • High - This category distinguishes itself in that clothing that meets a high standard of modesty while at the same time offering trendy styling is difficult to find in the general market. Thus, competition is limited, but the number of wearers is also fewer. Among multiple religious groups, women who describe themselves as "conservative" (versus contemporary) favor a high standard of modesty. Women who consistently wear highly modest clothing stand out from the general public, even though they may still dress beautifully with select trends incorporated. Their day-to-day consistency with modesty sets them apart more than any single outfit. This category is small enough to qualify as a true niche, making it ideal for an entrepreneur to target since the big brands do not cater to it. Skirt and dress hemlines are at least mid-calf to cover the knee when seated (something that just-below-the-knee hemlines mentioned above do not do), necklines are no more than about 2 inches below the collar bone (Jewish standards require the collar bone to be covered), sleeve are at least as long as the middle of the upper arm (Jewish and Pentecostal/Apostolic sleeves must at least cover the elbow), fabric is rarely made of knit (which drapes to show body shape) and cuts are not tight. Culottes are preferred above pants. Swimwear includes bodysuits with long skirts that nearly equals the skin coverage seen in daywear. Women within this group favor moderate color combinations. Some Jewish groups, for instance, do not wear bright red.
  • Very High - Orthodox Muslims stand out at the top of the modest clothing hierarchy with head and neck coverings, long sleeves and legs completely covered. Skirts and dresses reach the ankles. Tunic tops are the favored shirt style, loosely covering the entire torso. Pants are often worn underneath tunic tops. Because of the special knowledge required to meet the specifications for this group, the most successful entrepreneurs to target this group are probably those who are a part of it. Some Muslim clothing manufacturers have been able to market their long skirts to other groups, but the tunic tops and head coverings rarely cross out of the Muslim category.

Fit your business plan to your budget

With creativity, some type of modest clothing business can be launched on any budget, from custom-made outfits for individual clients to mass production of dozens of items for sale internationally. Determine your budget first, then pick your plan. Business licensing, accounting and tax requirements vary by location and should be investigated prior to the start of any commercial endeavor. The following are examples of business plans utilizing small to moderate levels of funding:

  • Custom sewing - With the investment of a sewing machine, serger, business cards and do-it-yourself website, a seamstress with adequate skill can begin a business sewing from home or by contract through a local clothing or bridal shop. Collect at least half of the fee prior to starting and communicate clearly with clients to establish expectations. Clients should understand that one or more fittings prior to picking up finished garments will probably be required. Working for individuals can be both rewarding and frustrating. Brides are notorious for indecision and may demand additional work, even if a seamstress has followed original instructions precisely. A seamstress should always receive payment for any work beyond what was initially requested, making a signed contract at the beginning of an expensive project beneficial. Only those seamstresses prepared to collect adequate fees while dealing with indecisive clients should consider a career in custom work. Marketing a specialty, such as "alterations for modesty" or "modest bridal and formal wear sewing," will build a reputation for skill in working with modest styles.
  • Local boutique sales - Local, high-end clothing boutiques offer avenues for selling custom clothing. Boutiques often appreciate the chance to feature merchandise that has a regional flair or that is different from anything available in department stores. Sales of this type may be done through consignment or on an account basis, where the boutique pays the wholesale price up to a specified number of days after delivery (for example, 30 days later or "net 30"). Most commercial sewing patterns are not licensed for use in production for retail, so the patterns must be original. Quantities are small enough for this type of distribution, usually a dozen or fewer at a time, that fabric may be purchased by the yard in stores or online and sewn at home by one person. Boutique prices in the United States range in the hundreds of dollars per item, allowing for an adequate profit margin for both the seamstress and the storefront.
  • Internet sales - Selling clothing online requires a few more steps than just delivering a batch of garments to a local boutique. Ebay or Facebook stores may be used alone or combined with an individual e-commerce site. The drawback of online clothing sales for small businesses is that prices are more competitive and returns are more frequent, making solvency a battle. Online selling is best for clothing that has been cheaply mass produced or that carries a high enough price tag to cover the cost of custom sewing. A one-person sewing business should aim to create styles that command prices that comfortably cover materials, labor, marketing and profit. Many small, online clothing stores enforce a "no returns" policy, something that is not popular with shoppers but may contribute to keeping a small business afloat. Net-A-Porter is a pioneer of high-end, designer clothing sold online, proving that some customers are willing to pay high prices for beautiful designs without trying on the garments first. Net-A-Porter accepts returns, even for items costing thousands of dollars, though items that have been obviously worn may be returned to the customer. When it comes to online marketing, the more visible, the better. Make the product available in as many locations around the web as possible. Many brands, even major ones, have found that they sell more by marketing product through big sites such as Ebay, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter than they do from their own sites. Stay informed of Search Engine Optimization techniques and consider using Google Adwords to drive online sales.
  • Trade show sales - As a step up from local boutiques, apparel trade shows are the traditional method of taking orders for garments that will produced and then delivered to stores around the nation. Kathleen Fasanella has written a book, The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, that outlines best practices in this process. As the Internet continues to change the way we live, trade shows are suffering from fewer attendees and some manufacturers have turned to online wholesale marketing to save the cost of exhibiting at shows and to be more effective in generating orders. If exhibiting at a trade show is not something that a small entrepreneur wants to tackle alone, traveling sales representatives can be hired to present a collection along with others in the rep's portfolio during road trips or at trade shows. Sometimes it may be necessary to find several sales representatives from different regions around the nation for the best area coverage.
  • Runway shows - Because of the expense of staging runway shows, these are the territory of designer brands, and they remain the choice method for generating social buzz and reaching buyers for high-end clothing stores and wealthy individual clients. Variations on the runway show have proliferated as the global economy has fluctuated and designers have looked to scale back on expenses during some seasons. Video productions and small party showings, where models mingle with guests, are less expensive alternatives. Most brands that stage runway shows also produce less-expensive collections that capitalize on the brand image created by the shows, allowing the company to write off financial losses from the show for marketing purposes.
  • Retail store - If you are a home-based designer, operating a bricks-and-mortar store may take away too much time and financial investment from designing your own apparel collection to justify it. With enough good employees, however, and the right location in a city with a customer base that appreciates your style, a retail store can build the profile of your brand and lead to profitable franchises.
  • Sewing patterns - This is the method we here at Fashion Belle have chosen. Without investment into fabric or sewing labor, it is possible for us to produce a variety of styles each season while relying on the home sewer to modify the modesty, fit and fabric to meet her needs. Our goal is to eventually distribute the patterns in fabric stores and online. The drawback of this avenue is that few people sew, making the niche for modest sewing patterns extremely small. Hopefully, our designs will be desirable enough to be picked up by seamstresses outside of the modest clothing market, and one day we may be in a position to produce the clothing, leading to sales growth.

Find reliable fabric sources

If any pitfall awaits the inexperienced clothing manufacturer, it will probably be fabric sourcing. Fabric ordered from an unreliable source may never be delivered or may be delivered with a quality inferior to the sample yardage. Small manufacturers should consider the following guidelines:

  • Design initial collections around as few different fabrics as possible to achieve the yardage needed for a wholesale fabric order (usually 1,000 yard minimum).
  • In the beginning stages of a business, try to work with fabric suppliers that offer stocked fabric programs. This may reduce the required minimum order and will ensure that fabric will be delivered on time with the same quality as sample yardage. Fabric problems early in business development can threaten the survival of a new business.
  • Small manufacturers may want to source fabric by the yard through the nearest fabric outlet. Fabric outlets exist in major cities worldwide and often carry overruns of fabric from designer labels.
  • Before contacting wholesale fabric suppliers, you should have a budget to cover a minimum wholesale order and you should know what type of fabric you seek. Suppliers offer sample quantities of yardage for sale, and if you like the fabric after working with it--or if you take orders based on designs constructed from the sample fabric--then you can place a large order.
  • Fabric trade shows expedite introductions to dozens of fabric suppliers, though the travel to shows can be expensive. If attending a trade show is not possible, then contact fabric offices directly using resources such as Fashiondex or other online searches.
  • For entrepreneurs in North America, an online or print subscription to Women's Wear Daily provides updated news for textile development and suppliers.

Use local labor

Communication is enhanced when designers and manufacturers are local to one another. This is why apparel design offices are concentrated around manufacturing centers such as New York and Los Angeles. As mass production of apparel has shifted overseas, large companies have developed precise systems of communication to prevent errors, yet none are quite as good as being in person, which is why technical designers still travel regularly to offshore manufacturing locations to inspect quality. A small manufacturer working from a home office, far from a major apparel center, may think that utilizing distant patternmakers and factories is the only option. In reality, much can be done to energize local sources of labor. Doing so will invigorate the local economy, reduce shipping costs and increase vital communication between the designer and manufacturer. Current trends in apparel manufacturing are to return some offshore production to local sources for these reasons. Kathleen Fasanella's book mentioned earlier, The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, offers reasoning behind the efficiency of producing small clothing lots locally.

Small manufacturers must watch inventory costs closely, and local labor allows clothing to be produced as it is ordered. Many of the modest clothing manufacturers reviewed on this site use local seamstresses to sew custom-ordered clothing with a delivery window of several weeks. This is the "pull" system of lean manufacturing that keeps inventory investment to a minimum. A "push" system stockpiles inventory that is then pushed onto the customer with aggressive marketing. The customer is given more freedom in a pull system to specify exactly the product that is desired.

Patterns, Samples and Production

For start-up entrepreneurs who would like to hire out all of the patternmaking, sample sewing and garment production, check into services that provide all three under one roof to help reduce cost. To find companies like this, search for "patterns, samples, production" and take a look at a few examples for starters: Apparel Technical Services, Left in Stitches, RHF Apparel, Accurate Services.

Continually improve

Japanese use the word kaizen to refer to Continuous Improvement Strategies. Especially in this digital age, technology is rapidly advancing what can be done in the apparel manufacturing and marketing processes. As funds allow, attend trade shows and read industry publications for ongoing learning. Listen to advice from those more experienced than yourself. Research new suppliers. Evaluate the benefits of potential improvements and apply the ones that work for your business.

Of course, the specifics of starting your own apparel-related business will far extend the topics covered here. Be courageous and jump in to the process. Pray for God's guidance and blessing. Especially for those who seek to promote modest clothing, this is a worthy endeavor with vast possibilities as a niche market that is overlooked by the large manufacturers. We look forward to hearing about your work.