Fashion Entrepreneur Do’s and Don’ts: Advice from The DHL Fashion Industry Panel

The DHL Panel at the World Mastercard Fashion Week 2013 catered to aspiring fashion entrepreneurs.  The Panel gave advice about starting your own business, how to market your product, and discussed partnerships and investment strategies.

The DHL panel discussion was moderated by Leesa Butler from Fashion Group International and included Stephan Caras (designer), Adam Taubenfligel (designer – Triarchy), Jarrad Clark (Global Creative Director of IMG Fashion), Mark Zimmerman (Senior Advisor & CIO at MaRs), and Greg Hewitt (President of DHL Express Canada).

Stephan started off the discussion on financing design projects and cautioned young designers that they must be “financially stable” and capable of investing “total commitment for at least 5 years” in order to get any business off the ground. They should not expect a 1 year turn around and there has to be constant improvement over those 5 years. Most young designers are excited and ambitious, but Stephan admonishes moving too quickly and notes that before even thinking of a show, you need the platform, the venue, and the back-up capital to put on that show.

Where to look for Investments and Capital:

  1. Risk capital – the 3 f’s: friends, family, fools
  2. Venture capital
  3. Government support – small business grants
  4. Partnerships – align yourself with a brand that is like-minded and forge long-term partnerships
  5. Corporate company sponsorship

Before one can even think of financing, though, there are three core elements that must be in order. First and foremost, you have to have a product and there has to be a market for that product.

The 3 most important aspects to entrepreneurial success are:

  1. Product
  2. Market
  3. Team

Adam reminded the young designers that “some products will work and some won’t” and tells designers to keep that in mind and be prepared for it. It is important to believe in your product, but it is essential to test its marketability. Adam encourages young designers to launch in their local market and test their product out so they don’t over-commit to anything and find themselves in over their heads. He calls this tactic “home ground test runs.” Adam cautions that “until you have a strong base, a good supply chain, and financial stability” you should not be jumping the borders of your country. You can “go after markets,” Adam explains, “but don’t go after all of it all at once.” Growing a business is a slow, organic process that requires balance, strategy, and patience; after all, Adam warns that “retailers don’t give you a second chance, so take the time and do it right.”

One way that Mark suggests young entrepreneurs test their marketability is online. Stephan adamantly agreed, remarking that “social media is the best way for a new designer to market. Social media allows easy access to markets and gets you out there – exposing your work and bringing it to the public.” Although it is paramount to a new business, Stephan also cautions to be strategic with your use of social media and avoid being “guilty of information overload.” Social media is an excellent medium through which to “gauge how your product is being accepted by this initial market.”

Finally, Greg offers advice that can be one of the biggest contenders that make the difference between success and failure, that of a good team and good partnerships, particularly a good supply partner. “Your designs are your livelihood; they need to be in good hands,” says Greg, and he further notes that working with experts like DHL will help reduce initial trial and error. Ultimately one of the greatest assets is a supply partner that understands your business, your customers, and your individual needs as a fashion entrepreneur. Adam supports this view wholeheartedly, remarking that “it’s your job to be creative; form good partnerships so that you can let those burdens go and focus on your job – creating.”

With this network in play, the panel decided on two main points that will determine success.

Cardinal Rules for young designers:

  1. Have a clear vision and business strategy that is also malleable.
  2. Industry Knowledge

Jarrad urges young designers to “own your vision and take it through all of the barriers, but be willing to adapt.” Young entrepreneurs should indeed have a clear vision and a clear business plan, but should also know that it will change and therefore it should be a plan that is malleable. Not only the business plan, but how you “get there” or achieve your vision must also be open to change. Ultimately things won’t always be in your control and you have to roll with the punches. Adam cautions along the same lines, mentioning that “you’re not going to be the one that dictates a lot of the change that will happen, even if it’s your business” and expresses that “adaptation is not compromising your vision.” This is not a linear journey; all successes are achieved through a long road full of twists and turns.

Finally, the entire panel unanimously agreed that as a new designer you MUST have knowledge about the industry. You must first learn from others who have knowledge. The most beneficial but least utilized resource is other successful designers. Do not underestimate the benefits of internships and apprenticeships; mentorships are the most effective way for you to learn your craft, develop your business sense, and become familiar with the industry.


Published in Fashion Weekly, November 2013


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