How fashion designers break into boutiques

January 15, 2009: 5:35 PM ET

We asked the experts and created a step-by-step guide to getting noticed on the fashion scenes.

Samantha Risto, Risto Designs, New York, NY
I recently launched a small women's clothing business in New York out of my apartment. I would like to know how I can sell to small retailers and boutiques. Do I just show up at their store with samples in hand or is there an "established" way of doing this?

By Emily Maltby and Shara Rutberg,
The answers are yes and yes: You can show up at a store, but there is an established way of doing so.

"A scattershot approach won't work," says Ira Davidson, director of Pace University's Small Business Development Center and a former buyer for Abraham & Strauss, a famed New York City store that later became part of the Macy's chain. "You have to have some discipline."

The best way to establish yourself is to start small. Boutique retailers should be your training wheels for the department stores.

"The boutiques will help you learn the process of how to run a business and show you how quickly you can manufacture the goods, and how to structure the orders," says Bliss Lau, an accessories designer who now has her line in more than 40 stores worldwide, including department stores in Japan. "The smaller retailers will be more flexible. If you manage to get into a large department store off the bat and the goods miss the deadline, you'll lose the order."

So how do you get your foot in the door at a small boutique? First, carefully identify your target stores. Then, reach out to them by visiting or making appointments. To increase your chances, find out what time the owner or the buyer is in the store, make a business card, and wear your line when you drop by, Lau suggests.

This method takes a thick skin, so you can't be afraid of rejection. Lau once took a train from New York to Washington, D.C., getting off at each stop to pop into stores. "I got flat-out rejected by half of them and had a great time at only one of them. But the way I saw it, I scored a new client, which was great," she recalls.

Many retailers don't think the drop-ins are effective.

"It happens frequently in my store, but it's usually not a good time to engage in conversation because the customers have to come first," says Candice Waldron, owner of boutique store Jumelle in Brooklyn. "Making an appointment for before-store hours is better."

Yvonne Yip, head buyer at Big Drop, also in New York City, thinks that the most effective way to get exposure is to mail in a Look Book. "About 10 pieces, photographed from different angles and put together in a professional way, will speak for itself," she says. "Also make sure the book includes a line sheet describing the items and listing the prices of each."

Your sample line is critical, says Linda Carter, president of The Retail Management Advisors, a Dallas-based retail consulting firm.

"Do not go with 50 samples," Davidson says. Six to 12 of your best styles is enough. And don't forget to bring a color swatch book, showing off small squares of the fabrics for your line.

But buyers don't simply wait for designers to come to them. Yip finds most of Big Drop's products in fashion showrooms.

"Sales reps at the showrooms have connections to us. They know how to best present the lines and they know how business is done," she says. "Nine times out of 10, it's easier for us to work with a rep than with the designer." Most showrooms will have multiple lines, so when Yip goes to see one line that has piqued her interest, she often gets to see four or five others as well that she wasn't expecting.

Showrooms charge designers for the space, and often for commission as well. Before you sign on with one, research the reputation of the showroom. Notice what other lines it showcases - if the showroom carries denim and you also have a denim line, they may compete with each other. Pick a showroom that has lines that will complement yours.

And be wary if the turnover is quick. "If the showroom features the same designer for a few years, it speaks very highly of the relationship," Yip says.

In addition to a sending out a book and displaying your work in a showroom, you should hop online and see what trade shows cater to your type of customer, Carter says. There are many run all throughout the year, especially in New York City. "It can be costly right off the bat to rent space, but may be less expensive in the long run as far as letting people know who you are and what you offer," she says.

"When I first started my company five years ago, I went to every trade show and conference I could find and would chase down all the big name sales reps," Lau says. "I'd show them any piece of press that was written about me and ask them for suggestions about my line."

If you do pursue trade shows, don't forget to focus on also getting your designs into local stores. "Big stores send buyers to trade shows, but then they continue their research at the boutique shops," says Jumelle's Waldron. "Buyers from Anthropologie and Harvey Nichols come to my store because they know the smaller stores are more willing to take risks with the designers."

If you're looking to break into the big leagues, make sure you have your manufacturing operations in order and are ready to expand your business to handle the demands of department stores.

"You have only one chance with the big players," Yip says. "You can't go from zero to 500 units, so put your designs in the boutiques to work out the kinks."

For more advice, Bliss Lau recommends The Fashion Designer Survival Guide by Mary Gehlhar.

"From having a fashion show to a company to pitch, it is a wonderful book for the creative mind," Lau says.

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

Get your clothing line into gift shops

Startup skills for a t-shirt company

Working around the vendor fee

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