Clothing Line Failure
I started Vacord Screen Printing 13 years ago, and since then we’ve printed for a ton of clothing lines, brands and labels.The vast majority of them are dead.
The majority of them died quickly. The others died slowly.
Some had serious financial backing, some had huge social media followings, some had great designs, some had marketing plans. They all had passion. But it wasn’t enough to stay alive and succeed.
In this article, I break down the reasons that clothing lines fail. If you can learn from these mistakes, you’ll have a better shot of maybe being successful.
And please note that I’m not trying to outright discourage you from starting your own line, I just want you to know that it’s hard as shit.
Update: I originally wrote this article in 2016, and yes, now I am discouraging you from starting a clothing line. Don't do it. It would be faster if you just burned all your money. You would save so much time!
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Here’s a list of 15 things you should do to ensure clothing line failure
Waste your money on stuff that doesn’t matter at first
We had a customer who was starting a clothing line about koala bears, and the profits would be donated to koala charities. Or something like that. But there weren’t any profits. Because we only printed a few dozen shirts for him. And he spent TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS on trademarking his design.
You know what’s not important right away? A trademark on your design. If push comes to shove and someone actually steals your idea and designs, you should be able to win legally by showing you were the first person to actually print or publish the design. But it’s really, really unlikely someone is going to steal your intellectual property until it’s a big success, and you should definitely not spend money on legal stuff in the beginning. Make sure people actually like your designs and will pay you money for them before you worry about trademarks or copyrights. Validate your designs before worrying about protecting them.
Don’t have a marketing plan
The easy part is getting the shirts produced. The hard part is finding people to buy them. What’s your plan? How will you find people? Better yet, how will they find you?
What’s your plan to build excitement before the prints are available to buy? What’s your plan to make a big deal out of the launch? How do you capitalize on your customer’s interest and get them to share with their friends? How do you sustain the traffic to your online shop and keep people coming back? How do you capture their contact information so that you can show them your designs in the future?
The marketing plan is crucial and needs to be figured out in detail before you start production.
No design testing
Before you actually print the shirts, you should get feedback on your designs. And not just from your family and friends. They probably like you a lot and will be biased because of it. Solicit the opinions of strangers. If you have a mailing list or a social media following, get their opinions. Run a poll and have people vote on their favorite. Make it a contest and give a shirt away in order to entice people to enter.
Want to be totally sure that people want the designs before you order? Get people to pre-order at a discounted rate. That way you’ll have some starting capital AND be sure that people really truly want those designs. Remember: payment is validation.
Spend all your money right away
It’s cool if you spend your entire budget on the shirts, because you’ll just sell some immediately, right? And then you can reinvest that money! Probably not.
And if you’re selling online, you’ll have tons of different fees to pay (and even if they’re small, they add up.) Facebook ads can work great but they’re not that cheap, and if you mismanage them, you can blow through money super quickly.
Packaging shirts will cost you money. Shipping shirts will cost you money. Some people may order the wrong size and want a refund and you will probably have to eat shipping and return costs.
If you don’t use all your money on your first shirt order, you’ll be able to spend on marketing, hiring designers for the second round, web design and hosting, packaging, shipping, et cetera.
Try to go into retail
Retail seems like a dream but can be a nightmare. If you have a sweet looking shirt that could sell for $25 in a shop, the shop wants to give you $12 for it. Whoa, that doesn’t sound fair! But that’s how it works. Retail shops are going to want to buy from you at wholesale prices, so while you’re moving more volume, your profit per unit is way lower than if you sold them directly yourself.
Plus, retail can abuse you. They can return unsold stock. They will make you compete to get on their racks. It’s not pleasant.
Don’t start small
I had a client years ago that got $50k from a settlement after being hit by a car. What did he do with it? He sank it into a clothing line.
We printed so many shirts for him, and he was a cornerstone client and I’m not complaining, because he kept the shop lights on when I was just starting out and struggling, but he went way, way too deep right away. He was too ambitious and too arrogant. One day, after years of working together, he emailed us “We’re out of money LOL.”
I ended up having to donate 600 of his shirts to charity, because he just totally gave up on the line and never even bothered to come pick them up.
You should start small. Yeah, you’ll pay more per shirt but you’ll also be able to scale slowly and not have dead stock that no one wants.
Or focus on fewer designs, or just one design even. Many lines that do work out just start with one popular design and get as much revenue out of it as possible before expanding their line.
Trusting your gut
While I am an advocate in trusting your gut in a lot of scenarios, I would never trust it when it comes to predicting what shirts people will like enough to actually pay for. Like I said earlier, get non-biased opinions from people that don’t know you.
Skimp on quality
We’ll talk more about margin in a minute, but if you’re selling shirts, you will definitely have a bigger margin if you go with a cheap screen printer and cheaper shirts. You can save tons of money per shirt if you get some shit quality blank shirts and go with the cheapest screen printer you can find, but guess what, your product will suffer! And so will your sales!
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes: Do you want to buy a stiff shirt or a comfortable shirt? Do you like a soft cotton, or one that feels like burial cloth? Do you like a quality print on your shirts, with crisp registration and beautiful colors, or something that looks like Stevie Wonder printed it with latex paints?
It will be easier to move high quality shirts with high quality prints, especially if you’re not exclusively selling online, and you’ll have better revenue because of it.
Don’t know your margins and numbers
It’s normal for the price to double at every stage. The screen printer doubles his material and labor costs. You double that cost when you sell wholesale to retail (if you do that, which I don’t recommend). The retail shop doubles what they paid you for the shirts.
But even if you don’t go into retail, you still need to know your margins and protect them. If you’re getting really complicated shirts printed in small amounts and paying $14 each, you can’t just charge $20 and have a healthy margin. And if you charge $35, your audience may not go for that price. You’ll have to balance costs compared to what your market is willing to pay.
Once, I had a client set on using organic bamboo shirts, which are incredibly nice. But they cost six times as much blank as a ringspun cotton shirt. I told the client how crazy expensive they would be, and he was happy to use the nice cotton shirt instead.
And it’s not just the cost of shirt + printing that you need to be aware of. If you’re selling shirts for $25 shipped, you’ll need to factor in $3 or $4 for shipping. Using nice packaging? Factor in another buck. How much did you have to spend in marketing in order to acquire that customer and convince them to purchase? Maybe your CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) online is $2, so factor that in. Oh and you paid a designer to create that slick shirt, and you paid her up front, so factor that in. That $25 is going away quick!
Don’t understand how pricing for shirt printing works
Different screen printers vary their pricing structure. At Vacord, we take huge pride in our Screen Printing and in having really simple pricing, with a basic cost per shirt, without having a ton of fees and add-ons in the invoice.
But no matter how the screen printer you use prices, you should understand the basic ingredients for screen printing prices:
-Cost of shirt
Lots of people love American Apparel shirts. They’re nice, and they’re American made, and they have a ton of options and colors, so they’re a fine choice for a clothing line. BUT they’re expensive, even wholesale. They may cost twice as much as an Anvil shirt that’s honestly just as nice. And it matters in the price. Whatever we print on, that affects the cost, so finding a more affordable option will definitely keep your pricing down.
-Complexity of printing
When I was doing screen printing myself, I loved getting a big order of shirts with a one color print, because it’s easy to set up and easy to run. A six color print was a much bigger ordeal, with a lot of set up and breakdown time in comparison.
The more colors in your design, and the more print locations on the shirt, the more your pricing will go up.
Print location matters too. Printing on the back of the shirt is really standard, but to print on the sleeve, we have to change the boards on the press and use a slightly different method, so there’s a surcharge. So in order to keep pricing down, you may want to rethink having your sweet three color logo on the sleeve of your shirt, because that might add $3 to each shirt. Is it worth it? Can you pass it on to your end customer?
-How many items are printed at a time
Screen printing has a lot of set up time. Between making the screens, setting up the press, and registering a multiple color print, it can take 10 minutes to an hour to get ready to print. But actually printing goes fast. And then breaking everything down and cleaning up takes a while too. So that’s why it’s all about bulk printing. The more we print at a time, the more efficient our time is overall, and that affects the pricing.
Find out what volume discounts the printer has. For example, our minimum is 24, then we have price breaks at 48, 100, 200, 300 and 500 shirts. So instead of getting 80 shirts, you might end up saving a dollar or two per shirt if you bump it up to 100. And that helps your margin, which helps profitability.
Remember: Volume makes the price go down and complexity makes the price go up.
No pre-launch traction
Just like any business or startup, getting people exciting that you’re coming is key.
Get a domain, set up a website with your designs and a waiting list sign up. Offer them a discount or something to entice them to give you their email address. You’ll have a lot easier time launching when you have a list of 200 or 300 people who said they are interested. When it’s approaching time to actually launch, you could always run a viral contest and try to get those people on your list to bring in more people in exchange for a chance to win free swag.
Plus you can always poll your pre-launch list about the designs you’re debating having printed. Use them. Befriend them.
Build up an Instagram and/or Twitter following. Showcase your designs there and drive traffic to your waiting list page. One easy way to build a following with Instagram and Twitter is to copy the followers of other related accounts, like similar clothing lines. A percentage of those followers will naturally follow you back. Simply unfollow those who didn’t end up following you back. Over time, this is an easy way to build up a Twitter or Instagram audience.
Don’t re-invest profits
Let’s say you buy 100 shirts from a printer at $10 and then you have a great launch and sell them all for $25 each over a month. Awesome! You cleared $1500. Should you go buy a new MacBook Air? NO. That’s a great way to kill your clothing line and end up with a MacBook Air instead, and no way to print more inventory and build your empire. You want to build an empire, right? Or at least see more and more sales?
What you should do with that $1500 obviously is get another round of shirts. Reinvest over and over. Put your money into new product, as well of whatever sold well before, and maintain a healthy fund for marketing.
This is a business, and you as the business owner should not take any profits yet. Sorry. But if you stay disciplined and keep reinvesting, you’ll grow profits and later down the road be way better off than if you took money earlier. Sacrifice putting $500 in your pocket today so that you can put $5000 into your pocket in a few months.
Note: My business partner Adam suggested that people take some profits starting with round 2, because “it might be good for a minute, or a month, or a year, or five years, but it won’t be good forever, so make some money while you’re making money.” At some point you should take profits for yourself, because why else do this? But at what point you do it is up to you.
Have a really narrow marketing plan
You know how, on Thanksgiving, or at a buffet, you go through and get some of everything to try it out? And then, for round two, when you go back for your second plate, you know what’s best and most delicious and most worth your time. Marketing is like that.
When you are marketing your line, you need to try a ton of different channels: Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, working with influencers, retargeting, and so on. Everything that you can think of. But just put a little bit on your plate.
Then you compare and contrast what is working and what’s not. (Be sure to have conversion tracking on your shop or site so you can tell what traffic sources actually buy your shirts.) Maybe Instagram really works but Facebook ads are kinda meh. If that’s the case, double down on Instagram.
Getting in front of other people’s audiences can really help you get sales. Find someone with a following who would be interested in your designs, and offer them a cut of the sales if they will help promote you. Make sure it doesn’t hurt your margin too much, and keep in mind that sharing 20% of the sale may very well be worth it just to make the sale and get your products out there.
It can be a lot of work but by really analyzing your marketing and what actually brings in purchases, you’re way more likely to succeed and get the most out of your marketing budget.
Don’t have an overall business plan
A few years ago, we sold $4,000US worth of printed shirts to a guy starting a clothing line. That’s an awesome order for us, and some of his designs were pretty cool. By ordering that many shirts, he got a great deal per shirt of course, which would help his margin.
After they were all printed and the gentleman picked them up, my business partner asked him “So how you are going to move all these shirts now?”
His response, “I don’t know, I guess I figure that out next.”
Holy shit, no. No no no no no no.
Guess what. We never heard from him again. I don’t know if he sold a lot of those shirts, or if he has eight boxes of a failed clothing line in his living room. If I had to bet, I’d put a larger wager on the living room.
This guy had some parts of the puzzle, IE working capital and decent designs. But he didn’t have a business plan. And a clothing line is as much of a business as anything else. He needed an overall plan, and you do too. How will you market? What will you do with initial profits? (Pro tip: put them back into the line) How do you build your audience? How do you get the word out? How do you make people interested?
Assume people will care
No design is good enough to just sell itself. Boxes of shirts in your dining room won’t move themselves.
If you build it, they will not come.
Assuming that people will love your designs and pay you good money for them is a terrible way to start a clothing line.
You gotta make sure people will want them, and pay for them. You have to figure out how to get your designs in front of people, and how to keep them coming back to see what’s new. You can’t just assume people will care.
It’s a hustle and it’s a battle and the odds are against you, but if you plan it right and have solid designs and not only passion but also a process, you can make it.
So don't do it
Your clothing line won't succeed. You will spend a ton of money and you won't get anywhere. People won't care about your brand. Do something else with your time and effort and creative energy.
We've printed for a lot of clothing lines over the years at Vacord, and now we don't want to print for any at all.
And we’re here to help if you need printing for something OTHER THAN A CLOTHING LINE. Check out Vacord Screen Printing for more info.