Press vs. Sales: Start-Up Designers Struggle For Focus

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In the over 10+ years I’ve spent in the sustainable fashion industry I have worked as a rep and a sounding board for probably over 40 designers.

What’s always been interesting to me is the challenge a designer has choosing between attaining lots of press versus a real steady focus on sales and image. In fact, I am in awe how many times people have tried to hire me just for press without a focus or for anything in particular.

“I just need press…I think.”

While this might seem like an illogical quandry, for surely the designer wants sales and to be successful financially, many young start-ups equate press, (and seeing their face and clothing plastered everywhere) with orders, rabid buyers and new customer followings.  Maybe you’ve seen your designer friends looking like they are everywhere and at everything but if you, (like I) ask them every once in a while “business good?” more often than not there’s the “I’m faking it til I make it” response.

As my (very successful) colleague Tyler Forrest, Co-Founder of True Collaborative Fashion showroom says: “You can be a successful company with sales and no press. You are out of business with press and no sales.”

I caught up with four people I truly respect in the fashion industry, individuals with their own really great entrepreneurial back stories, to see what they had to say. I mean is all this press just to stroke the designer’s ego or does it really have a place in a business plan?

girl alone

Nicole Giordano, Founder of StartUp Fashion says a PR plan should be one arm of your overall business plan. However, it’s important not to make the only goal associated with getting press to be sales related.

“The biggest thing that startup designers need to focus on is brand awareness. If no one knows who you are, you can’t sell anything,” says Giordano. “Press is often looked at as the magic wand for brand awareness…’if only I could get my products in Lucky Mag, then the orders will start to come in…’ with a few exceptions, it simply doesn’t work this way,” says Giordano.

While she admits that press can be part of brand awareness, it is rarely helpful in building revenue in the early stages.

“What I mean is, you want people who will actually buy your product to be exposed to it and to learn about your brand values. The best way to make that happen is often to get out there, meeting people and participating in things; talking about what you do, learning about what people think about your work, listening. When you do that, you learn how to attract the right kind of people to your brand,” Giordano says.

Peter Strugatz, is an early member of the mission-driven business community as an entrepreneur and invested early in companies like Stonyfield Farm Yogurt and Zipcar. Founding Strugatz Ventures, he advises social entrepreneurs and impact investors and he presently serves as the founding Entrepreneur In Residence at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator.

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Strugatz says the only sustainable path for a company, no matter how mission or design-driven it might be, is revenue generation.
“Product development and marketing should be focused on supporting the sales effort of the company while self awareness of the founder about their strongest skills is paramount. They must then attract a team with complementary skills that they each are superior at. Steep learning curves for senior team members can be detrimental to a business,” says Strugatz, who is currently mentoring 15 Venture Fellows at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator.

Gretchen Jones, indie designer turned Project Runway winner turned Womenswear Design Director at Pendleton Woolen Mills says that a designer needs to keep press and self promotion separate.
“As a young designer you must promote yourself, your work and your lifestyle. Lifestyle or the interpretation you choose to present via social media are vital to consumer buy in and without this, you will not and cannot create a compelling enough brand identity, or story, for the bigger industry and press, to pay attention to,” says Jones, who’s combined following on Instagram and Pinterest alone total over 40,000.

Jones adds that as a designer grows and understands their position in the market and who their audience is, press then becomes imperative.

gretchen jones

Gretchen Jones

“PR is about relaying your essence to a potential buyer. It is invaluable and aspirational, let alone almost impossible to achieve. Buyers want you to be embraced via editorial support as much as a customer, if not more.”

I asked Giordano, “if I am a designer getting ready to create my first collection, what should be the very first thing I do?”

“Target market research. You cannot market or sell to someone if you don’t know who they are and what they want. And the research needs to go much deeper than ‘my girl is 28-44, a professional living in a city, who will pay for quality.’ Designers need to understand what their customer values in life, what keeps them up at night, and what they truly believe. Only then can you build and effectively sell a product to them.”

Images: kconcha, Unsplash, CSTRSK