Earlier this week, we published an op-ed detailing all the reasons why you probably won't make it in fashion. As a counterpoint, this piece finds us speaking to the founder of CALA, a service that has never made it more possible to try break into the game. Here are some tips for success:

What even constitutes a fashion brand today? Once upon a time, to be considered “world-class” a brand needed to be mass, have a global footprint, be artisanal, frequently sell-outs be worn by celebrities, and always be decorated by a ribbon of double-digital annual revenue growth. Is that still the case?

If so, should those permitted to design exclusively hail from the halls of prestigious design schools like Central Saint Martins, Parsons, or the Royal Academy of Fine Arts? Should their CVs boast accolades including that one internship at that one atelier in that one Parisian townhouse where 25 “world-class” couturiers painstakingly spent 1,000 hours on that one crystal-embellished, hand-crafted gown with ostrich feather trimmings?

The dinosaur editors, publications, and buyers who have dominated this industry for decades will still make you believe so, camouflaging their can’t-be-killed knack for nepotism into celebratory support of emerging talent, only later revealing the new flavor of the day used to work at Dior, assisted Phoebe Philo, and got that job at Chanel through a plug.

But we know those aren’t the ones who get to exclusively call themselves fashion designers. We know there’s space in this multi-trillion dollar global apparel industry for the autodidacts, those self-taught designers who keep screen-printing graphic T-shirts in their parents’ crowded garages, growing their business by selling to one friend of a friend at the time. We know that the cultural literacy that many (predominantly streetwear) brands imbue into everyday items like certain hoodies, caps, and sneakers has long trumped the intrinsic value of a high-priced item by one of the traditional luxury giants.

The creator economy — and its corresponding fan base — is growing fast, resulting in fashion's tight grip on its hierarchy loosening, and with it, the definition of what constitutes a “pioneering” fashion designer and brand.

But there’s certainly space for both, the professionally trained and the self-taught. For new entrants, however, the latter is developing at a much quicker pace as the traditional luxury industry continues to consolidate, leaving only a handful of power players in charge. Meanwhile, new technologies have lowered barriers to entry while more people want to speak directly to their audiences through product. Kanye West, Kylie Jenner, and everyone else with an even remotely loyal following and creative vision have gone from buying to promoting to collaborating to now creating their own product.

“Social media has democratized reach, so for the end consumer instead of [the fashion industry] being an exclusive thing, you’re now part of the story,” says Andrew Wyatt, founder of CALA, an on-demand fashion supply chain that connects fashion brands with suppliers, factories, and design experts currently working with 55 manufacturers in 12 countries. Much like Uber, CALA’s partners can accept jobs requested by both new and established fashion brands.

“That’s a good parallel, because we’re not a pure marketplace where you go and look at 1,500 factories. We’re the next evolution, like a curated and managed marketplace, where we have a very specific opinion about the best way to do this, and our product is going to walk you through every step of the way,” says Wyatt.

“Tools like Shopify have come into the fray and now, all of a sudden, anybody can set up an online presence and the whole backend infrastructure in an afternoon. [But] if your online site is the tip of the iceberg, the supply chain, fulfillment, and manufacturing are all the pieces that no one really sees or thinks about, but it’s where a lot of brands trip up and spend a lot of time,” adds Wyatt, whose background as Head of Operations at a San Francisco-based startup likened to the “Uber for shipping” connected those in the need to shippers.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Courtesy of Cala, Courtesy of Cala

“What I saw there was that more people wanted to be entrepreneurs, and they typically have a product or brand vision but need help executing the rest. I started talking to some fashion designers who told me they were spending so much time on so many different things they weren’t good at,” says Wyatt. So far this year, CALA has grown its revenue between 20 to 30 percent month-over-month.

As CALA remains the vendor for every order, the need for large quantity minimums (a longstanding barrier to entry for new brands) is eliminated, allowing new brands with smaller orders to enter the market. It helps brands using the tool to shop around while getting a personalized final price quota (including shipping, delivery time, and further costs) up front regardless of product units; revolutionary in the industry whose clunky pricing mechanisms have long been ripe for disruption. With each order, the algorithm that makes up CALA’s pricing (price quotes remain unchanged for 14 days) learns.

“You’re now able to quickly see how much it costs with 50 units versus 5,000; it changes everything. And you add your margin to that number, and that's your whole economics. You don't have to do this Excel wizardry to figure out what your brand can actually be,” says Wyatt.

What will it all change?

“It's pure-play democratization. So what it means is that the best product and the best story will be what people buy instead of whatever's at Nordstrom or Dover Street Market. That's what's really exciting, because it puts the power to the people,” says Wyatt. “And what's interesting is the whole NFT wobble that’s happening is a great preamble. So now, all these creators are able to make money over their digital-only assets, which is cool. It really is democratization, challenging everyone, but we see us enabling that to happen with actual physical products.”

To not trip up when launching a fashion brand from scratch — the non-conventional way — CALA and Highsnobiety present a guide in six steps, from us to you.



“Prior to CALA, we witnessed a lot of designers making the mistake of jumping directly into product development before building a good foundation for the brand. This often resulted in a lot of time and money spent on product. Maybe a Vogue article or two, but basically no sales, limited funds to work on the next round of product, and continuously posting the same editorial images with the same product over and over, until everything fizzles out,” explains Wyatt.


- Question everything: Why does the world need this? What does my brand stand for? What story does my brand tell visually? Who will be my customer? What products will resonate with my customer, and at what price point? How will my customers find my brand and products? How will I fund this venture?

- Take the time: Some people will sit in this phase for a year (or more). Do the research, run an Instagram page with inspiration imagery, and develop what the brand actually is before spending a single dollar building a product.

- Document: For those who have been running their IG for some time and have these questions already answered in their head, write them down and codify them into a form that extends beyond you.



“We've seen an infinite number of different ways people communicate design ideas. Excel docs, giant PDF files, thousands of emails and Whatsapp messages back and forth,” Wyatt says about the notoriously clunky communication methods the fashion industry has long adopted into its design process. “Materials have traditionally [also] been a constraint, so people that go to fashion school are trained to start with fabric first and then design the styles. Historically, this meant literally going to fabric trade shows and walking for hours, looking at fabrics from different vendors, then ordering sample yardage, and waiting 4-6 weeks to receive it. That’s disconnected from the way the world works, as today’s customers and designers think in final product form.”


- Timebox: Give yourself a set amount of time for the design phase. Pressure breeds creativity.

- Compete: Competition also drives creativity and productivity. Let there be friendly competition against each other within design teams. If you're solo then challenge someone online or imagine you're competing against a designer like Virgil Abloh.

- Don't isolate: Creativity comes from experience. Rather than locking yourself in a room, get out in the world to find inspiration.

- Start small: The CFDA used to coach young brands on creating huge collections, of which only a very small amount would actually be bought by retailers. We encourage brands to start small and be concise. Expand once you see what resonates with your customer.

– Test: Within your initial small drops, test a product or two that you love but are not certain about yet.

- Feedback: Get feedback from your network early and often before checking out.



“Ask any existing brand and they'll tell you development is a nightmare; so much so that if you look at larger fashion brands, they have big teams that all work to manually execute this [stage] over email and clunky PLM systems,” says Wyatt. “For small brands, it’s even worse, because you usually have one or two people as designers trying to manage [this entire] operational nightmare — including revisions — while paying [external] designers thousands of dollars for each development phase. And as a small brand, you’re always the last priority behind the big brands,” he adds.


- Go deep: Lay a good foundation for your brand, also during development. That small detail you're unsure about in a sample will very quickly be multiplied into something you can't unsee when you have 100 completed units.

- Tape measure: This will enable you to provide feedback with precise detail, which will help whoever is doing the tech design and pattern making to quickly and easily implement your requested changes. For instance, instead of making the sleeve a bit longer, snap a photo with your tape measurer to show you want it 1 inch longer.

- Double down: If you're buying your own sample yardage, get twice as much as you think you'll need.

- Correct and proceed: Development is always a balance between time and perfection. If the latest pre-production sample is almost there but you want to make one or two small changes, ask whoever is making the sample if they feel comfortable to "correct and proceed." This means they will make small changes and then directly go into production without making another full sample.

- Audit trail: A lot of factories and pattern makers will want to just hop on the phone to talk through changes. This is great, but make sure you always follow up over email, text, etc. with the requested changes and be sure the message was "well received." Your audit trail will help you get a resolution.



“Pre-CALA, you could pretty much bet on a two-to-four week [price] quotation process after you'd hand off a perfect tech pack and likely a final sample. If you got a quote for 150 units and you wanted to know what it would be at 250, it may take the factory a week to get back to you,” says Wyatt. “Ideally, this would all happen over email, but a lot of times the manufacturer can sniff out if you’re a new designer, and they may quote you one price over the phone and then jack it up once the products are finished, or ghost you entirely.”

Then there’s the nightmare of product and on-model photography for young brands where prices usually run up at least $2,000 to $5,000, whether you’re shooting a single shirt or a full collection. “If you’re a small brand and the photographer you’re working with gets you a ‘deal’ at Milk Studios, you’re screwed.”


- Plan: A strong development sets you up for smooth sailing in production.

- Triple check everything: Make sure your care labels have all the proper info and that you have the right HTS codes, so your products don't get stuck in customs.

- Aesthetics: Don't let photography be an afterthought. In the e-commerce world, how your product looks on screen is paramount. If it doesn't look good on a screen then customers won't buy it.

- Highlight: Use detail shots to highlight key design features.



“The launch will be the craziest, most stressful week of your life. There will be so much last-minute coordinating that it will be nearly impossible to keep track of all the different things that need to come together,” says Wyatt. “Unfortunately, a lot of brands don't have enough volume to use a fulfillment center for their first launch, so often you’ll be packing and shipping the items yourself. This takes a ton of time and, if you're not used to this, can lead to a lot of shipping errors, which means it can take a few weeks for folks to receive their product. These situations lead to unhappy customers.”

For those who aren’t as successful from the get-go, acquiring customers through the buy of advertisement on Google, Facebook, and Instagram often follows. That can be pricey, argues Wyatt. “[Even] if you know what you’re doing, it’s likely you’ll have a one-time return on ad spend, which can be demoralizing after all the work that goes into a launch.”


- Track: Make sure you have Facebook Pixel and Google Analytics installed on your website so you can track conversions if you decide to invest in paid marketing.

- Customer service: Try to respond as quickly as possible, even if it's just a, “Hi! We're looking into this.” Customers would much rather know that you hear them immediately versus you taking a few days to get back with a full answer.

- Be quick: Get those orders out. Delays can cause a tidal wave of customer support that can easily become a nightmare.



“A lot of brands are so busy with marketing, fulfillment, and customer service that they don't get the time to review what's happening on a granular level. Sometimes this look back never happens and learnings aren't incorporated in real time,” says Wyatt, who adds that carefully tracking sales is crucial in the beginning to inform what styles, colors, and sizes can be incorporated into assortment plans for future drops.

“A lot of small brands have to wait a few months to make enough revenue off of their first drop to cover the costs of their previous drop before they can start working on new products. This can lead to long lulls where there isn't any new product, which means their customers stop thinking about them.”


- Manage supply: Work with your supply chain to understand how long replenishment will be if you submit a re-order. If you want to keep a style in stock then set your reorder point at a level that will equal you receiving new product right before you go out of stock.

- Consider drops: Most clients we work with have limited drops, which helps to not get stuck with inventory. Additionally, it drives excitement.

- Set milestones: Set a few milestones post launch and take the time to review what you've learned so far at those points. Write these down and refer back to them during the design phase and at the next launch. This will help you to incorporate learnings, plus it's fun to track how far you've come.

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