The business side of art can be quite the undertaking. More than just selling your work, you need to know or get to know a lot of small business practices as well as what you can expect to encounter as a small business owner or self-employed artist.
In this article we’ll break down some common occurrences and ideas in working as an apparel designer. From self-produced content to working with printers and manufacturers, we’ll run through what you need to know to get started in apparel design before you start whipping out t-shirt ideas or opening an online shop.
Set Up the Business
For starters, if you’re going to operate any size of business you need to be ready for taxes, sales tax, and any licenses you need to operate said business legally. This is where your research comes in regarding what your state or country requires for being self-employed or a sole proprietor.
Going into business with another person or small team? It’ll be more complicated for sure, but going forward with a design business of any sort without knowing what taxes you’ll have, when to file them, and if you can even sell your work will surely cause such headaches in the future.
A great place to start is Andrew Blackman’s How to Start a Business article. In it he breaks down tips for getting your business ready for operation, including links to other useful business-related articles here on Envato Tuts+.
Content Is King
Like any design business, you’re aiming to sell something. In the case of apparel design, you’re either selling designs for products or the products themselves. In either case you’ll need to be able to show prospective clients and customers content to buy.
A great way to start is through concept design for your projects. Whether you’ve already got a client or you’re courting one, being able to show your t-shirt design concept on a t-shirt itself will help them envision your product or proposal.
While you can use illustrated media, I’ve found through years of selling apparel and accessories to retail buyers that sell sheets need to contain actual samples of work or mock-ups of those designs. Often clients or retail buyers want something tangible. They want to make sure that the design you’re selling them will look exactly as intended. Most aren’t in creative departments, so the more you can present a full package, the better.
When you haven’t got finished work samples or a completed line, go for stock mock-ups like those found on Envato Market. These allow buyers, clients, and customers to connect with your work. If you’re showcasing mock-ups as a finished product in a storefront, do mention that they are not the completed design. I mostly recommend mock-ups for portfolios, sell sheets, and concept work that will allow you to get to the next step of manufacturing your work.
Know Your Materials
Let’s say you have some fantastic designs. How will they become apparel? Are you creating vector artwork that will be screen-printed? Are you planning on content to be printed digitally onto fabric? Knowing what your materials and process from concept to product will be (or what your manufacturer will use) is key to making sure your product is printed or created as expected.
If you’re screen-printing, you’ll need to know the limitations of your printer. It’s important to know the following:
- Color limits: How many colors are being used? What colors are printable?
- Screen limits: How many screens are being used? What size are they?
- Document limits: What size and resolution is best? Are vector objects expanded? Can effects be printed?
- Product limits: What surfaces can be printed? What is the shape of the product, and does your printer know what you want?
Whether I was screen-printing t-shirts or having shoes digitally printed, I made sure to ask for product templates for printers and manufacturers. If you’re going through a website that prints apparel, they’ll likely be ready to provide you with templates and additional information to make sure your design prints correctly.
If you’re working with manufacturers in a large factory, like in China, for example, you may have to place an order for samples and confirm your order before you’ll be able to use their product templates. Or you can use that as a point of negotiation. It can be difficult to get some factories to supply you with the right templates you need or to explain their printing process since it’s such a competitive field. I definitely do not recommend sampling products before knowing if your design work and product concepts will be reproduced accurately.
Sampling products can be an expensive process, especially if you have to repeat it. No one wants to receive unwanted surprises from a printer or manufacturer, such as finding that your shoe samples contain artwork traced over by the printer themselves rather than the original artwork you sent to them. It can be a long and costly process if you aren’t sure that your idea will form as expected.
Limit Your Products
Going too big too fast with a small business can be overwhelming. If you’re starting out with a few t-shirt designs and selling them in an online shop, you have some breathing and learning room. If you immediately push thousands of dollars into products to create a full line of clothing, it would be difficult to bounce back into black if you don’t sell what you had hoped to in the first place.
In your business plan, you should have settled on a good angle for your work, whether this means you focus on t-shirt designs, textile prints, or a single brand line to be pitched to a client, sold in a shop, or brought to retailer buyers. Growth takes time, and every business, no matter the experience you have, will need time to establish itself and gain the clients or customers needed to flourish.
It can be very tempting to create, create, create, but when you’re running a business you need to focus more on consistency of product, design, and marketing than on how many ideas you can produce. It’s definitely quality and not quantity for long-term success.
Know Your Audience
You may know your brand or product, but do you know your intended audience? Are you selling directly to the consumer? What’s their age range? Do they have a lot of money to spend? Or are you selling work to manufacturers or even retail buyers? How do they want to be approached to purchase?
In the case of selling directly to consumers, you need to get your work out there in the way that serves them best. Often, this is through social media. If your intended targets are youths between the ages of 15 and 25, for instance, you’ll find Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more to be essential in growing your business. Get to know social media networks and engage with customers.
Even if you’re just starting out with some apparel in an Etsy shop, being able to connect with potential buyers is a must. As mentioned previously, presentation matters. In the case of an apparel brand, a look book is often used not only to share what your product line contains, but also to show the intended audience and lifestyle associated with your work.
Depending on your budget, this may be something you create entirely yourself with staged photos and content, or something you collaborate on with a photographer, models, and make-up artists. Regardless, it should be a part of your brand’s vision, and will often serve as marketing materials for your business and clothing line, no matter the size.
If you’re aiming to sell to other companies through a licensing deal, sell directly to retailers (going the wholesale route) or some other variation where you will not be selling your content directly to the consumer, you’ll need to sort out the best way to approach potential clients.
For some, this means gathering samples and products and showcasing your work at a trade show, like Pool or Magic. Both are held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada, and bridge the gap immediately between brands/manufacturers and buyers. While an expensive route, such trade shows can ensure you most of your season's or year’s clients. You’ll also be able to network with other brands, shops, and companies. It is a highly competitive field, though, so don’t be surprised if you’re not best friends with the booth nearby on account of having similar products.
Other trade shows and conventions can also be a place to gain an audience. Whether this means you’re setting up a table at a comic convention or art fair, or showcasing your products at a small product trade show that caters more to wholesalers, you’ll find that brushing up on those interpersonal skills and getting to know who you’re selling to will serve you and your business in the long run.
Price Your Work Like You’re Worth It
Firstly, you are worth it. Pricing work is difficult for any working artist. Do you figure out an hourly work rate? Do you try to compete with large companies with small profit margins? What about wholesale pricing versus retail pricing?
If your apparel design business is pure design and not product, you’ll likely be pricing your work for clients in a similar style as other freelance designers and illustrators. Some fantastic resources for pricing art services include the following:
- Freelance Rates: Guide to Hourly Versus Project Pricing
- What to Charge? A Freelancer's Guide to Giving an Estimate
- The Graphic Artist’s Guild
If your apparel design business includes selling product, you need to consider your costs of creation (including designing), costs of operation, and costs of materials. You’ll also need to consider a wholesale price, retail price, and sale price, none of which should cut into your profit unless you’re selling something at cost. Finally, you have to consider what similar products are going for in the marketplace. Often you have to price competitively, which may mean a change in product or resources to compete with other brands.
It’s not an easy task to price your work or products, but you’ll find a lot of great advice and tools in the Business section of Envato Tuts+ as well as others focused on small businesses. It doesn’t quite matter what products you’re selling: the basics of business are the same, and you’ll find plenty of great advice out there for starting something fantastic.
Selling art is a business. When it comes to wanting to be an apparel designer on your own terms, you have to treat it like a real small business. You are a small business owner, and while your business type may vary, the following holds true, so let’s review:
- Set up the business! If you’re going the self-employed or entrepreneur route, set yourself up for success by making sure you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your t’s and won’t have any nasty surprises come tax season.
- Content is king! Your main focus will always be your content. It’s your bread and butter; it’s what you are bringing to the world of apparel!
- Know your materials and process. Printers, ink, fabric, and construction are all important in apparel design, and the more you know about what you’re aiming to create, the fewer headaches you’ll have.
- Limit your focus when possible. Allow your product and design line to grow with time.
- Know your audience! Whether you’re selling to buyers or consumers, know who your target is and how to reach them in an engaging and appropriate way.
- Price yourself like you’re worth it, because you are! Even if this is a side project, you want it to be something that will make profit in the long term.