From the December 1999 issue of Startups

Of course, there are the horror stories. Like the times New York-based swimwear designer Malia Mills and her business partner, Julia Stern, spent long nights mixing kettles of fabric dye in Mills' studio apartment because they couldn't afford colored cloth. Or the time a factory breakdown forced them to construct 100 bathing suits by hand in two days.

Let's not forget the rejection. At the start of her career, Mills, now 32, offered to work for a top designer for free and was turned down.

And did we mention the money problems? Mills worked as a waitress while trying to get her business, Malia Mills Swim Wear, off the ground but wound up with $100,000 in personal debt anyway. She's still paying that off.

If tales like these don't scare you away--and you have a truly unique idea--you might be ready to start your own fashion-design company. But don't expect it to be all martinis and feather boas, honey.

The fashion industry demands penance from its novices. Count on long, stress-filled days; a battalion of competitors; and, at least in the beginning, very little payback in an entrepreneur's favorite shade: green. In fact, starting a fashion-design firm from scratch, with limited capital, is a lot like boot camp for your soul. Still, despite the many challenges--and sometimes because of them--a growing number of young entrepreneurs, equipped with little more than a sewing machine and a dream, are launching their own fashion lines.

Find Your Fit

Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, confirms that many students like the idea of running their own companies independent of the chains established fashion houses impose. Being the boss promises the possibility of complete creative freedom and control.

Those most likely to succeed in the fashion industry start with an idea that will appeal to a specialized or niche market. Mills' sassy bikinis, in flirty prints like cheetah, are designed to fit like lingerie and come in mix-and-match sizes so women can choose the top and bottom that fit. Twenty-two-year-old Elle Hamm of Irvine, California, designs and sells form-fitting sportswear with an athletic edge that can serve as daywear or eveningwear. And 28-year-old designer Mario "Maji" Melendez is gaining attention with his Latino-inspired men's clothing, particularly his guayaberas, or traditional Mexican wedding shirts, which he adapts to American tastes.

"I've stumbled onto an interesting niche," says Melendez, owner of Maji by Melendez, in CITY, California. "Latinos make up a significant portion of the population, especially in Southern California, but this segment has been largely overlooked by designers and retailers. I hope to emerge as a leader in the design, production and distribution of clothing geared toward this demographic as well as consumers who are looking for more unique attire with a little attitude."

Many of Bundy's students have gotten a toehold in costume design for the entertainment industry. Others have found their niche custom designing clothes for individuals, a growing market, she says, because many people are tired of off-the-rack outfits that look alike.

Bundy strongly recommends young designers work for an established company before plunging in on their own. Mills followed that advice. After graduating from Cornell University and a Paris design school, she took a job as design assistant with San Francisco-based Jessica McClintock. Her college chum, Julia Stern, a fashion reporter, was working on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and remembered that Mills used to sew bikinis in college. She called her old friend and suggested Mills--who grew up in Hawaii, where she practically lived in a bathing suit--send some suits to the SI editor. Without hesitating, Mills whipped up six suits, none of which made it into the magazine. But feeling that she had found her true calling, she quit her job and moved to New York City.

Alas, the Big Apple wasn't waiting breathlessly for the arrival of yet another young swimwear designer. Mills spent the next eight months working as a waitress and hunting for a job as a design assistant while researching the swimwear industry. In 1992, she decided to start a homebased swimwear business, funded with $20,000 from her parents, her boyfriend and credit cards.

During that time, she visited manufacturers, introducing herself and her then-embryonic line. "I told them, `I'm too small now to use you, but someday I'll need you, and I want you to know who I am when I call,' " Mills remembers. "My philosophy is that the time to ask for help is when you don't need it."

A year later, things started happening. Mills' creations made it into the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and her bikinis were featured in accompanying calendars and videos, where supermodel Kathy Ireland strutted in a Malia Mills charcoal-blue, long-sleeved bikini.

Soon after, Stern, now 30, joined as a partner, and the pair were featured in TheNew York Times and Harper's Bazaar, along with other publications. Celebs like Hugh Hefner's wife bought suits, and so did plenty of ordinary women. Too cash-poor to buy space at top fashion trade shows, where she could have gotten much more exposure, Mills rented a hotel room near the show sites and sent invitations to industry insiders, asking them to drop in after the shows to see her swimwear. "Necessity is the mother of invention," says Mills of her strategy. "A few people stopped by. We sat by the fax for the next week, and slowly, orders came in."

That year, 1993, Bloomingdale's featured the suits in its Christmas window, and Mills' profile went higher. Today the suits are sold by catalog, on the Web (http://www.maliamills.com) and in the new Malia Mills retail store in New York City. After many lean years, Malia Mills Swim Wear is headed for the $1 million mark.

Shameless Promotions

Mario Melendez didn't apprentice as a designer with an established firm, although he did work as assistant production manager for a women's clothing label--a move that helped him make the manufacturing connections he would need later. Having his own design company "was all I talked and dreamed about," says Meledenz, who compares being a designer with being a symphony conductor who brings separate elements together to create a harmonious whole.

By age 18, he was making silk-screened shorts for friends in his parents' garage. After serving in the Persian Gulf War and earning a bachelor's degree in political science, Melendez used $5,000 of his G.I. money to make the first 500 of his guayabera shirts from home. By night, he worked as a waiter to fund the business; by day, he pitched the shirts to every store he could find. "I had no shame," he crows, "and it worked!"

His shirts, which come in a wide variety of styles and colors, are sold in 50 stores and on his Web site (http://www.maji-usa.com). In business for two years, he projects 1999 sales of $500,000. Maji by Melendez has been featured in the Spanish version of People magazine and in regional publications. Like Mills, Melendez used ingenuity as well as persistence to gain attention for his business. Along with participating in West Coast trade shows, he is co-sponsoring a Latin jazz concert and fashion show, with part of the proceeds going toward scholarships for fashion-design students.

She's only 22, but like Melendez, Elle Hamm--part-time rapper, full-time designer--already appreciates the power of persistence. Without any formal design background, she began her Beverly Hills-based company, Rudwear, with just the $40 she invested in fabric to sew hair scrunchies; two years later, her company earns $100,000.

Hamm began by selling the scrunchies to Los Angeles-area hotel and airport gift shops, then expanded into a simple line of accessories, which she tried to pitch to Nordstrom. The upscale department chain initially wasn't interested, in part because of Hamm's inexperience in manufacturing. But with the help of her father--who linked her up with a company willing to manufacture her accessories--and a self-made brochure copied at Kinko's, Hamm landed another meeting at Nordstrom, which agreed to carry her line of scarves and purses. They liked her work so much that when she later proposed her sports-inspired dresses to them, they bit.

Carmen Electra and Pamela Anderson Lee have worn Rudwear fashions, and Claudia Schiffer appears in a Rudwear piece in her new movie "Desperate But Not Serious." Rudwear now has come out with a line of jerseys for men. Some are simple; flashier versions decked with patent leather are intended for entertainers.

"I'm a competitive person," Hamm says, explaining her formula for success. "I get the inspiration for my designs from who I am."

Few young designers can expect a smooth ride. But, according to Mills, the view from the top is worth the climb. "When you have to struggle," she says, "you appreciate it more when you make it over the hurdle. Getting through it all makes the dark days worthwhile."

Try it on

Resources to help you get started:

  • The Apparel Strategist: Monthly newsletter that helps people run fashion-oriented businesses. $395 for 12 issues. To subscribe, write to P.O. Box 406 Fleetwood, PA 19522, call (610) 682-7495, or e-mail editor@apparelstrategist.com
  • California Apparel: Weekly publication that focuses on the California fashion industry. $58 for 52 issues. To subscribe, write to California Mart, 110 E. Ninth St., Ste. A-777, Los Angeles, CA 90079, call (213) 627-3737, or e-mail webmaster@apparelnews.net
  • Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising: Provides training and internships in the fashion industry. Campuses in Los Angeles, San Franciso, San Diego and Orange County, California. Call (800) 711-7175 or (213) 624-1202, or visit http://www.fidm.com
  • Fashion Institute of Technology: This New York City college offers degrees in art, design, business and technology. Call (212) 217-7999 or visit http://www.tk.com
  • Fashion Net: Web site includes features, chat rooms, message boards, advice, links and job listings; http://www.fashionnet.com.
  • Women's Wear Daily: The weekly fashion industry bible. $135 for 52 issues. To subscribe, call (800) 289-0273 or visit http://www.wwd.com

Sew And Tell

Want to start your own fashion-design firm? Here's the experts' best advice:

  • Find a niche or a unique specialty.
  • Get some formal education and/or real-life experience working with a designer.
  • Create a realistic business plan.
  • Make sure you have enough capital to keep going for one year.
  • Keep overhead low by working from home, if you can.
  • Get media attention by sending samples and press releases to members of the fashion press, industry movers and shakers, and celebrities.
  • Be prepared to meet many challenges.
  • If you're not near Manhattan or Los Angeles, be willing to move. A niche business outside these fashion hubs, such as designing cowboy boots in Texas, "could make a living," says Joan Volpe at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, "but your chances of becoming nationally recognized and picked up by the big chains aren't very good."

Pamela Rohland, a freelance writer in Bernville, Pennsylvania, can barely sew on a button, but she loves well-designed clothes.

Contact Sources

Malia Mills Inc., (212)210-7328

Rudwear, (310)657-3032, rudwear@reachme.com