In the 1990s, if you were shopping in the Chicago area for a gown to wear to a formal event, chances are you considered one designed by Jane Hamill. With an eponymous boutique and a thriving wholesale business, Hamill was a go-to eveningwear designer whose line was sold at city retailers such as Mark Shale and Marshall Field's, as well as at national outlets.
But after 14 years, Hamill was burned out. In 2007 she sold her business in hopes of moving on to something with a more flexible schedule--though she didn't know what that would be. She was offered a gig as a retail consultant; at the same time, she started teaching a college course in fashion studies.
Recognizing her insight into the particular hurdles of the fashion industry, in 2010 she started Fashion Brain Academy, a business coaching and e-learning company that helps fashion designers (and other creative types) start, fix or expand their businesses through online courses and one-on-one consulting.
Hamill sat down with us and ironed out some common problems in the fashion business.
What are some specific issues faced by fashion entrepreneurs?
Creative people often have too many ideas, which is a curse as well as a blessing. They just don't know what to do first, and they're really lacking knowledge of the business side of things. Ninety percent of my clients are designers who have not been to design school. They have an idea, and they try to figure things out on their own from there. I teach with step-by-step instructions and real-life examples, because that's what works for me. I say, "Here's a script, here's how you should talk, here's an example of a good e-mail and a bad e-mail."
How can small designers take their business to the next level?
It's all about knowing where to find the right resources. I have videos about where to find fabric in small quantities, about pricing their lines. Lots of designers would rather have a root canal than admit to how long it took to sew something. I used to be the same way. I go over how to get a product made by a sewing contractor or a jewelry contractor, and what guidelines to provide to get a good product back.
Does working with high-end goods present particular challenges?
Absolutely, because you don't get many impulse purchases. I work with clients to find and keep customers who like what they're selling and can afford to buy it. We work on constant marketing, on establishing a relationship that doesn't revolve only around "please buy my product." We talk about engaging customers, creating a sense of community, even encouraging a little voyeurism--say, posting a video of the process behind how you made that shirt.
How can designers set themselves apart?
I helped one client who wanted to do trunk shows. Rather than just mention in her marketing material that she offers trunk shows, we worked on a packet that spelled everything out: Here's what I'll do at a show; here are the dates I'm available; here are postcards you can mail to your customers. It's all about making things as easy as possible for the retailer. "Contact me for more information" is the kiss of death.
That's not what any busy person wants to hear or has time for.