Now more than ever is a red hot time to start an apparel line. The vault door of opportunity is opening for you to make your mark. Are you ready to walk through and make some money?

Here’s why I’m asking.

Surely you’ve read or watched a news article about the impending demise of traditional retail stores. They are imploding all around you. How empty is that mall down the street? Media pundits have termed this a “retail apocalypse”. It’s only going to get worse as stores shift their focus from traditional brick and mortar location to an online presence. By the end of 2017, we could see a record of 50 retail giant brands filing for bankruptcy and about 8,000 physical stores closing.


Namely, in 2000, 1% of all sales came from e-commerce. In 2016, that number rose to 8.3%. That number is steadily growing this year. 2017 should see another 3.7-4.2% added to that. Where will that number be in a two to five years from now? Shopping online is becoming the new normal.

Big name stores are not seeking bankruptcy protection because of lack of sales. Surprisingly, the money is being spent. Just not in a physical store, or with them.

Instead, the chunk of sales that everyone is concerned about originates from phones, tablets or computers. Online shopping preferences have disrupted this process. Consequently, companies are either adapting with online technology or going bye-bye.

You already know this.

To emphasize this point, I’ll bet it’s how you order personally. There has been a gigantic mindset shift in how we buy stuff. Trips to a store are old news for more shoppers every day. Why go to a store when you can simply pull up the same information on your phone and order what you want while lounging on the couch in your underwear?

Good news!

This is a fantastic opportunity for you. You can sell to that barely dressed couch potato too! Woohoo!

These days, the barrier to entry for a fledgling apparel line is incredibly low. Before, getting your apparel line into a traditional store required effort and the sales skills that most startup brands didn’t possess. Today, it’s just as easy as pushing your idea out into the marketplace with your own branded online store. Obviously, you just build it yourself and the money pours in. Simple.

Or is it? You have to be smart.

For instance, 51% of new companies will fail in under five years. That’s a fact. However, the ones that make it usually do so because they have thought things through, worked hard and created their own luck. Therefore, spending time with a switched-on brain and a notepad to practice your “Ready, Aim, Fire” mentality is a good place to start.

Let’s take a look:

Birth of an Apparel Line

First, what’s your idea?

Hopefully, you have something different to market than just rehashed memes or stolen knock-offs of other people’s creative efforts. (You wouldn’t do that would you?)

I know, I know. Originality is harder than it looks. Creating an apparel line from a unique perspective requires more effort. However, when you conquer that challenge, the result will be something different in the marketplace. Create your own space by branding the exclusive way you see the world.

Can you dare to be different?

For example, let’s say your interest is in scuba diving. You have a lot of experience in this area personally and professionally. The culture, equipment, and language are second nature to you. Your challenge is that the market is flooded with branded apparel already. How many scuba diver themed shirts are there in the market currently?

Will one more make the impact that you seek?

What if you injected something unexpected into that idea? Could your company mascot be a monkey? (Scuba Monkey!) Maybe instead of an air tank on it’s back, it’s a big yellow banana? Think of all the design ideas that might work. By spending five or ten minutes doodling ideas, you can list dozens.

If that doesn’t work, what if it was a Viking? Maybe a T-Rex? Supermodels in bikini’s riding sharks rodeo style? If you truly understand your market, can you think of something that is commercially appealing that is different?

Remember, this is just a discussion example. Your apparel line idea can be about anything.

Business Planning (boring!), the Most Overlooked Crucial Step

Got that brand idea nailed?

Want to avoid a huge rookie mistake? Don’t launch into production immediately. Instead, spend some quality time researching and write a proper business plan. Remember, your goal for this entire project is to make a truckload of money. The old adage, “a goal without a plan is a just a wish” holds true.

Don’t just wish for that cash, plan for it.

I can already hear you complaining, “Planning is difficult and boring, who needs that? Let’s get to the design phase! There are Scuba Monkeys and Shark Riding Rodeo Babes to illustrate! Maybe both of them on a Great White Shark! Can’t we do the designing first? It just makes more sense. Plus, it’s fun. Research and planning always feel suspiciously like work.”

Sorry, my friend, but writing a business plan for your brand idea should take top priority. This is how you make better decisions before you waste any time or money. It might change your idea on the Scuba Monkey brand. Read below and you’ll see why.

Essentially your business plan will ask these six important questions. Answer these questions young grasshopper, and you’ll be nearer to the brand truth that you seek:


WHO is your customer? This is the most important question you can ask. In our example above, will your idea of Scuba Diving Monkeys be a hit with the diving community target audience? What is the demographic makeup of this group? Men? Women? Age group? Disposable income range? Geographic regions? Job type? What can you find out?

Accordingly, with some quick online research, it was determined that in 2013 there were 2.7 – 3.5 million scuba divers in the US and 6 million certified divers abroad. There are 11 million snorkelers in the US and 20 million snorkelers worldwide. Age group is between 38 and 53 years old. 76% are male. 80% are white-collar with a salary range between $75,000-$100,000 per year. 98% own their own home. 71% are married. 17% have kids under 18. The top five areas where the divers live are California, Florida, Texas, Virginia/Maryland/D.C., New York and Colorado.

Therefore, before you start designing anything you can see that mostly this scuba diving group has a baseline target of married guys that have good jobs and skew a little older than college age people. Additionally, they are active and fit people as a group. The biggest core group of divers all live in five distinct areas of the United States.

Knowing this, would these facts influence your decision on what the art might look like? What shirts to choose to decorate? Would the Shark Riding Rodeo Babes be a good idea? Should you spend any time developing youth shirt designs? Where or how would you market your designs?

The more you define the WHO, the easier the decision tree will be to climb later. So many choices will stem from this one fact. Get it right.


If you know the WHO, the next step is to find the WHAT. As in, WHAT are you going to sell? Here we are talking about apparel. But this could also be other items such as stickers, magnets, drinkware, beach towels, gear bags, etc. WHAT does your target market like to purchase? In apparel, this means style, color, and fit. Will you be marketing towards both men and women? As this group tends to be active, would you select some performance wear? Maybe it’s a little chilly out on the water, so would a hoodie be in the lineup? What about an embroidered logo hat?

In this market what is the top selling inventory blank? You need to follow the trends. It doesn’t matter what you personally wear. The most important things are what your customer likes to purchase. For other companies that target this same demographic, what are they showing? As part of your market research, can you go see your customers and find out what they value? For some, this is as simple as going to the mall, ballpark or in our example, maybe the boat dock.

Furthermore, will you be creating your own inventory, or relabeling existing stock? What does that cost? Can you get competitive sourcing? What does it take to order from them? With what timeline?

Once you have an idea on the basic substrates to decorate, the next step is to develop your graphics. Don’t forget that formula for top selling branded apparel is 1/2 the shirt + 1/2 the design. Your job is to marry a great shirt with an awesome design. Get a bunch of those together and you’ll have an apparel line that should take off.

After you’ve identified the apparel blanks you are going to use, narrowing down the shirt color palette is easier. It’s important to pick the shirt brand and style first, as the color selections vary from each manufacturer. Chiefly, the shirt color has a tremendous influence on the ink colors that are chosen for your designs.

If you don’t have your own production in-house, make sure you discuss the production end of things for your apparel line before you start designing. It will save a lot of headaches later.


Ok, so now you have who you are marketing to and what you can be selling them. The next piece of the puzzle is to figure out WHEN. When do these people buy? Will these shirts be for a gift? Before a big trip to some island? After they get dive certified? As an impulse buy? Christmas present? On July 18?

WHEN is important.

This is going to help you define your marketing tactics. If you have found your audience and understand what they will buy, the next logical step is determining when they are most apt to pull the trigger and purchase.

The only way you’ll know this is to ask. Yep. More research. Determining the factors that lead to purchasing is a very important step in understanding your sales cycle. Sometimes this is just as easy as posting a short poll online in a Facebook group or online forum. Let your customers help you make good decisions.

Once you know the WHEN you can work backward with your marketing plans to push the sales at the right time. Use a calendar.


This could be split into two groups. WHERE is your customer located geographically or online?

For the example Scuba Monkey brand, would they sell more shirts in Florida or Nebraska? Would it even be limited to a physical geographic area? There are divers everywhere. What would be involved to target the entire community?

Maybe a better focus could be targeting underwater fish photography clubs or aligning your brand with the scuba diving certification groups. Where does your product intersect with a crowd of potential customers?

Think it through.


WHY should anyone buy from you? Is your site professionally designed and looks trustworthy? Is it responsive, which means it works with someone’s phone? How are you handling payment?

Can they get the same product somewhere else? This is important, as if you are exclusive you don’t have to compete on price as much. It’s still important to be competitive, but you don’t have to worry about winning the race to the bottom on price.

For our example, Scuba Monkey could position itself as a lifestyle brand. Purchasing a shirt from the apparel line signifies to others that the wearer belongs to that group. It is an extension of their personality. The creative idea expressed with the garment shows that. The better the expression of that idea, the more readily the buyer may make that decision.

Your brand has to solve the WHY question for the customer. Will yours?


If you are already an apparel decorator, you are in luck for your apparel line. It’s easy to just create an in-house order and go to town. But maybe you don’t happen to own all of the production equipment necessary to produce your designs. That’s okay too.

Before we get too far into the decoration end of things, I want to share with you a different way of thinking about production. Traditionally, any apparel line would pre-decorate the inventory and hold the stock. As orders came in, whether they were for other stores or for end consumers, the shirts would ship and deplete the stock. Good selling designs would be reordered. Stuff that didn’t sell would go on sale.

With the advent of better technology, there’s been a production shift on how apparel lines manage the inventory. A lower cost solution to pre-decorating all that stock is to print on demand using either digital printing or pre-made plastisol heat transfers. Blank inventory is kept in the SKUs and colors that are relevant to the brand. When an order is placed, the shirt can be pulled and then decorated immediately. The same stack of blank apparel could service dozens of designs for an online store.

This type of fulfillment workflow is becoming more prevalent in the apparel industry. What you have to weigh is the cost to pre-decorate a volume order, warehouse, and then pull and ship. The production cost to pre-decorate stock is lower of course, due to volume. However, the overall cost of managing the stock could be significantly higher in the end, especially if a design or two doesn’t sell as well as others.

When putting your apparel line together, consider looking at the technology and fulfillment end of things as part of your plan. There might just be some better answers out there.

Next Up: Pricing and Marketing

If you’ve finished answering your basic questions for the business plan, the next crucial step is to determine how you are going to price and market your apparel line. Again, getting those initial questions answered is extremely helpful with this step. If you haven’t completed this part of your homework, then I would circle back and get the answers to the questions you’ve missed. #truth


First, if you have identified your target customer and analyzed what they are buying in the current marketplace you have a good idea of what they are paying for a similar item. This information is paramount, as marketplace pricing is how your customer sees things. Will you be pricing your apparel line under, equal, or over this amount? There are strategic reasons for each level. What makes the most sense to your brand?

The reason this is important as your apparel blank and creative design choices could be influenced by the expected retail price. The total sum of the production costs is subtracted from this amount to determine your margin. Remember, the two most important things that will determine how much money you are making with your apparel line will be the complexity of your design and the cost of your apparel blank. There are other factors of course, but those are the main considerations.

A one color front will always be cheaper than a 3 color front / 8 color back. Yet, shirts typically are sold for the same price regardless of decoration. Which design makes you more money per sale? A great way to educate yourself on how bigger apparel brands see things is to just go to a mall and look at what’s stocked on the shelves. For this exercise, just look at the complexity of the design. How many colors? How many locations? What are extras such as a neck label, woven hem label or custom printed hangtag are they using? In your product category, what shirt colors are they offering?

Understanding this part of the equation is going to help you build your pricing. If you know what your shirt should sell for, and you know what your shirt costs to produce, you then can do the math and determine how you want to follow along and build your own pricing table. Remember, in the new online economy you are the store so you don’t have to worry so much about wholesale pricing and marketing your apparel line to a retail store.

Pro Tip

A big consideration for you is how you are going to handle your production. Remember, this the HOW part of the equation. Will you be running hundreds of shirts at a time per design? Smaller and more frequent production orders? How will the production cost affect your margin for your brand? You have to know this. If you don’t handle decoration in-house, I would suggest finding at least three companies that can handle this for you. Understand the production parameters that scale with the quantity of the order, what it takes to do every step, and how they work the financial end of the business.

Trust me, they’ve heard it all before so absolutely don’t utter these words, “Hey, I’m starting my own clothing line and need some samples. Can you partner with me or give me a big break on getting things set up? We’re going to be huge and I’ll use you forever!” Shops hear this daily. It doesn’t work. A better approach is to use their established pricing schedule, work with them on doing things the right way, and pay them on time. The more professional you are with them, the better.


Now, you still aren’t ready to sell anything but you should spend some time constructing how you are going to market your apparel line. For your online store, this means eyeballs on your website. Realistically, how good are you at this?

Another reason to fully comprehend your customer’s habits is for your marketing campaign. Where are they online? What social media channels are they using the most? Are there particular posts that similar brands use that drive more engagement than others? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel…you just have to pay attention. If you have your WHO part solidified, you can use social media tools to dial in your messaging directly to your customers online.

There are five things that most advertising ideas are based on. When thinking about your apparel line’s marketing how do these relate?


Usually fear of missing out. Are there any negative outcomes of action or inaction by not purchasing your product? The fear tactic works best when the recommended action is specific and plausible to the consumer. For example, a sale or limited time offer for purchasing revolves around that fear of missing out on saving money. The fear of isolation is another strategy, and for the apparel market is the fear that you won’t be seen as part of the group. This is especially true for luxury brands.


This marketing idea draws on usually specific technical details for functionality or practicality. Your apparel blank could be a constructed from dri-fit performance fabric for example. When it’s marketed against 100% cotton for the outdoor adventure crowd, it is the feature that sells. For instance, while you might have printed a fun shirt with your funky monkey doing something crazy, the shirt could be constructed with UPF 50+ sun protection and made with stain release stretch fabric that is vented to keep the wearer cool in hot and humid climates. Rationality promotes benefits.


Here you are appealing to their funny bone to create an emotional attachment to the buyer. As people, we like things that make us laugh so this is a good place to start. Excellent humor used in marketing can help spread the word on your brand as people like to share things that make them laugh. Scuba Monkey definitely might fit into this category. Here’s where great creative thinking and excellent artwork pays off.


Yep. Sex sells. Can you show that your brand will make someone else take notice? If so, you may have a winner. Would Scuba Monkey be attractive to other people if worn by someone as a standalone idea? Maybe there is another idea that you could pursue.

Don’t forget to think about how the garment plays into the equation! Start off with a sexier apparel blank and then build the creative design into the piece.  People want to feel attractive, and they want to be around other attractive people, so if your garment can make them feel that way, you have a winner.

Of course, you could always just show the sexy with your design. Shark Riding Rodeo Babes back on the drawing board!


This direction is all about appealing to the buyer’s need to belong. This kind of message says “buy me” because everyone else does. People want to be in the popular group.

Ads that talk about bandwagon ideas will often tout statistics such a “8 out of 10” users prefer the product or user show statistics regarding coverage. Bandwagon ads will often show celebrities or other people that the buyer may trust using the product. Bandwagon marketing promotes user alignment with your brand. In our example, the target market is 2.7 – 3.5 million people. That’s a big bandwagon.

Can you show “real” people or maybe diving community celebrities wearing your brand in your marketing?

Putting It All Together

As you can see, marketing your brand is complicated and needs to be thought through. Your goal is to target your core audience to react to your marketing to go to your store and purchase your designs. Can you make the motivating connection between the buyer and your brand store? Plenty of people don’t.

Either they don’t market or they use messaging that doesn’t resonate. Just posting an apparel line for sale online won’t guarantee any sales. Connecting the dots between your brand and your buyers is a crucial step. If you know your audience, which of the five types of messaging about would appeal to them the most? What would be second best? Can you construct a marketing campaign to promote your store to drive the sales you expect?

Basic New Apparel Line Getting Started Checklist

Here’s a checklist you can use to start an apparel line from scratch. You may have some of these already. Be prepared!

  • Target Customer – Can you accurately describe this person? Where are they located? How much will they be willing to spend on your apparel? Why? What do they like?
  • Apparel Blanks – What type of shirts will you be using? Where are you sourcing these? How much do they cost? Will you be relabeling them? What styles, colors, and sizes are available?
  • The Timeframe for Purchasing – When does your customer typically purchase your type of apparel? Compare that to the lead time needed to produce the garment. What’s needed?
  • Business Set Up – Do you have a business set up legally? What do you need? What are the costs? Do you have a bank account? Payment processors? Shipping? Vendors? Branding?
  • Creative Designs – What makes your apparel line unique? Can a buyer pick out your brand from a crowd with a quick glance? How original is your idea?
  • Web Platform for Brand Store – Do you have a trustworthy way to sell shirts online? What costs are involved in setting that up? Do you have the skill to build the store? What tools are available?
  • Production – Can you handle decorating the garments? What does that cost? What factors influence your cost structure?
  • Packaging – Will you be shipping your brand in any special packaging? What is involved in that?
  • Shipping – What is the lowest cost to ship an order? How is that determined? Are you offering “free shipping” to you customers?
  • Profit – How much money do you want to make per sale?
  • Pricing – How does everything above on this list influence your cost structure for your apparel line? Knowing your costs and the profit you want to reap, can you build a pricing schedule that makes sense to your end customer?
  • Marketing – How are you going to market your items to your customer? What makes you different than any other apparel line on the market? Can you tell that story? Why should anyone buy your shirts?
  • Social Media – What social media channels does your customer base like to use? Are you connected or following them? Where are your competitors? What are they doing?
  • Competition – who are they and what are they doing?
  • Trademark Your Apparel Line Name – Do it right and protect your brand. Register for your trademark with the US Patent & Trademark Office.
  • Start Up Cash – How much money will you need? What is your breakeven amount?
  • Disaster – What could potentially go wrong? Are you prepared? Write out your worst case scenario. What are you doing to avoid that?
  • Success – What is the best thing that could happen? Are you prepared? Write out how you are going to achieve that goal.
  • Help – Do you have the talent, skill, and knowledge for everything above on this list? If not, can you bring in some help to close the gaps? What do you need?


“Planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

“The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” – H.G. Wells