NEW YORK, United States — One of the most talked about fashion shows this year didn't come from a brand backed by LVMH or venture capital, but rather a designer whose seed capital was her tax refund.
Hanifa, a Maryland-based womenswear label founded by designer Anifa Mvuemba in 2012, went viral in May after presenting its new collection of feminine, flattering separates and evening wear on a dynamic 3D digital model. It was a rare example of a fashion show that used digital technology as more than a gimmick.
In the weeks that followed, Hanifa generated widespread media coverage and saw more than double the usual online orders for a new collection.
For Mvuemba, who started her brand without a design background or industry connections, the show and its reception validated her unconventional approach to the fashion business. Hanifa, named after the way Mvuemba’s first name is pronounced, began with an image of a dress design posted on Instagram in 2012. She was working in retail at the time and, with the money from a tax return, taught herself to sew and started making clothing for friends, family and clients who found her on social media. It grew from there.
She produced every piece herself until 2018 and still sells only direct to consumer. And she still lives in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C., where she has more space to work and lower living costs.
“The whole time, I’ve just been flipping what I was making,” Mvuemba told BoF. “And I was just putting right back into the business — try something else, or try a new garment or a new collection. And each time, it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Mvuemba is part of a cohort of designers who have found their own way into fashion, turning a passion project into a real business slowly but surely, with little or no help from outside investors.
Often when a designer is described as "self-funded," they can still tap wealthy family and friends, or savings from their past lives as bankers or lawyers. Designers who truly start from scratch often find themselves blocked out of the fashion establishment because they don’t follow the traditional (and costly) steps. It’s not just about money: the industry establishment connections needed to get a brand off the ground is another barrier, particularly for Black designers and designers of colour.
While Mvuemba’s journey with Hanifa has been intense and laborious, it also insulated her from an increasingly troubled fashion system, which for decades pushed designers to follow a set path from fashion school to wholesale distribution and a slot at fashion week.
It’s also a path more aspiring designers are likely to take as the pandemic triggers mass layoffs throughout the fashion industry, and a recession threatens to close off many sources of funding.
For fashion entrepreneurs just starting out with little or no safety net, success will depend on the ability to creatively solve problems and the strength to block out the noise and focus on their customers.
“You need so much tenacity and fortitude,” said Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem's Fashion Row. “There is no straight line to success with entrepreneurship. It is a journey that is gonna take you on some high highs and low lows. So you need something that anchors you that entire time. And that's going to be your ‘why’ — why are you doing this in the first place?”
Research, Plan, Prepare
The rules for starting a fashion business are largely the same whether a founder has an investor or is starting from nothing. But for those that do not have a big pile of cash to fall back on, a thorough understanding of the market is even more essential. The more research a founder does, the less likely they are to waste money on their path to finding the right approach to making products and selling them to customers.
Sharifa Murdock, the co-owner of Liberty Fairs trade show who has counselled emerging designers for more than dacde, advised founders to set a general plan for the business at the outset, even if it’s too early to plan out revenue targets.
“It's very important for you to have some sort of structure to the business that you're about to start so that you do not make mistakes,” Murdock said.
She recommended using family and friends as a testing ground for initial products, to get feedback and determine if people will be willing to buy your product before investing too much in the business.
When Reuben Reuel started his womenswear label Demestik eight years ago, he said his plan didn’t go much further than “make pretty dresses and make money.” He launched with one shirt design and one dress in colourful wax cotton prints, which he sold on Etsy, a marketplace for handmade and artisanal goods, and his business grew from there. He’s sold 20,000 pieces to this day.
“Everything was trial and error,” he said. “I just knew how to hustle.”
But Reuel knew his modern approach to traditional prints stood out, especially in a wide size range (every style is available in XS to 2X). The designer also spent time from the very beginning giving customers individual attention, knowing it would gain shoppers’ loyalty.
“It's not just [going to be successful] because you have this creative idea of a pretty dress: there has to be something else that's going to attract consumers,” Reuel said.
Mvuemba said she offset her lack of experience by educating herself. She read books and articles and watched videos online about finance, marketing, manufacturing, Photoshop, Instagram and everything else that goes into running her own business.
“I didn't really have the business background, the financial background,” she said. “I just knew I have something here and maybe I should try something.”
Identifying that special something, or what will differentiate your brand, is also extremely important, said Abe Burmeister, founder and creative director of online, direct-to-consumer label Outlier. The business is known for incorporating technical and industrial fabrics, the kind of which is more likely found in outdoor apparel, in everyday menswear staples. He and Tyler Clemens started the business twelve years ago with a small amount of savings while still working full-time jobs, and they continue to run the business without outside investment.
“You have to want to do it and you have to want [to create] something that doesn’t exist,” said Burmeister. “Otherwise what's the point?”
Focuses on Finances or Find Someone You Trust to Help You
Bootstrapped brands cannot afford to be careless with their finances.
“If you’re starting without capital, really you are starting with a cash-run rate of weeks,” said Outlier’s Burmeister. “You have to be profitable from the get-go at some level, you can’t just keep pouring more money into it and not getting anything back.”
But many creatives struggle to manage their finances, and it can take time away from designing. Mvuemba advises founders to recognise their own weaknesses and find a trusted person to help them budget if that isn’t one of their strengths.
In 2015, three years after she started Hanifa, Mvuemba took a yearlong break because the business had become too overwhelming to manage completely on her own. After she returned, she hired a financial advisor to help her budget and plan.
“It was one of the greatest things I ever did and it helped tremendously,” Mvuemba said, even though she was nervous about being able to afford the help. “I had to understand that it was essentially an investment … And it would actually allow me to have more free time to do something else so that the business will grow.”
At first, Reuel’s approach with Demestik was simple:
“I knew that if I was going to create a collection, it had to be at a certain price point, I knew that the fabric had to be at a certain price point, the manufacturing had to be a certain price point,” he said. “Whatever I was producing, I would be able to sustain myself and live.”
But as his business grew, Reuel developed a more structured plan, and he recommends founders hiring an accountant and set a forward-looking strategy. He acknowledged that enlisting and trusting outside help can be difficult.
“I think a lot of creatives, a lot of designers who are independent and especially Black ones, we live in a survival mode because we don't have the access, we don't have the information, and we're also trying to hold on to this thing that we have created,” he said. “Giving that trust to somebody else, it’s not that easy.”
Murdock said founders who cannot afford to hire someone to help them can look for free classes for small business owners online, but should not feel like they can’t ask for help.
“[Look] on LinkedIn and find someone that you admire and see if they'll help you,” she said. “There's always somebody out there that is willing to help [entrepreneurs].”
Find the Distribution Platform that Makes Sense for You
In today’s data-driven and competitive digital environment, a direct relationship with customers could not be more valuable. Founders have many e-commerce platform options at their disposal, from Shopify to Instagram.
Murdock said that while starting off selling products on Instagram on a case-by-case basis can make sense for bootstrapping entrepreneurs, e-commerce platforms can provide more data and other services that are essential to understanding the customer and reaching them.
Before launching Demestik, Reuel knew he wanted to look beyond the traditional fashion business model, intermediated by department stores and showrooms that keep brands at a distance from their customers.
He decided to build his brand on Etsy, a marketplace for handmade items and crafts, where he found a global audience that appreciated his small-scale approach and was willing to pre-order fashion, helping cover the costs of production.
“I have been in New York City long enough to see brands come out into the industry, have all this press, have all this buzz … But at the end of the day, how much are you actually selling to actual humans?” Reuel said, adding that his driving goal has been to build a business that financially supports himself.
The connection I have made with my customers is something that no one can ever take from me.
If he followed the traditional system, “I think that I would have saturated the market and penetrated the market too soon, prematurely, and I wouldn't have been able to really discover who that customer was,” he said. “The connection I have made with my customers is something that no one can ever take from me.”
Visual imagery is key to building any brand, but especially a fashion business that does not have the money to pour into paid marketing to get the word out to potential shoppers. The content brands post on social media platforms needs to grab audiences’ attention and entice them to find out more.
“The customers are actually seeing the garments first on Instagram or online before they actually see it in person,” Mvuemba said. She taught herself graphic design, Photoshop and video editing to make her online content stronger. “The more I would post pictures of the garments or details, the more inquiries I will get and the more followers I would get and it just kept growing from there.”
Reuel also credits his early product images shot by Kia Chenelleto the early success of his brand, thanks to the way he styled the clothes to how the model danced in the images. “Fashion is all visual,” he said.
Scrappy founders bear the weight of the challenges of building a business primarily on their own. But just because they can’t afford to hire someone to help doesn’t mean that relationships aren’t key to their success, whether it's asking for advice from a potential mentor or negotiating more favourable terms with vendors.
Daniel stressed that founders cannot build a business without help, noting that fashion designers in particular tend to think they have to go it alone.
“You'll be surprised — there are so many people that are willing to be on the ground floor with you in starting a business if they believe in you,” she said. “And if they see you going at 100 percent, people are willing to… donate their time, donate their expertise.”
When she entered the fashion industry for the first time, coming into it with no connections, Daniel was able to “build relationships out of thin air” by going beyond the basic approach of a cold email or direct message. She sent people cupcakes to their offices or hand wrote them notes. She also reached out to book “coaching sessions” with people she wanted to speak to, even if they were not career coaches, which signalled that she respected their time enough to pay for it. Most said it wasn’t necessary and met with her for free, but appreciated the gesture.
There are so many people that are willing to be on the ground floor with you in starting a business if they believe in you.
Relationship-building is key even beyond finding mentors or people to hire. In the early years of Demestik, Reuel’s strong ties with, for example, fabric suppliers allowed him to put a hold on purchasing fabrics while he waited to see what his pre-orders would require.
“Like my first boss in New York told me … be nice to everyone,” said Reuel. “You never know who you're going to need, when you're going to need them.”
Build Off Reliable Sellers with New Designs
Outlier’s Burmeister advises that founders focus first on creating a product that more than a few people want to buy and that can be easily reproduced as more customers discover the brand.
“It’s very hard to survive creating only new things,” he said.
But founders need to balance the staple products and the new releases to “sell a story” of the brand and keep customers coming back for more. “There needs to be some level of excitement around what you’re doing, and the beauty with clothing is that it can go in so many different directions,” Burmeister said. “Once you have that energy and establish it, you have to figure out how to keep that going.”
Have a Long Term Mindset
Perhaps the most important advice for founders is to take their effort seriously, and plan for long term success.
“You have to go into it with the assurance in your mind that you're going to make this happen by any means necessary,” said Murdock.
That means not cutting corners, like forgetting to register the business name and trademark, or not worrying about taxes. These oversights will become larger problems later on. And in order to have the tenacity required to survive, especially in as challenging an industry as fashion, founders need to operate under the assumption that they will be successful.
That mindset is easier to describe than achieve, especially in as insular an industry as fashion.
“Even with everything that I've done, I always felt like I was doing something wrong, or I wasn't doing it the way that I was supposed to do it,” said Mvuemba. “But I think this year, I realised, ‘Man, I actually have something ... I want to do it how I want to do it.’ The 3D fashion show was a result of that.”