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What Happens When Your Brand Fails

Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion industry.

It’s an unspoken fact of the fashion industry: For every brand that achieves blockbuster status, there’s a handful more that fail. Whether they quietly fold after the departure of the original creative director, fall apart in bankruptcy or management issues, or never get off the ground in the first place, there is a distinct possibility that a line will fail. In the past year alone, we’ve seen beloved and buzzy brands like Hood by Air, Suno, Anthony Vacarrello, and Ohne Titel shutter completely, with several more significantly scaling back on operations. 

That’s because there’s so much more to running a successful fashion brand than having great, original ideas — it’s a business. Clothing and accessory lines require both money and resources to stay open, as well as, if going the wholesale route, the ability to produce product retailers can sell — on the retailers’ schedules. Especially with a young fashion brand, these kinds of challenges can mean death. “We had about two seasons of the bag, and we had some production issues,” says Phillip Salem, former designer of Owen handbags, a line he founded for his now-closed boutique of the same name. “My business partner and I just decided, ‘You know what? I think it’s just time to just take a long hiatus from the fashion industry.'” These production issues stemmed from overseas factories; if Salem could do it again, he says he would produce everything domestically “down to the zipper.” No matter how organized the designer is, if something breaks down on the factory end — which nearly sidelined buzzy lingerie brand Negative Underwear — it can be completely out of their hands.   

Menswear designer Jackson McKeehan was prepared for the expense and production of starting his own line, and saved up enough money to fund three seasons. While working for other brands, he conceptualized what would become Boyswear. His first season, he says he spent “quite a bit of money” figuring out where to get fabrics and prints, as well as how to get advertising. But no matter how studious his planning, he still had a hard time with money. “I really do feel like at this current point where fashion is, especially in New York, there’s just no support for anyone that wants to start out on their own,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do, I had no ‘in’ with anyone in the industry really; it was a big hurdle for me to try to put myself out there socially but also to get my collection in front of the right people.”

But getting your collection in front of the right people isn’t a solution either. As many brands have proven, not even rave reviews from the fashion industry can be enough to save your brand. Boyswear received plenty of attention from Guy Trebay at The New York Times, but it didn’t help McKeehan keep his line alive. “That was the funny thing — that was the first time anybody in the industry had really seen me but that was already my third season; I was on the tail end of what I was trying to accomplish,” he says. “I couldn’t lend my stuff out quick enough to shoot it. I felt like I was finally on the way, and with all of this great press, I was expecting that I would be able to use this as leverage to get into a couple stores so that I could keep going. Nothing.” McKeehan emailed every retailer, buyer and boutique owner he could find, and says he heard “crickets.” 

“I just couldn’t figure out how to reach out to people that were doing the buying in a way that they would pay any attention to me,” he says. “I thought that this press would help, but other than making me feel good about the work I was doing finally, it didn’t get me anywhere.” Mckeehan tried to keep the brand afloat by taking on a full-time job again to do one more season and capitalize on his press momentum. Then one day, he says, he realized he physically couldn’t take on a 40-hour day job and fully design, produce and stage a full runway show, and so Boyswear went on permanent hiatus. 

And closure isn’t as simple as offloading your remaining stock; there are a lot of final details to attend to, including paying bills. “Once you close, it doesn’t just close over night; you have a lot to do,” Salem says. “You have to pay the bills, you have to close your business, LLC, you have to make sure everything checks and balances with the accountant.” That can prove especially challenging for brands that close for financial reasons; bad budgeting is a big reason many brands fail. “Really have your budget highly, highly planned out with a professional accountant, or bookkeeper, just to make sure that you have all your checks and balances in order so you’re not overspending,” Salem advises.

Some designers move on from their own labels to heading up bigger brands, like Vacarrello or Jonathan Saunders. Others open their own lines again in a different iteration; after Vena Cava closed, Lisa Mayock went on to start Monogram and Sophie Buhai started a jewelry line. McKeehan returned to working in design for other brands. Salem left the fashion world altogether for the world of real estate. “I’ve been working with people throughout my entire tenure with Owen,” he says. “It only makes sense to continue working with people, but rather than dressing them, I’m helping them find their dream home.” 

Yet this kind of failure is not a widely-discussed risk; in fact, many of the brands and designers Fashionista reached out to for this story declined to comment. While it’s certainly understandable — many designers view the shuttering of their brands as a kind of personal failure, and some may have ended acrimoniously — it’s a shame, because many designers starting out have very little idea as to what they could be in for. “It’s really sensitive and probably a year ago I couldn’t have done this,” McKeehan admits. “I feel what happened with my brand made me realize how much I can be of help to others, which is one of the reasons I’m talking to you.” 

Still, closing a line doesn’t have to mean forever. “If an opportunity presents itself where everything makes sense, we have the funding, and the right team, and all the stars align, then yes, it makes sense to restart [Owen],” Salem says. 

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Homepage photo: Peter Michael Dills/Getty Images

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