I've written about two of my mentors, David Jones and Martin Shoben, and I think it's time I wrote about my virtual mentor, American, Kathleen Fasanella. As a blogger, there is no reason to restrict oneself to people you can actually meet. I found Kathleen's blog, Fashion Incubator, 'Lessons from the sustainable factory floor' some time ago and have subsribed to her blog feed and then eventually I bought her book 'The Entrepreneur's Guide To Sewn Product Manufacturing'. (Amazon reviews are good but please buy the book from Kathleen's site as she'll get a greater cut).
Kathleen writes about the whole process of setting up a business from a small designer perspective. Her core skill is pattern cutting but she has her own label and does consultancy work. How she does all this and writes an excellent blog and book I really don't know. She has this rather hectoring style (I feel I'm being reprimanded) but it galvanises you into action. Topics vary from pattern cutting, business, sustainability, making up and is firmly based on hard-won experience. She's always going on about reading the book before you even think of starting a business. Of course, I didn't read the book before I started. I didn't want anyone to tell me too much stuff that would make me not do this. Also, I used to be a teacher in an earlier life and one of the most useful things I learnt was that you can only take on board so much from whatever starting point you are. You can't read a whole book about setting up a fashion business and do it just like that. There is too much information all at once; you need something to hang the new information onto. More simply put, if you've got to level 2, you can't embrace level 3-9 all in one go.
So finally I bought the book and read it over the Christmas holidays. I really like her style. She has headings such as "Be Afraid Be Very Afraid" and "How to Go Broke (quickly)" and "How to Go Broke (slowly)". It's just the kind of lesson you need, especially as many designers have a tendency to avoid the reality of business in favour of flights of fancy or delusional 'creative integrity'. It helped me pick myself up from a low patch around Christmas when I wasn't selling much. I now know now that it was a combination of Christmas, when people aren't focusing on themselves but others, and that the sales are in their sights. A winter coat is a high ticket item that is great to buy in the sales if you are nearer Christmas (though you do get caught out as invarably the one you like has sold out).
Since reading the book I've realised a few things I'm going to change - mistakes made maybe. Firstly, I've decided not to do a big summer collection of jackets. I want to work on a small collection of summer coats/jackets in hemp. However, my sense is that if I go for this then I'll 'go broke quickly'. It's expensive putting on a show, shoot and all that and the returns take a while to come in. I have quite a lot of creative equity in my coats and there is a good level of awareness, which I must keep going. So, I've decided that I'll save my resources for Autumn 08. I will do some summer jackets (Vita Sackville-West is my inspiration) and make up a few for my open studio events. However, I'll focus really on my tweed coat season and hopefully, the summer coats will be ripe for a more flamboyant launch in Spring 09. (Seems so far away!)
Another lesson learnt is that I made too many styles. It's expensive to make up so many and then have a choice of fabric. I have decided to cut them down to about four coats for next year. I re-cut three or four from this collection and design one new one. From my customers' response I see I need to make this a more fitted coat. The only really fitted ones are Mitford and du Maurier and whilst they are lovely and universally applauded, people are less willing these days to have such a formal coat. They want something they can throw on over a pair of trousers, jump in the car, etc. It's hard to say no to styles that you love, but I think I'm getting more detached about it.
I made up too much stock. When you have so many styles and sizes it's a little risky. Now I know that size 10 is what sells most, and so I'll make up a few more in those sizes and less in the larger sizes. It's a tricky one as you do lose customers if they have to wait 4 weeks, but then with fewer styles making up a little stock will be less risky than with 8 styles and two fabrics per style.
I also realise from reading the book how lucky I am to have Neil, my tailor, who makes for me. It's a very important relationship and something to nurture. I will write about Neil another time.