If you want to discover what invaluable lessons I learned from launching a fashion fine jewellery brand, then read on.
It is often said that hindsight is 20/20 and in the case of launching and growing fashion business, this most certainly is the case. When you are fresh and new to an industry it is easy to go down a path and make a decision that monumentally alters the course of events for you and your business. Sometimes in a good way and often in not so good ways.
When we look at start-up brands in the fashion space that become successful quickly, we often justify their success by way of assuming it is because they had insider knowledge, connections, money…etc Which sometimes may be the case but often no matter who and what you know, there is no substitute to doing the work and learning the lessons first hand.
This certainly was the case for me. After working in the fashion industry for ten or so years, I was confident that I knew a lot about how the fashion industry worked, the A to Z process of creating a product and what it took to take it to market. I felt ready to try my hand at launching a brand and business of my own.
With all that industry knowledge, contacts and knowing that my bank balance reflected my humble ex-communist upbringing roots, I wanted to launch a brand of my own but in the simplest possible way.
Clothing was what I had expert knowledge of, but it was an area that had so many moving parts and so many small things that can go wrong that it didn’t fit my criteria for ease and simplicity. Leathergoods was a close call and very tempting but since I was still working for a large leathergoods brand at the time, where I was heading the entire design and product division – that was not a wise option.
Shoes – too complicated.
Knitwear – great! I didn’t know a lot about it but I knew by then that I didn’t have to be an expert to develop an idea into a product. I just needed to find the experts. So I started to design my launch collection and was certain I would go into knitwear when faith interfered.
A much-loved ring I had bought myself with my first proper salary, got lost one cold winter day. Since it was rather unusual and a one-off piece, featuring a carved emerald stone typical for Mughal jewellery, replacing it meant a trip to India. A country I have been dreaming of going to for years. Long story short – the itinerary was designed around a visit to the jewellery capital of India in search of a jeweller who can re-make my ring. After finding the jeweller and having my eyes feast on millions of stones and finished jewellery, I ended up having not one but 3 rings made for me, before I even left India. More followed soon after I got back to London. Before I knew it – I had a small collection that I could start selling and so my brand and business were born.
One would think and safely assume that after 10 years of working for luxury brands I would know everything there was to know about launching a brand. It is true – I did know a lot. But that didn’t stop me from learning some big and invaluable lessons over the eight years during which I had the business running. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to enjoy having my own brand and learn as much as I did over the years. These lessons are not the kind of advice often shared by industry insiders. Yet, looking back now, I wish I knew sooner what I know now.
And if I can offer you the gift of learning from my mistakes and lessons, imagine how much farther you can take your own brand and creative business?
So let me share below my learnings and you take what you need from them, make better decisions and create your own success story with this knowledge.
#1 Embrace the happy accidents
Creative brand founders often make the mistake, in my opinion, of being too fixed and controlling over every detail and particularly in the product creation process. Those who are creative want to get their ideas made “just so” and keep the integrity of their initial design intact. Those who are less confident creatively think that by chasing perfection the end product will not betray their lack of creative genius or flair.
However, I have often found after overseeing countless products being created for some of the best-known luxury brands, that being open to changes and not rejecting immediately what is considered to be a “mistake” can be the magic ingredient you were looking for or need.
Since I did not train as a jeweller and knew only the basics of the jewellery manufacturing process, I would communicate with my jewellery makers via images and word descriptions. This often led to misunderstandings and them doing something I didn’t want, or they thought I would reject. But soon they learned that what most other designers may reject I often accepted and in fact emphasised, as that became the distinctive element in my design.
So stay open-minded and embrace as a gift the small accidents and mistakes that may happen as part of the process.
#2 If you don’t love it, you won’t sell it
Without realising it at the time, I always accepted employment from brands whose products I loved. I can safely say looking back on my corporate fashion career that I never worked for a brand that I didn’t love and desired the product.
But when it came to my own brand, though I started with creating products I absolutely loved, when faced with a challenge such as a global economic recession – I accepted advice that led me down the wrong path.
Back in 2008 when I launched, one of the biggest global recessions was just starting. While it didn’t stop me from launching, I did have the good sense to want to meet successful business people who can give me advice on how to best navigate this tricky time as a startup. I managed to get a meeting with Monica Vinader and John Ayton – both hugely successful jewellery brand founders. Both advised me to forget about doing 18k gold jewellery and focus on silver. I took their advice and while I didn’t stop working in fine gold, I did for a while focus on designing and developing a couple of silver collections. The aesthetic of those was very different to my gold collections, despite my trying to keep the overall look homogenous.
However, I didn’t love the design process for these collections. Though the end result was nice, it was not jewellery I would wear as I never liked silver or white metal jewellery. Growing my brand with silver jewellery collections, to my mind at that time was just a survival strategy, not a long-term plan. So, when it came to presenting these silver collections to buyers at trade fairs – I did my best not to. I didn’t realise that I was self-sabotaging until later when a few retailers would place orders for the silver collections, and I felt terribly disappointed in their choice. In fact, I came up with many reasons why I would then later not process these orders.
So while I don’t advise to only design what you like and love, because ultimately you are not your one and only customer – I do think it’s vitally important that you believe in the long term need for the products you design, manufacture and therefore later have to market and sell. If you are going to be embarrassed and do not want your brand represented by a certain type of product, then just don’t waste your time and money. Because you will not make an effort to do your best to market it and sell it and what’s the point of having such products in the first place?
#3 Be careful who you ask for advice
The example above perfectly illustrates the need to be careful who you listen to. Once you start your own brand and business you’ll find that almost everyone will have something to say and feel the need to give you advice. Unfortunately, while most of the people who tell you what to do will mean well and only want the best for you – they would not have done what you are trying to do. So be careful how much you allow for this type of noise to surround you.
Then there would be great people you may come across who know what they are talking about, just like the amazing people I asked for advice and whose advice you must listen to. BUT – before you jump into implementation – be mindful of the type of business they built is the same as the type of business you are hoping to create. In my case, both my advisors were successful jewellery entrepreneurs and had brilliant minds and invaluable experience, but the advice I asked for was given from a place of knowing and operating in a slightly different market space. Therefore their advice was wrong for my brand and ultimate vision. Maybe I didn’t make it clear how committed I was to create a fine jewellery brand in yellow gold and they tried to make life easier for me by suggesting an alternative path.
Either way – not asking deeper questions of myself and blindly just following what I was told, resulted in an expensive lesson.
Luckily for me, years later I was able to melt the silver and recoup some of the expense associated with creating these silver collections. But if you are a clothing brand, or leather accessories or almost anything else but fine metal jewellery – you will not be able to do what I did. You will just sit on a stock that eventually you will sell at a loss, gift away or throw out. So pay attention to the people you surround yourself with and listen to.
#4 Be known as either one of a kind designer or organise your products into collections.
One of the distinctive features of the jewellery I designed and made was based on the “one of a kind” precious stones I used. It meant that I rarely could replicate pieces in exactly the same way in multiples. This had its positives and negatives.
From a creative point of view, I was in heaven. But looking at it commercially – this made things really hard for me as a start-up brand. It meant I had to spend way more time in development and manufacturing, costs were always different which affected my profit margins and it made it harder to sell to buyers. I didn’t have enough funds to make endless amounts of stock to sell from and if I sold something, I had less to show to the next buyer, which wasn’t a great position to be in.
So, be clear from the start about what kind of brand you are going to be, what is your sales and therefore marketing strategy and make sure it is sustainable. There is no right or wrong – both models have their advantages and disadvantages. While you can do both at the same time, be mindful of the fact that your choices will have financial repercussions that can’t be ignored and will ultimately also affect the speed with which you grow your business
#5 Not every market is THE right market and there is always more than one market
It is often advised for start-up brands to focus on their home-grown market when launching a fashion fine jewellery brand or any brand for that matter. The benefits are obvious – you know it better, you can meet the customers and buyers easily, and you may have more contacts to help you…
But if you are struggling in that market for whatever reason, then look outside it. Maybe there are better markets to focus on and be in and you keep your homegrown market as a nice to have.
When I was pushing to get sales for my jewellery in the UK it was really hard going. I was selling jewellery that was very different from what sold really well in the UK, I was all about 18k yellow gold in a market that really loved white metals and silver was a big sales driver and while most brands sold white diamond jewellery, because who doesn’t like white diamonds (me!) I was creating a brand and products that stood for the opposite of everything the UK jewellery customer liked to buy.
What I should have done sooner, was focus on international markets and particularly the USA where there were already brands selling jewellery like mine. What I didn’t know or trust myself to acknowledge was that there is never just one market. The whole world contains customers that are perfect for you and at any one time some places have more or less of those “ideal” customers and your job is to keep a pulse of the market and move with where demand for your product is.
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#6 Make friends with “the small” people
Despite working in the fashion industry for a decade and knowing a lot of people inside of it, when it came to promoting my own brand I felt like I didn’t know anything. Having to call magazine editors to get press felt nauseating. Arranging to meet potential first-time buyers was so stressful I would do anything to avoid it. But over time what I realised was that it was infinitely less scary and painful to seek out the assistants and juniors who work directly under the main person I should speak to and use them as a step up. I would befriend them and get info from them that helped me feel more confident to approach their bosses. Or I would get them to put in a word for me to arrange an appointment and that helped me reframe the fear and see it as being halfway there. I was no longer speculatively looking for something….I had info, I was introduced, and I had an appointment to turn up for.
This worked in almost every area of the industry – magazines, press offices, marketing agencies, and retail shops. By making friends with the “little” people I got to meet with top buyers, I was invited for free to join a jewellery association (that usually one has to apply for a place and pay a joining fee), I got stocked in a premium London jewellery boutique, I had shop staff look after me and protect my sales and stock from being stolen (YES! That’s a whole other story for another time!), I got featured in coveted magazine titles and so much more.
The last thing I would say on the matter is that the small people are bound to get a promotion and rise up the ladder and when they do, all of a sudden you end up being on first term names with the top people, so it is well worth being nice to them and getting them on your side as an ally.
#7 Know how to network
Talking of people, once you know them or to get to know them the best way is to network. Not just turn up at a talk but go to events that perhaps take place over a weekend or a few days, have an evening event organised as part of the programme…etc
It is often outside of the event itself, ie at the drink or dinner party when alcohol is involved that people loosen up and really become friendly. It is “friendships” forged at these times that can be the game changers you need.
If you are terrible at networking (like me!) bring a chatty friend who can open the conversation and bring you in. That is what I did – again it happened by coincidence but once I saw the benefit, I rarely went to an event alone.
Taking part in trade fairs for example while it is not cheap, it pays itself by the networking you get to do, the people you get to meet at nearby stands, the information you learn from talking to your peers or competitors and a lot more than just sales comes out as a result of participating.
#8 Go to trade fairs and in-person events
This advice is especially relevant given the times we live in. As much as possible, get out and about and meet people. If nothing is happening around you – create the reason and event. But meeting people in person allows for much deeper and better connection and creates a whole new level of unexpected opportunities and results.
When I first started, I took part in one of the worst jewellery shows ever. Literally, I don’t remember anyone selling anything – it was so bad. But I met other jewellers who to this day have remained close friends. Because of knowing them, I have found new opportunities, have partnered with some of them to go to other shows and co-share a stand or a hotel room, have found new suppliers and stockists and so much more.
At other events I met others with whom we jointly organised a private sales event in a luxury hotel and invited all our clients; at shop events and press days, I have met journalists and private clients that have resulted in new opportunities and unexpected sales….The list of examples can go on and on….
Zooming and face timing are great, but they cannot replace the face to face quality of the interaction, so whenever you can – get out and about.
#9 Take advantage of opportunities
When you attend events, and trade fairs, network with people, see suppliers or generally spend time outside of your bubble you will come across opportunities that sometimes are too good to miss.
For example – I was once seeing a gemstone supplier and he showed me tiny little rings with rough diamonds that were already made, that he was selling. The price was great and even though it wasn’t aesthetic wise completely on-brand for me – there was a design element that could link these rings to some of my collections and I could see I could make it work. I bought a few and promptly showed them to one of my stockists who did sell a lot of little dainty jewellery. Those little rings sold out in no time and had the highest (in multiple, not value) profit margin out of everything I had ever sold until that point. I couldn’t sell enough of them and brought me new customers who ordinarily would not have noticed my jewellery because it wasn’t instantly their usual style.
Another time I stumbled upon a post on Twitter by some foreign journalist requesting some jewellery for a particular theme. I quickly messaged her and sent her my brand’s lookbook. I had no idea who she was nor what exactly she did. I just figured the more people know about my brand – the better surely. The next thing I know – my jewellery was featured in Italian Vogue. Not bad, right?
So you never know what can lead to what….so take a chance on people, events, enquiries and trust nothing is coincidental.
#10 Collect and analyse data
One of the most powerful game-changing skills we all can develop is to not be oblivious to the data that is all around us. Wanting and wishing for something and the actual reality of what actually takes place and happens are two different things. When you pay attention to the details, your efforts will get bigger and better results.
One of the biggest mistakes I see younger brand founders and start-ups do is not notice who truly their customer is. So they keep trying and trying to sell to people they think are a great match for their product and fail to notice the reality of who their true customer is.
This was also a lesson I made very early on. One of many, but let me share this one with you… Roundabout the time when I was getting ready to launch my brand someone I know arranged for me to meet an advertising guru who also worked as an agent for independent brands. The man in question had a solid reputation, a thick black book of wealthy buyers and contacts in all the right places. He took one look at my jewellery and loved it, but commented that I will struggle to sell it. He continued to explain that the kind of jewellery I had created was not your run off the mill and easy buy for retail buyers, nor a classic and impulse buy. Surprisingly he said price is not an issue (which I feared it will be given each ring was upwards of a couple of thousand pounds). The problem I would face is that my customer would be an independent woman with the financial means to treat herself to my jewellery as a gift to herself – because she loves what I have created and doesn’t have to wait and hope someone will buy it for her. He told me I would have many buyers but I would have to seek them out one by one.
I was so upset with the feedback and set on proving him wrong….until years later I looked back on all the customers whom I knew of and realised he was so right. The only men that bought my pieces did so because they were told what to buy or they opted for the small safe pieces I had designed to have something simple and of a lower price point.
Data is all around us. Every decision we make and action we take results in data. Don’t ignore it – analyse it and either test more to verify it or use it to your advantage.
Part 2 to follow next week.
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