You’ve got fashion savvy, big aspirations and creativity to spare, but there’s no clear-cut fashion formula for starting a clothing line. The ins and outs of the business, in many ways, are best learned through on-the-job training — or by listening to the counsel of those who’ve blazed the trail before you. Burag Celikian, one of the founding partners of the Los Angeles-based urban streetwear company Arka, hit the ground running in 2009 and blossomed his business into an international brand. In a recent interview, we asked Celikian to share an insider’s perspective of starting a clothing line.
Q: How do you establish a brand?
Celikian: Every brand begins with the name and logo. Both should be an embodiment of everything the brand stands for. All successful brands represent an idea or a certain type of person. This message needs to be clearly relayed to the consumer. For example, if you want to start a streetwear brand, your logo probably shouldn’t be a butterfly. In terms of design, it must be consistent with the company aesthetic. Designs must always be geared toward the consumer that your brand intends on selling to. It’s always good to experiment with styles, but don’t alienate your customer, and be true to yourself. You must represent your brand in every way so that the consumer knows you are authentic.
Q: What are typical startup costs?
Celikian: Startup costs can vary. It is important to have an office space where you conduct business and store your inventory. This could be the garage at the house you reside in. Many companies start out of a garage. We started out of a garage; there is no shame in that. The beginning stages of the company should focus on the product. Try to make the best product possible for the consumer. For the most part, nobody will see your work facilities, so you don’t need to waste money renting a warehouse or office space for the first year.
Q: What about equipment?
Celikian: In my particular business, screen-printing machines can be anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000. You can save on costs by printing yourself, but you also need to consider that you have a company to run, and doing it yourself may be too daunting. If you will not be doing the printing yourself and choose to outsource it, you will mainly need storage racks for the inventory.
Q: How many personnel are needed?
Celikian: Choosing the right personnel is key. In a partnership, for example, you have to make sure that everyone has different skill sets. There are many different task such as designing, dealing with production, overseeing marketing, managing inventory, sales, accounting, research and development — just to name a few. One person could take on a few of these roles; some special individuals can take on all these roles. Some use family and friends for assistance in the early stages.
Q: How do you find good people to hire?
Celikian: Finding the right people to have around you is a skill in itself. You must identify your weaknesses and fill the voids. Startups usually don’t have the starting capital to simply hire a team of people and place them on salary. Usually, you will see people partnering up so everybody can focus on their strengths. For this you need to find somebody you trust and who has the same mindset. Luckily for me, my closest friends growing up were the smartest people I knew.
Q: What positions should be filled first?
Celikian: Find somebody that is savvy in sales. You may have the best product, but it doesn’t help if nobody knows it exists. Your sales rep must fit the mold of your brand. When buyers come along and want to buy some of your product, your sales rep must be authentic. The fashion industry is one of emotion. People buy things because of an emotion, including those who are in charge of buying for stores. Your sales rep must know how to appeal to these emotions. Finding a good designer is just as important. You can reach out to freelance designers or college art students. Just like everything else, you will get what you pay for. There are websites like iFreelance and LinkedIn that can assist you in finding people.
Q: What if someone is unable to hire right away?
Celikian: If you are new to the industry and want to handle the sales yourself, you will need to hustle and grind. You’ll need to go to every trade show, get phone numbers, ask many questions and not take no for an answer. You will constantly need to follow up and make sure that buyers do not forget about you. The more trade shows you go to, the more contacts you will have. Some will even ask if they can work for you. If they do fit the mold of your company, then you give them a shot.
Q: What should someone know before getting into the industry?
Celikian: Do your research before launching. Knowing the etiquette in this industry is key. Go to trade shows, learn the terminology and ask questions constantly. One thing that surprised me was that there are a lot of nice people in the clothing industry. As long as you show that you are committed — that you are serious about the business and not simply a “dreamer” — many people will give you advice. Everybody has had their share of trials, and they will respect the fact that you’re willing to take on such a challenging journey. Prior to launching Arka, we conducted research for over a year. We went to trade shows and asked questions. We looked at many successful brands and tried to understand what made them successful. Once we felt ready, we dove into the industry head first and never looked back.
Q: What is the biggest challenge?
Celikian: The biggest challenge is juggling all the different roles and choosing how much time, effort and money to allocate to which area. Just like everything else in this business, there really isn’t a “one size fits all” formula for this. You need to work on what is effective for your brand. You will make your share of mistakes, but just know that it’s never the end of the world. The key is to learn from them and not dwell. What has worked for me personally is that I never focus the money; I focus on the product. If you believe in your product and love what you do, it will show.
Q: What is the biggest reward?
Celikian: For me, compliments are better than currency. I take pride in what I do. I put my heart and soul into all my designs, as corny as that may sound. I love it when people comment on our artwork. When we receive emails from people saying how much they love our shirts, it always feels really great. I’m not too big on quotes, but there is one that I heard that I can relate to and that works for anyone trying to break into this industry: “Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave” (Constantin Brancusi).
About Burag Celikian
Burag Celikian is a six-year veteran of the fashion industry. He and three partners launched Arka out of a garage and have grown their business into a successful clothing line that currently sells in over 250 locations worldwide. Celikian oversees production for the company and contributes to its designs.