Advice On Running A Clothing Line From Greg Kerr of Miles To Go

Mile To Go has been one of my favorite brands since I have started for various reasons, but most importantly how well Greg runs his clothing line. I interviewed him a ways back which can be read HERE, but for this interview I really wanted to get some solid advice put together for people that are either running clothing lines or thinking about starting a clothing line. Greg was kind enough to sit down and answer some of the most common questions and provide insight into running a successful brand.

If you haven’t already also make sure to check out the new Miles To Go Spring line as it melts faces!

So how have things been since we lasted talked? The new line looks fantastic!

Life has been a bit of a whirlwind over the last few months. On top of planning the spring line that just came out, I went to London to venture into picking up some retail stores and got hit with a ton of belt orders(over 2000) all during the time I was supposed to be printing my line and doing all of the prep for it. The new release went very well and the response has been great, which is very rewarding and makes all of the hard work worth it. I thought I had it all planned out this time and got all of my art for spring wrapped up by late November, but it still turned into total chaos and taught me a lot of new things.

I know we have touched on this before, but for the newcomers could you give a bit of background into Miles To Go and why decided to start a brand?

Miles to go started very organically. I worked at a print shop and had access to a press, so I began printing some designs I had made for myself and would make a few more to try and sell on eBay or Etsy, etc. Did some local events hustling on street corners and just allowed it to keep folding into itself. My first commissioned piece of art that I got is when the idea of having a clothing line began. Even so, at that point, I maybe printed 24 of them the first time. To this day, I just keep trying to move forward and allow it to grow at its own pace.

Was there a point where you really felt like Miles To Go started to take off and what do you think was what caused that?

One of the first big breaks that gave me a window into what people thought about the brand was when I did a charity tee with Colin from Circa Survive. Up until that point, people finding me were either local or knew me from the internet. I saw a lot of the kids picking up tees along with the charity one and since it was a totally new crowd of people with no association with me, it inspired me and let me see that I could make it work. Things kept moving along for a while and then last spring I decided to do a seasonal release. Before then, I would hire an artist, print the shirt, sell it, etc. Initially the move to do seasonal was brought on by me debating doing retail and they tend to work in fall and spring with trade shows happening during august and feb. Doing a seasonal release with a bunch of items at once helped peak interest and also allowed blogs and other sites to do features which helped get the word out a ton.

Was there ever a time where you considered pulling the plug and if so what made you keep trucking on?

I can’t tell you how many times I have debated pulling the plug on it. Running a t-shirt brand is not exactly a model for profitability in terms of the normal business model. My dad told me a long time ago that you needed to make at least 300% to be able to start making anything. Let’s say you print a 3 color shirt using discharge ink onto an AA tee and do 100 shirts. Might run you around $9/10 a shirt. Factor in the art fees($300 for original art) adds $3 per tee at 100 shirts. So, now, before doing any finishing, evaluating the labor costs or printed promotional items to give away you are at around $12/13 a shirt. Average tee price is around $20-25. Each shirt you sell basically allows you to pay for that one and pay to print a new shirt.
The fact that I pay most of my bills making my belts and had free time before has definitely factored into me thinking of stopping plenty of times. I spend so much time on these shirts, but its an outlet for me and I do really enjoy doing it. Hearing the response from people who buy the shirts and that they might pick up one of the books keeps me inspired. At this point, I have really put a lot of value into what has been built and will go until my head pops off.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice someone should think about before starting a clothing line?

It’s been said a million times, but you really need to do this because of a passion for the medium or for art. When I get a new piece of art that I’ve commissioned it re-ignites that spark. You also really need to have a theme to the brand and that theme should be something that you are actually passionate about as opposed to what is trendy. Take away my shirts and I’m still a book nerd. Take away Electric Zombie and Kyle is still a horror buff. That is what makes it successful, a genuine passion for it and it will keep you ahead of the curve. Customers recognize it when you are legitimately into what you are selling.

What are some of the mistakes that you have made running your brand and how have you learned from them?

Oh man, I could go on forever with this one. One thing I learned is to follow my gut in terms of how the brand is represented. Everyone has their own opinions and wants you to do this or that and on whatever color, etc and it never works out. Good or bad, my eye and my taste is what makes miles to go what it is. Anyone can hire an artist and say “do something cool, run wild”, but it won’t have the feel of the brand.

Another mistake was trying to do retail too early. About 4 years ago I did the Pool trade show in Vegas and went in like a blind man. I did pretty well but also quickly learned that coming up with the money to fund printing all of the shirts I needed and maybe having to wait 90 days to see a return wasn’t where I was at with the brand. Hell, I even just did a show in London(after having a brand for 5 years) and it went well, but still brought up new obstacles that I wasn’t prepared for. Lastly, there is no logical reason to go print 144 of some design when you don’t have the sales to match selling them. I see kids get these huge orders of tees on their first order and have some wild notion that if they put it out there, people will buy them all up. Even my Moby Dick shirt that to date has sold about 400+, when I reprint, I make maybe 50 more at a time. It’s a waste of money to over print something that hasn’t proven itself. You can always re-order if you sell out. By the time is sells out, you might even want to just move forward and leave it behind.

Do you still think there is room for new indie clothing start-ups or is the market just too saturated right now?

It is an over saturated market, but how many markets aren’t that way? The over saturation comes from too many brands trying to make a brand to follow the current trend at the time and people are weary after witnessing a ton of them come and go. As I mentioned before, have a theme that fits who you actually are and not what you are into for that hot second. Ugmonk is a great example of a successful brand doing things that might have seemed a hard push initially, but the passion for typography is so clear that you feel good supporting the brand. Everyone thinks they will be the next Johnny Cupcakes these days, but they fail to remember that he has been doing it for a very long time and has been following his passion and view of his brand cohesively all along the way. I have been working with him making belts for 6-7 years and have gotten to see the brand grow, but building a successful, sustainable brand doesn’t happen overnight.

What is the biggest mistake you see other clothing lines make when launching their brands?

Hands down, the lack of a cohesive vision. I see so many brands just buy rejected artwork and slap their name on it or hire who might be cool in order to get people interested initially and it doesn’t work. The fact that when people show their line that the rarity is saying, “wow, everything looks great together and is really strong” is a shame. That should be the standard to shoot for out of the gate. As a brand owner, you need to realize the role of being an art director and have some creative control over what you are releasing. Anyone can hire an artist to make something cool, but it takes a cohesive vision of the brand to make it all work together and giving good art direction is an easy way of obtaining that.

You seem to be really active on your Facebook page. How have you leveraged your FB page to build your brand?

I am one of those people that hates over emailing people. My email list is compiled of only people who have purchased something from miles to go or chose to sign up. That is valuable to me and not something I care to overly exploit. On facebook, people can easily ignore a post if they choose to or comment in two seconds. It’s a good way to keep people in touch and knowing what’s going on. Plus, when I ask people for book suggestions, I get a new list of things to check out and read. I don’t know if I leverage it per say, but I do like to use it as a way to keep in touch with the people buying from me. Tons of them have become friends through the process.

How have you dealt with disappointment with your brand?

I wish I could say I haven’t experienced any, but much like a band, you have to keep evolving. In that process, some people will get left behind and say they liked your old stuff more or it was better back whenever. I just try to keep moving forward and a lot of kids are still buying and hanging around from 3-4 years ago because they understand the progression. The minor disappointments like a slow week or a mediocre live event pass quickly though. Since I evolved slowly and naturally, there aren’t really as many peaks and valleys anymore. Of course the weekend of a release will be very busy, but when it gets back to normal, it’s predictable in a good way.

I’ve talked to a few brands that have gotten all their pieces in place, taken great photos, have great looking products and nice website, they launch their site, and nothing. What would you recommend for people that have seemingly put the pieces in the right places but are not seeing sales?

67% of my traffic to my site as of this moment comes from incoming links like blogs, etc. You really have to take the time to get in touch with other shirt enthusiasts and try to get to know them and hopefully get a feature. Also, sales just don’t appear out of thin air. I drive 6hrs into california or wherever all of the time to go stand behind a table and sell shirts at events to try and get new customers. There is a lot of ground work that needs to be done and the hardest part is of course spreading the word. Spending a lot of money on art or product shots doesn’t equal success. Hell, I didn’t get custom mailers until I was selling enough tees that ordering 400 would make sense and last me a few months. Spending a ton of money doesn’t bring in buyers. People like to see brands that have been established and trust them a bit more for a good reason…because they are still around. Building a brand is a slow burn and uphill battle, not an explosion of excitement and support. Equating proper production and presentation initially to sales would be like saying if I picked up an album from a band that was recorded well and packaged nicely that I should expect to see them in a stadium in front of 10,000 people next month and love them. I’d rather see the band in the basement doing it for the right reasons and support that.

It seems like you do a decent amount of advertising how have you seen advertising effect your brand?

I have banner ads on 5-6 sites as of this moment and although it does bring in traffic(iatt has the best click through rate for me), it is not the best way for a new brand to be spending their money always. I can afford at this moment to drop $250 a month on banners on a few sites and trade it for exposure and some new clients. When you are just starting out, that $250 could really help buy a new design or go towards printing. I have a good track record of customer loyalty over the years and for me, acquiring a new customer is a long term investment, not a quick $25 sale. People get a quality product mailed to them and if they aren’t used to american apparel or especially discharge ink, it can be an exciting new shirt which may translate into future sales of new items or them telling their friends. Doing live events is similar in that you may pay $350 and have a boat load of people check out your table and sometimes you sell a lot of tees and sometimes you lose money, but you still got new customers and the name has entered into their minds. It is way more effective in my mind than doing print ads these days.

Any last minute parting advice for people running brands or thinking about starting brands?

Do your brand your way. Hire the artists you like and always try to commission the work based off of your idea instead of buying pre-made designs. You need vision and this is not the way to make a quick buck, but it can also be very rewarding. And, please recognize that this should be done with the understanding that building a brand takes a long time. Just look at the brands you respect and mimic their work ethic and sustainability, not their style.

  • Awesome read! Thanks for doing this interview, it was really inspiring. Miles To Go is one of my favorite brands as well and it kinda makes me feel better that Greg has had some of the same problems and thoughts that I’ve had with my own line.

  • I like reading advice from other brand owners. It helps a lot before launch.

  • Pete Corbett

    If this is your brain on drugs…(insert frying pan)…Then this is your brain with two strips of bacon and a piece of toast.
    (insert rootie tootie fresh and fruity)

  • Yeah this is awesome thanks. Definitely gives me the motivation to chug along…

  • Goodbread

    You should do more interviews like this!

  • Great words of wisdom Greg, and a well executed interview Adam!

  • Greg’s been doing great work for a while now so this was a fun read. Thanks guys!

  • donderstorm

    great advice and insight! thanks

  • Alanbernard

    Best damn brand out there and all round nice guy. This reminds me that I need my dose of MTG soon. I need new clothes anyway.

  • Winkyboollc

    Great interview & awesome advice from Greg at Miles to go!

  • Anonymous

    thanks for the comments and reading the interview.

  • WORDofmouth

    nice interview, very insightful

  • Jesse here from Remuse….excellent read, Greg. Very inspiring

  • Chad Shahan

    Excellent article guys and thanks for sharing an inside look at Brand Development!

  • That was a great interview! Very good pointers for us! Thanks!

  • glad so many people were into this article, I have plans for more interviews in this style for “clothing company” owners.

    Which heavy hitters would you like to see interviewed next?

  • new line is fantastic, Tell Tell Heart piece is my fav

  • he is totally right on so many levels.

  • WizeApparel

    Wow thanks for the info this was awesome!