5 Things to Avoid When Starting an Indie Clothing Line

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of ideas for clothing lines.  On a few occasions, I’ve attempted to pursue these ambitions and try my hand at starting a clothing line.  One of these ventures was attempted before the whole Indie Clothing Line revolution began, before the days of I Am The TrendThe Boston Tee Party,Mintees and when every Tom, Dick & Harry fresh out of high school decided to start a t-shirt line.  According to Jeff Finley of GoMedia and Weapons of Mass Creation, and author of “Threads Not Dead”, having your own t-shirt line is “[…]almost as common as having a Twitter account or a blog.”1  It seems as if it’s just something everyone wants to do, because the tools to make it happen are so readily accessible.  The harsh reality is that the current state of the indie t-shirt market is that it’s completely over-saturated, with new brands popping out of the ground like daisies every day.  If you’re planning on jumping into the market, be prepared to tread some rough, intense water.  This is in no way meant to discourage you from attempting to pursue your dream of having the next Johnny Cupcakes brand (which we will address shortly), but is instead meant to serve to educate you a little on the harsh realities of starting a t-shirt line in the current market.  With a venture such as this, it’s better to be equipped with knowledge than it is to go in blind.

To kick things off, I’ve compiled a list of 5 lessons I’ve learned from the past of unfruitful endeavors to try to release my own “line” of t-shirts, as well as things I’ve observed from other indie brands trying to get their start.  For me, starting a line was something I always wanted, to share my shirt designs with the world.  After spending the summer experimenting with the process though, I realized I was less interested in running a line and was perfectly fine with getting a few t-shirts made here and there to share with close friends, family and faithful fans.  But it was something I had to experience myself to come to that realization.

The following experiences are in no way conclusive or seen as failures, but are instead seen as lessons to learn from for next time (or your first time).  Maybe starting a line is all you’ve ever dreamed of, maybe it’s something you’ve wanted to try, or maybe it’s your solution to working for yourself.  One thing is for sure, DON’T expect to make money from your line right away.  That’s something that won’t happen (as with any business) until you’ve been continually profitable for about 2-3 years.  It’s not a “get-rich-quick” solution, it’s something that takes passion and commitment.  So with that in mind, read on and see what else to avoid when starting an indie clothing line.

1.) Pre-Orders

Ah “pre-orders”…what to say?  Oh I know, DON’T DO THEM!  There will be a few people who have success stories concerning pre-orders, but the majority of folks agree that pre-orders are only a headache to you and a pain-in-the-ass to your customers.  For those of you who don’t know, taking pre-orders is a method of collecting funds for your t-shirts before you’ve actually placed any orders or have any inventory.  The general practice is to host a pre-ordering session for your garments for a select period of time.  The idea is that at the end of the pre-ordering session, you’ll take the funds collected and place an order with your printer to fill your customers’ orders.


The problem with this is two-fold.  One, most screenprinters have a minimum quantity you have to meet to place an order, usually 24-36 garments.  If you don’t have enough pre-orders to meet the minimum quantity needed, you run the risk of not being able to fulfill your pre-orders, and therefore, have a lot of angry customers on your hands.  This not only damages your customers’ faith in your ability to fill orders, damaging your credibility, but also might affect their desire to return to you for future business.  You have to remember that no matter what you put out into the world, you are always representing yourself and your integrity as an entrepreneur and business owner.  If you’re not serious about starting your t-shirt line, and are of the “It’s whatever!” mindset, then don’t waste your customers’ time with pre-orders.  In fact, don’t even pursue starting a line, because it’s something that takes a true commitment on your behalf, and is doomed to fail from day one if you have a half-ass mentality.


The second part of the “pre-order” problem is the turnaround time.  With our instant “point-n-click” society, customers are used to ordering online, receiving instant notification of their order, and then receiving their order within a few days of placing their order.  With a pre-order, your customers not only have to wait until the pre-order period ends, but also for the orders to be filled and shipped.  At the least, you’re looking at a month of downtime waiting for their orders to arrive.  And trust me, within a week, you’ll start being inundated with increasingly frustrated emails from customers wondering where their orders are, no matter how communicative you are with them.  Having happy customers is paramount to everything except quality, so keep this in mind if you’re still considering pre-orders.

2.) Biting (Being Unoriginal): Enough Already with the Damn Crossbones!



Okay guys, I know you ALL love Johnny Cupcakes and what he’s done with his brand.  The poster boy for successful indie clothing lines, John Earle is a great guy with a lot of fun ideas who has changed the face and standard of indie clothing for all time.  But here’s the problem – Johnny Cupcakes is Johnny Cupcakes.  You are not Johnny, and your brand will never be Johnny Cupcakes.  So stop trying to make it the next Johnny Cupcakes.  Be original, because authenticity goes SO MUCH further than riding the coattails or stepping in the footprints in the sand of successful brands.  So what does this mean?  Stop with the damn crossbones already!!!  Realize that your brand involves more than just your logo.  Your brand includes your line’s mission statement, your identity, and the lifestyle that surrounds your brand.  Challenge yourself to come up with something original when developing your brand and identity.  Look up to those who’ve come before you and learn from them, but do your own thing and be original.  Your customers and fans will appreciate it so much more, and have that much more faith in your brand’s longevity.


ALSO TO BE AVOIDED: Coming up with a clothing brand name with the word “Fresh”, or any variation thereof, in it!  Avoid the “Fresh”, stay away from the “Fresh”!

3.) Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline.[1] The difference between crowdsourcing and ordinary outsourcing is that a task or problem is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body, such as paid employees.2  The rise of popularity in crowdsourcing is due in large part to sites such as Indiegogo.com and (the people’s champ) Kickstarter.com.  Many indie designers and wannabe t-shirt line owners will take to these sites to try to raise the funds they need to get their first run of shirts and gear printed up.  The premise seems simple enough, put your designs and a catchy video up on your campaign page, come up with some fun “perks” to give to your contributors, and watch the campaign take off and have a successful campaign like Seibei or Freddie Wong!



The reality of it is, crowdsourcing campaigns are only a success, and I say this with the utmost conviction, when you have an impressive and overwhelming on AND off-line presence.  Since when you crowdsource you’re opening up your campaign to the general public, you’ve got to have an influence that extends past your immediate friends and family, even though that’s a great place to start.  DO NOT opt for an online campaign, unless you have a significant group of friends you can appeal to offline and a strong following of “fans” online who are dying to be apart of anything you’re doing.  With the examples above, David Seibei has had a faithful following for years, since he’s been running his line since 2005 or so.  His campaign was overwhelmingly successful because his faithful followers rushed to his aid when his van and all of his merchandise was stolen while in LA for a convention.  But it was his initial following he’d established with the online world, and the connections he’d made offline, that really helped solidify the success of his campaign.  With Freddie Wong, he and his cohort Brandon have been crafting entertaining videos for years, and have gained a very faithful following on YouTube and Twitter.  But their appeal extends past the online world, especially after their transnational video tour, where they traveled from state to state making videos with their friends and fans around the country.  Also notable are Freddie’s appearances on Total Request Live, YouTube Live, and being the winner of the Guitar Hero 2 competition.


The lesson here is to focus more on connecting with your customers (or potential customers) offline, remembering that their customers and people first.  Focus on developing meaningful, honest relationships with them first, instead of trying to beef up your followers simply to extend your “influence”.  Online presence isn’t just how much your online, it’s how influential you are to the online community; not just what you can take from that community, but what you can give too.

4.) Undercharging (Setting the Right Price)

Setting the right prices for your business is integral in making sure you’re profitable.  Doing ALL of your research will ensure that you aren’t losing money when running your line.  First, search around for a quality screen printer (DO NOT DO DIRECT-TO-GARMENT printing…more on that perhaps in a later post), and remember that you get what you pay for.  Don’t skimp on price for quality, but instead price your garments to reflect the quality of the garments and prints to cover your costs and make a profit.  Secondly, factor in the costs of extra “swag” materials, such as buttons, stickers, or other goodies you’d like to throw into your orders.  Finally, make sure you do all of your research when it comes to shipping costs – packaging materials, postage, and shipping options should all factor into your shipping costs.  Are you going to only ship domestically or are you going to ship internationally?  Are you going to have custom shipping materials or will you use materials from your parcel service?  USPS, FedEx, or UPS?  All of these questions will have to be answered in extreme detail before you can determine a shipping price for your garments.  Be reasonable and fair, and above all else, do NOT overcharge for shipping.

5.) Lacking A Clear Vision (Budgeting, Ordering, Planning)

Finally, and probably the most important point of the article – have an extremely clear vision of what your line is going to be.  Remember above I discussed how your brand extends past your logo?  Well that goes hand-in-hand with point #5 here – you have to have a clear vision of what your brand is going to be, thinking years ahead of where you’ll be starting out.  Don’t be afraid to dream big, but then talk with someone who can help bring you back down to reality and chisel down from your wildest dreams to what’s actually feasible.  Every business venture needs two kinds of people: the dreamers and the practical people.  They balance each other out evenly, so the dreamers are pushing the practical people to think big and do more, while the practical people are helping to keep the dreamers from derailing the business and getting off-track.  Be sure to plan everything out meticulously, no matter how little you like planning – get your mission statement (a single sentence about what your line is about and what you hope to accomplish), budget, ecommerce solution, shipping solution, and packaging materials.  The better prepared you are, the less surprises there will be when you actually get started.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and have learned a thing or two about starting an indie clothing line.  If you choose to start now, know that it’s a super-saturated market and you WILL be tredding some serious water to keep your head afloat.  Remember your offline connections and relationships will help support your online success, and giving back to the online community is just as important as receiving from it.



1.) Jeff Finley, http://www.jefffinley.org/tutorials/how-to-launch-a-t-shirt-line-in-one-day/

2.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing


About Lain Lee III

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Lain 3 is a visual media designer, visionary, and creative consultant specializing in branding and new media design. He has spent the last 8 years expertly crafting brands and visual experiences for clients around the globe. He has helped a number of indie apparel hopefuls breathe life into their visions and launch their dreams into reality. Having been on both sides of the coin with indie apparel startups, he has witnessed and learned many good and bad practices within the industry and seeks to share what he's learned with those who seek such knowledge.

  • Bshag

    Why not DTG? Just curious.

  • Jjstahl3

    Typically they make terrible shirt imprints – I have tried a few different printers and they all make fair shirts at best find a good screen printer and order the minimum run vs getting 1 or 2 dtg

  • #ericdeem

    You need find a vendor that uses a NeoFlex DTG Printer. The print quality is CRAZY!


    I have multiple Neoflex DTG’s and the print is ridiculous.

  • Bshag

    Exactly. I am a screen printer and we just got a Neoflex. Awesome piece of equipment. Writer should do some research first

  • same here!

  • jimmyyo

    i also wonder why no dtg, DTG is the future of tshirt printing the old school dinosaur screen printing will soon be gone! DTG offers no limit colors and no min orders, i have seen shirts that screen printers cant even attempt to create!

  • Aaron Airs

    Theres nothing wrong with DTG. Of course you have have to make sure the company thats doin iknows what they’re doing it, but DTG is the truth.

  • Keenen Collins

    Can you provide me with your contact info. I am looking to start a line and need some assistance.