Building a Clothing Brand in the Digital Age: Brick-and-Mortar Isn’t Dead

Building a Clothing Brand; Fashion Business

Do you dream of building a clothing brand, but feel threatened by today’s fast-paced digital age? Would you like to diversify your selling channels and not feel so limited to e-commerce or wholesale? Though most brick-and-mortar business models have to fight to stay relevant, some designers are finding innovative ways to recreate this model. With supportive e-commerce channels, strategic partnerships, keen problem solving and a daring mindset, Gurjot New York has created a new way to navigate direct-to-consumer retail successfully! Watch our interview below for more. If this interview leaves you inspired- we encourage you to check out our Fashion Biz Foundation Online Course for more on how to get started with your own fashion business. 

How a NYC Fashion Designer is Keeping the Brick-and-Mortar Business Model Alive

Hi Everyone,

Christine:  Welcome to our weekly Facebook and Instagram live.  I’m Christine Daal from Fashion Angel Warrior and I’m super excited because we are doing a live interview of Gurjot Sidhu of Gurjot New York. So, Gurjot, thank you so much for doing this interview.

Gurjot:  Thank you for interviewing me.

Dare to Dream

Christine:  So, tell us a little bit about your background and how you started building a clothing brand.

Gurjot:  So, my background is management consulting.  I didn’t grow up in the fashion world, but I had a career that I really enjoyed in consulting. I have an MBA, so I did that whole thing for quite a while. Before my big consulting job; I had my own consulting firm.

Christine:  So, you had your own business as well.

Gurjot:  My own business.  So, I had some experience being an entrepreneur and then I was at home with my kids for a while.  At the time, I was thinking about going back to work.  I just assumed that I would go back into consulting because that is my first love and I enjoyed it.  I thought, let me just take a minute and sort out what’s really important to me and so I took about three days on the beach and really let myself dream. I don’t think we dream enough.  We just do what we are supposed to, what we are comfortable with, or what is expected. I don’t think we dream enough. We just do what we are supposed to, what we are comfortable with, or what is expected. Click To Tweet So all of my ideas interestingly enough had to do with dressing women in a workplace.  So, I realized my passion is to work with corporate women who are trying to achieve something, who are on the frontlines of their careers every day.  So, I had some technology and mentoring ideas, but I thought all of those things were being addressed and the idea of creating the new power suit for women - I could not let go.  I said, “That may be my contribution to help move women forward.”

Christine:  So, that’s such an interesting avenue to go down because immediately when you said empowering women, I thought of coaching and mentoring things like that and to think of our dress and what we wear is great. That is super important to really help us feel empowered.

Gurjot:  I mean, we talk about how dressing is not superficial.  It can be perceived that way, but it’s not a superficial consideration.  We say it’s one of the jewels that you have in your career development toolkit.  You have got your qualifications, you have your education, you have your personal presence, your ability to communicate and then you have your dressing.  During my whole carrier in consulting, I struggled to find what felt right and I also felt like there is zero advice given to me as a corporate individual on what I am supposed to wear.  So, I think that might have had something to do with why I felt so strongly about it.

Find a Problem to Solve and Define Your USP

Christine:  Yeah, that’s so interesting and what was your big why before building a clothing brand? Why did you feel so compelled to move in this direction?

Gurjot:  So, my mission is to advance women in the workplace by dressing them impeccably.  So, that’s it.  I feel like women have made it, we made it, but our dressing options have not kept up.  So, that’s where I feel Gurjot New York can play a role is to really help the working woman reflect who she is and her brand, and her power and presence through her dressing.  So, that is a big differentiator.

Christine: I’m always telling my clients it’s super important that you have a USP. What’s your Unique Selling Proposition? What’s going to make you stand out from every other competitor out there? So, what would you say is your USP?

Gurjot:  So, our key USP's are quality, fit, and construction.  So, the quality. I mentioned the fabric; our baseline fabric is higher quality then you’ll find in any retail.  This is not your mother suit. This is lightweight, breathable, beautiful like when you feel the fabric it’s like butter. It’s just amazing.  It’s luxury again, but that’s what my clients deserve. I have imported a lot of best practices from menswear tailoring because they have a 200-year history if not longer of custom tailoring and there is a whole legacy that goes with that.  We feel like we are creating that for women.  So, it's a legacy of quality and as for fit, we are obsessed with fit and we recognize that women are normal real human beings.  No, they are not what you see in the videos; they are not just figures. Our curves and our body and our shape has to be fit well. We are super focused on doing that whether it's your custom pattern or alterations and I have so many clients who say “you know I am going to get that when I lose 10 pounds or let me just”, and in my response to that is no. You are perfect the way you are.  Let me dress you, let me fit you. You are going to feel incredible and then if you want to lose those 10 pounds, it's up to you. That’s not a pre-requisite. In retail, where nothing fits or the clothing is always off, you end up feeling bad about yourself. So, the image of yourself is kind of distorted by all that and we are not about that.  We are about you are perfect the way you are, let us dress you and you will feel better. Your life is your runway- that's our tagline.

Christine:  And then construction.

Gurjot: So, I went to FIT for a year before I started the collection. FIT is where I learned about developing a collection, building a clothing brand, and about construction. At the same time, I did a survey in menswear and custom tailoring. I brought the best practices over from menswear to what we are doing here. So, construction is how a piece is put together, what are the other components beyond just the fabric that you are using.  You can just throw a jacket together, but this jacket, the Madison Jacket that I'm wearing- there are actually six layers of fabric between the interior and the exterior.  So, you don’t see it but it is called canvas.  There is some cashmere in it.  So, there are different pieces that we incorporated to give the construction to the piece and it still has a presence and body and as a result, it frames the base beautifully to help you present yourself. A lot of these are power jackets.  There might be times when you want a less constructed jacket.  We have those two.  We always have a little piece of canvas in all of our stuff because I think construction gives you flare, it gives you presence.

Start Small and Expand Over Time

Christine:  That's so interesting.  Now, what made you decide to go the direct-to-consumer route because you have never sold, correct me if I am wrong, to other retailers?  Okay, so what made you go that route as far as your business is concerned?

Gurjot:  So, it was the retail math class I took it at FIT.

Christine:  So, what happened?

Gurjot:  It just scared me. In fashion what I learned is, if I sell a hundred-thousand dollars of goods to Macy’s or another retailer. That's great, they pay me a hundred-thousand, but then if they only sell fifty percent of that, they can turn around and charge me back fifty thousand.  So, the chargeback concept was very new to me and the more people I spoke to in fashion told me that that can kill a new designer.

Christine:  It can destroy you. Your whole business could go underground like that.

Gurjot:  And so, I had some runway capital to put into this, but I did not want to risk it on that, so I said let me go with direct-to-consumer because I feel very close to my client.  I was my client, I have lived that life when I was in consulting and I said let me just start and establish myself and establish the brand, build it up, and then maybe we can add some strategic retail.  So, that's what we are looking at now. Meanwhile, the industry has turned upside down in the last few years and even the big retailers are struggling financially, so that whole model is deteriorating anyway.  So, as we are starting to talk to investors, we can say that we are the new model of retail because we are direct to consumer. We have an online presence, and then we can strategically add partnerships with retail with terms that work for us because we have a brand and a presence.

Gurjot:  The chargeback model- it will kill you. That's why I deter most of my clients from dealing with all the major department stores.  Everybody wants to be in Saks. Everybody wants to be in Macy’s and it can kill you. So, I always say go to the smaller brand, go to the smaller boutique, do online first, build your brand slowly that way. So you started only online?

Remember You’re Building a Clothing BRAND before the Brick-and-Mortar

Gurjot:  I started not even online. I started only in-person.

Christine:  So, doing markets and pop-ups?

Gurjot:  I did my first trunk show at a law firm in a partner’s office that was empty. I just took all my stuff and set up a little store.

Christine:  And then when did you make the transition to having an actual boutique?

Gurjot:  So, two years ago, we moved here in October 2015 and I was not actually planning on having a retail shop, but that was always my dream.

Christine:  I think a lot of designers want to have their own a store, it's kind of that like just feeling of having space and all of your stuff is everywhere.

Gurjot: And so what happened was we were at a different location. We were in 54 Madison and we were in a space that was a showroom. So, it was like retail was on the sixth floor and we set it up like kind of retail, but it was not a retail shop and it was by appointment and we are still mostly by appointment. We did have walk-ins because we are a retailer, but we just ran out of space. So as part of our real estate search, we were looking at other showroom type spaces where it was enough room to host a client since we were by appointment. Then my broker showed me this space. I saw it and fell in love with it immediately.

Christine:  And now at the time were you working solely on your own or did you have an assistant? Had you already had a couple of people on your team?

Gurjot:  I had quite a few people at that time. I launched the brand in 2010 and then I had some consultants that I hired, who were helping me with the brand, marketing, earlier on.  I had someone else who knew fabric and sourcing and all of that.  So, they helped me until I kind of got more established. For a while, I had a bigger team.  I had three or four people full-time and that model kind of worked and didn’t work.  It was almost too much or maybe we should have focused on different things. We were mainly doing production, which was awesome. The brand was pretty well known but I think we should have been more focused on selling, versus building the brand.

Christine:  I think I drill this into my client’s head all the time. It is all about sales at the end of the day because if you do not have sales, you do not have a business.

Build Great Systems

Gurjot: So, now our focus is client acquisition because everything else is set.  We even have a custom back-end ordering system, so our brand ambassadors can order through the iPad.  So, they can see clients here or at a popup even in another city and place the order. We get it here in New York and put it into production.  So, I took time because I come from consulting.  I can’t help myself.  It's like the process has to be set.

Christine:  And a system  that it is duplicable and it saves your time and money.

Gurjot:  Yes, so operationally we were set and so now sales-wise, we were learning, building, and growing. We were trying different things because that's what I am focused on now.

Harness Strategic Partnerships

Christine: So, you mentioned brand ambassadors.  Talk a little bit about the brand ambassadors. I know you work with image consultants and stylists.  How does all that work?

Gurjot: Yes, so the clients that our brand ambassadors bring us become long-term clients Maybe they have already tried retail; maybe they had some frustrations. Some just hate shopping. Retailers can be stressful when you cannot find the right color or fabric or fit. So, when they come here, we are that solution.  So, what I found is that it is almost like you are pre-qualifying clients for us and it's great for them to work with us because they know that we are their solution.  So, when they bring clients, they know that they are going to be taken care of.  So, that works really well.

Christine:  That's a really good strategic partnership for you and I think a lot of companies can figure out a way to have brand ambassadors really helping you as your own sales team.

Gurjot: And it's mutually beneficial. There was some learning along the way because not all stylists are focused on the corporate women. Some people are celebrity stylists.  So, we had to figure out the right types of stylists to work with.

Don’t Have All of Your Eggs in One Basket

Christine:  And now let's talk about your subscription box.  I feel like you have so many things going on which is great.

Gurjot:  We do a lot of the stuff!

Christine:  It's great because you do not have all your eggs in one basket- which is another thing I try to teach my clients. The key is to have different revenue streams coming in and that’s how the wealthy attain their wealth. If something does not go right or goes wrong, they lose it all. So, the subscription box, is kind of a new trend happening.  So, tell us a little bit about how it works.

Gurjot:  So, we looked around. We studied Stitch Fix. We studied others and we thought about our clients first and foremost.  We popped up in Chicago, in DC, so we have clients in those cities. We have clients in California and even London.  So, the subscription box seemed like a great way to serve clients everywhere.  So, it works two-fold. One for clients who might have encountered us somewhere, but now they are in a different location. We already have all their info.  So, we know their sizing, we know their colors, we know what they like, so when they opt in, we just send them three or four pieces, usually, its quarterly or could be one thing monthly.  For new clients, it's easier to fill out the survey and it's almost like you are here with us in a fitting, it's not like an auto robot, we evaluate, we pursue, we discuss and then we offer what we think of a good fit.

Christine: So, how did you finance the business money when you first started?

Gurjot:  So, I had some personal money and that's what I used.

Have a Confident Mindset Before Seeking Investors

Christine:  So, that's good and you recently talked about getting investors or you have an investor already.

Gurjot:  Yeah, we have two investors.

Christine:  So, how did that process work? At what point where you like okay, we really need to get an investor?  What made you decide to go that route?

Gurjot: So, I made the decision last December and that's after we had been here about a year and I say you know what this is awesome. We are set. This is a good location for us. I feel like I can make a lot of money out of this location.  So, I want to scale.  I made that decision and that commitment that I'm interested in scaling.  So, we know we have our team.  Alex is in charge of production, pattern work, and she also handles our tech.  So, those are all three very important things.  I am predominantly responsible for business development, new clients and everything else and then we have our brand ambassadors. So, I thought, “What do I need to do to get to the next level?” And the next level is to have committed salespeople who are focused on selling every day and also to launch some of these initiatives- like the subscription box, relaunching the website, and relaunching the social media presence. We needed to elevate everything.  We launched our corporate relations program where we connect with corporations and say that we know you want to advance your women. We have got various women initiatives; let us support you and be the dressing element.  So, I wanted to do all these things and it's great if you have money you can put in. I took it pretty far with my own resources, but I think it's important to involve other people financially because if you are committed to growing in that way, you have more stakeholders and they are thinking for you and with you and I believe I want this to be a collective effort

The hardest part was figuring out that I wanted to do it and then finding the investors was not hard and that surprised me because they are both current clients. I have learned so much about investors and operating from a position of power when you are dealing with investors.  So, I used to think like which investor would take me and who would be interested in me. Now I ask, who would be a great strategic partner for us, who would be willing to join in this journey with us in a really meaningful way, who actually not only cares about maybe your model and your revenue and what you are doing, but who is so passionate about advancing women the way we are.

Christine:  And that way you are going to say your client is perfect, is ideal, to have someone like that because she has already invested in you and your brand to begin with and she already loves it.

Gurjot:  And luckily there are more people investing in women now or more women investors who are very focused on finding companies to invest in, so I think it's a good time.

Remember that Mindset Is Everything

Christine:  And you mentioned something important too about your mindset.  it’s like a mindset of how you do anything is how you do everything.  So, you were looking at it initially like who is going to take me like as if you are the lower end or the lesser player. And now you are looking at it like- who can contribute to what I have already built.  So, I have this amazing model.  I have this amazing system.  We are doing something amazing for these women like who is going to be able to contribute to that. I think that is super important.  It's going to help you find the right investor.

Gurjot:  And I also give credits to my business coach that I have been working with who is really helping with the mindset- who knew? Yeah, mindset is huge.

Christine:  I'm so happy to hear you say that because it's very powerful what can happen when you start to work with a coach. Even I have a coach and I'm a coach.  It's important because you do not know everything; you cannot do everything yourself.  You know you need to work on certain things and it's going to be so much easier if you have someone out there, pushing you, cheering you on, and holding you accountable.

Gurjot:  When you read about the growth mindset, you learn there are two types of mindsets. One of them is growth and the other is more limited. When you keep yourself in a growth mindset; you think of failure as an opportunity to learn. When you keep yourself in a growth mindset; you think of failure as an opportunity to learn. Click To Tweet So, to keep yourself always in that mindset helps you to grow faster and do better.

Christine:  And I think you have to fail in order to succeed. There has been no business owner I have ever known that has not failed ever.

Gurjot:  It is not how many times you fail; it’s how many times you get up.  I enjoyed watching babies and toddlers because you learn so much from them. That's been a big lesson to me. Showing up is huge, so keep going.

Prioritize Revenue from the Beginning

Christine:  So, any advice that you would give to new fashion entrepreneurs that are building a clothing brand - specifically direct to consumer or a customizable, couture type of line?

Gurjot: I would say to stay focused on the revenue even from the beginning because a business takes time to become profitable. It takes time to even get to revenue and then it takes time to become profitable and go beyond. Having that formula in mind is important.  So, what is your timeline? How much time do you have to get to where you need to get because sometimes you might not have enough time.  So, that's where the creativity comes in because when you have those limitations, then suddenly you realize, I can do this in another way and you start to push yourself.

Cater Social Media To Your Demographic

Christine:  So, how do you feel about social media and how has that played a role in your business?

Gurjot:  Well with social media, I did what I thought I was supposed to do in the beginning. Back in 2012-2013, we did a lot of social media. It was great; the content was great. We had a full-on blog that I really love and we are going to bring that back.  But my target audience is women 40 plus.  So, at that time- not too many of them were tweeting. Some were maybe on Facebook and so I left it for a while in 2015. I was like we are spending all of this money, but does this really help? Now we re-launched our new improved social media- not that our other social media wasn’t fabulous, but I think we did a great job, but I don't know how much our clients needed that.  We re-launched our website this summer.

Christine:  Which is fabulous, everyone should go, check it out. It's, so go check it out.

Gurjot:  So, with Instagram, we are able to show all the cool work that we are doing, that's not necessarily part of our ready wear collection- some of our custom or ready select. We are doing well on LinkedIn.

Christine:  I was going to say LinkedIn is going to be a great platform for you because of the demographic.

Gurjot:  And it is where I can really share some perspective and opinion. Collectively, we are tapping into the corporate women and advancement as well as dressing. We mainly just use Twitter to promote our events. I feel good about how we are using social media now, but more of my customers on LinkedIn, and a little Facebook. My fashionistas are on Instagram.

Christine:  And have you started to dabble in Facebook ads at all, are you advertising on any of them?

Gurjot:  That's literally what we are doing, is testing ads.  We tested out as we tested out some promotions, but I don't think our brand is really about promotions.  But ads and building visibility we have started on Facebook.

Proactively Dismiss Fear

Christine: Okay, great and what is the biggest challenge you have faced thus far in your business?

Gurjot:  That's a good question. To tell you the truth, the biggest challenge has been those nights you wake up in absolute terror- thinking how is this going to work?  Those are the moments of fear. To me, the question is always how bad do you want it?  That would help me push through because the question is how bad do you want it and if your answer is not that bad then forget it. You heard the stories of the woman swimming in the English Channel and then like she gave up no knowing she was only 50 feet away from reaching the goal.  So, that is my worst nightmare; I cannot be that person.  And my goals keep getting shifted.

Christine:  I think it will always be that way for every entrepreneur, I mean you create goals and then you reach them and then you create another goal, it’s a natural progression.

Gurjot: I'm just really thrilled, I feel like I'm just so grateful to be in this spot that we are in and whatever the challenges are like I'm happy to have them because it has been such an amazing, growing, learning experience, such a gift to have a change. This was just an idea and I feel also very strong having been doing this for so many years where it's like two years in when you are a new designer, maybe somebody could topple you over a little easier. I'm sure your clients tell you how so many people will give you opinions and advice on what you should do, but now I'm very clear like this is the design. Nobody is changing it. Because everybody wants to be a designer.

Christine: So, that's our interview with Gurjot.  Thank you so much Gurjot and we will see everyone next Tuesday on Facebook and Instagram Live.  Have a good night everyone, bye.

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