Build Your Brand In An Online Retail Environment

Brand building online is a complex but rewarding task. New designers ask a range of questions from ‘where do I start?” through to “who is best to work with?” but rarely do they ask the really useful questions like “what went wrong for those who failed?”

A few fashion startups every year succeed magnificently. Many others make do and get by, but many many more fail because they failed to build brand identity whilst taking care of business.

Where to start
Create your own site or sell your creations via a site that also sells other designers? What about crowd selling sites? There are many ways to begin the brand building via an online retail platform, but picking what’s right for you can be a business minefield.

Building your own retail site
If you’re going to have your own retail site, plan for it to be professional. One of the main reasons for failure is that potential customers don’t like to pay substantial amounts of money to a site that anybody could build in ten minutes. Such approaches don’t only fail to build a brand, they actually tear it down, because whatever brand identity you’re aiming for, you want it to be a trusted brand and yet you’re selling through a mechanism that is regularly used by counterfeiters and scamsters.

If you’re willing and able to put in the time and money to build your own site, you do have the advantage of getting it to look just as you wish … defining your brand without competition from others can be a good choice.

Retail sites that offer a range of designers
Websites that aggregate independent designers can be a great option, although there are both costs and benefits. On the downside, you will be expected to pay a merchant’s fee to the site for every sale, also on the downside, potential customers are likely to get into comparison shopping which can lead to them hunting for the cheapest deal rather than the garment they really love. Merchant sites like Etsy make this a specific benefit of their offering, allowing customers to shortlist and compare similar items before choosing just one.

The upside is that if such a site is well curated it will represent brands like yours, which means that the target audience are likely to be receptive to what they see. Places to consider include Farfetch which has recently received massive investor funding from investors like Condé Nast International. An alternative approach might be a site like Girl Meets Dress which offers customers the chance to rent high end clothing for as long as they wish. Girl Meets Dress claims that 98% of its customers try clothing brands completely new to them because rental is lower risk – this could be make or break for new brands trying to gain traction.

Blended approach
Some brands deliberately define their approach as starting with a site that carries many brands and move forward into a individual site. One example is Finchittida Finch – the brainchild of twin designers Lisa and Tida Finch who began their process with online marketplaces like ASOS and Etsy to gather customer feedback and get experience in online retailing but then moved to a solo site with the support of their business mentors.

Crowd selling fashion brands
Crowdfunding has its good and bad points too. Everybody dreams of the kind of success story experienced by Barbell Denim – which met its $15,000 goal in just 45 minutes and went on to over-raise to a total of nearly half a million dollars. But what’s the reality? In part Kickstarter and Indiegogo work well for businesses that already have a target, captive, audience. For Barbell Denim that was the weightlifting/body-building/CrossFit community – a significant sector of the population of the USA (and small but high spending in the UK) that automatically buys and makes choices based on being an ‘alternative lifestyle’. As a result, their offering was eagerly awaited. Other things they got right were having models who looked like the target audience (building identification and aspiration), offering a great reward for early investors (jeans that would accommodate big quads small waists for $99) and getting their product out quickly enough to keep the buzz going.

Whichever route you take, being able to test your ideas on skilled mentors and access the experience of others will enable you to avoid the pitfalls of building a brand online whilst selling your designs.

Turning Your Collection Into A Brand

The difference between an established fashion designer and a novice is often the difference between somebody who has created a collection and somebody who has defined a brand.

A brand is an identity that really stands for something – whether that’s the “classic, cool American values” of Tommy Hilfiger or the “designer approach to high street dressing” of Karen Millen. Brands generally have four key elements that deliver genuine brand values, which in turn transcend a clothing collection and become brand personality. These key elements are: statement, aspiration, lifestyle and value.


Making a statement is not about creating a splash. It means that you define an identity and head in that direction. Know who you are designing for and focus on them, but with your specific identity in mind. Remember your statement is partly about you, and partly about your customers, so you want to be portraying something that they can buy into about themselves – a deeper, broader, richer, grittier or more polished version of the self that they wish to be.

Obviously your statement has to be something that a large enough audience can associate with, but not so anodyne that anybody could feel comfortable with it – this is where the input of experienced mentors can help hone a brand so that it finds the most important place of all – its niche. 


Aspiration is all about how your chosen customers can become more themselves through your brand – and aspiration is vital because it’s something that can be possessed by many people who are not yet your customers but who have the desire to access something that your brand epitomises. So, for example, many women of a certain generation defined ‘becoming a grown up’ by the ownership of a Playtex bra – the brand values of maturity, femininity and dressing in a sophisticated fashion were all aspirational for little girls, so they invested in the brand, via its advertising, long before they were able to become customers.

Aspiration allows you to reach a far wider audience than your product sales from your first collection and launches you into a future in which your potential customers actively seek out ways to become actual buyers.


Customers want to know a lot about brands these days, they want to hear your story. But they also want to be telling stories, through their own choices, and lifestyle is the twin balance of bringing your values, decisions and statement into the lives of your customers so that they can buy into a lifestyle choice that is enhanced and deepened by your brand identity.

More than ever before, people are able to recognise not just brands but lifestyle choices, and the role of brands in lifestyles is a large area of academic research. There is no doubt that as customers state their own identity to the world through their brand choices, they also seek to expand their personal identity and self-expression, so brand and lifestyle must converge for lifestyle to become ‘real’ in the customer’s eyes.


When your product, style or brand is perceived to be worth the price you are asking for ownership of that product or brand, it has achieved its aim. Perceived value is sometimes simply measured by purchase activity but may also be measured in terms of brand loyalty, brand awareness and positive associations between brand and lifestyle that have been created in the target market.

Going back to our Playtex example, the positive associations between a brassiere and being a grown up were often established for little girls through TV and magazine advertising and the value of the brand was immensely more than the simple price of an undergarment, it was the gateway to adulthood itself. It’s important not to over-inflate the perceived value of your products so that they disappoint the customer. Consistency is the key characteristic of value – a jacket must always be more expensive than a T-shirt, which allows for pegging of relative items in a collection or over a series of collections.

Image: Fashionbasecamp presenter Nimi Mehta interviews designer Roberts-Wood during London Fashion Week.