How does an independent fashion designer build and sustain a brand in the intensely competitive fashion industry? Ellie Lord spoke to Charlotte Zimbehl, an inspiring Lightspeed omnichannel customer and owner of London-based haute couture outerwear fashion label Charlotte Zimbehl.
In July 2014, German-born Charlotte Zimbehl launched her eponymous women’s contemporary outerwear label from her London pad.
Charlotte talked to me about how she overcomes the challenges of being a small business owner in the competitive fashion industry and offers some important lessons to other entrepreneurs aspiring to make their mark in their own industries.
You specialise in outerwear. How does focusing on just one category of clothing help your business?
“I decided to focus on one category for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t believe everyone is good at everything – I’m certainly not! Secondly, it’s important to focus on a USP. The goal for me and my business is to specialise in something and try to be the best in the market and known for that category. Take the example of restaurants. You’ve got places that offer a bit of everything: Chinese, Indian, Italian food, appealing to a wide market. But, at the end of the day, they’re not really good at anything. Doing just one thing really well can help you get known for that specialty and compete with the better-known brands offering the same category of products.
And lastly, coats are a product that I love and that I believe have huge market potential. A good coat can make any outfit look stylish.
Specialising in one thing doesn’t have to mean closing the doors on expanding your product line. I’ve recently added a dress and a pair of trousers to my line with the goal of helping me sell the brand. For instance, if I shoot a lookbook or a campaign, I want the models to wear an entire outfit from Charlotte Zimbehl, rather than merchandising and styling with someone else’s brand.”
Small business takeaway: It can be tempting to try to offer as many products as possible to appeal to a wide market and increase your chance of making sales. But this can mean spreading yourself too thinly, creating mediocre products and, quite frankly, wearing yourself out. Specialising in a small range of products can really help you establish yourself as an expert in your field and compete with the more established brands.
What’s been your biggest challenge as an independent retailer?
“Getting my brand out there and creating a desire for my brand have been some of my biggest challenges so far. There are so many amazing brands out there and the fashion industry is one of the most competitive industries in the world.
Also, the economy is currently tricky, meaning that people are spending less and only buying necessities. All of these factors make it harder to convince people to buy your products.”
How have you managed to overcome the challenge of creating interest in your brand?
“Like most small businesses, I haven’t got the budget to pay for advertising. I’ve had to do it organically. I’ve used a lot of social media over the past year, which is really important for building brand recognition because people are spending more and more time online. It’s taken a lot of time for me to get into it because social media isn’t really my specialty, but I finally feel like I’ve gotten into it and I’m getting more interest from customers via social platforms.
I also use my close network to get as many people as possible wearing my coats out and about. I hold private sales events where I sell my coats to my network of friends and family, who then get asked on the street where they got their coat from. The more people that wear your coat, the better. And as my best brand ambassador, I also wear my own coats out and about and often get asked where I get them from.
Lastly, networking is absolutely essential for building brand recognition. It’s the harsh nature of the fashion industry, but that’s just how it works. It really helps if you know someone at a magazine or if you know buyers. If they know you, they’re more likely to choose your products over those of your competitors. I run pop-up shops regularly, which helps me build my network and raise the profile of my brand.
Nearly five seasons in, three years on from the launch of my brand, I feel like I’ve now got to a point where there’s more interest in my brand. More people are now visiting my website, more people approach me to work with me, or sell my products. I get a lot more interaction and interest on social media. Every single day I receive emails from people I don’t know, asking me about the brand. A combination of all of these things has helped me grow my business to where it is today.”
Small business takeaway: Getting people talking about your product is a tall order, but every business starts out somewhere. Even small, unknown business have access to free, otherwise very affordable resources like social media, networking events and, of course, friends and family that they can call on. Make the most of these channels to make connections in your industry, market your product and get people asking about your brand.
How does being based in London impact your business?
“London is a great place for my business because I love the lifestyle here. It’s a city driven by art and fashion. Here, fashion is a form of expression — a way to express one’s individuality. You can wear what you want, from a Lady Gaga outfit to something super classic and no-one cares. No-one stares. No-one judges. Everything is allowed, and I love that. There’s a freedom of expression here which is very liberating. I get so much inspiration here for my designs, from every corner of the city.
Being based in London means that I can just go into one of the stores I’m targeting, hang around in the contemporary outerwear section and see for myself who’s actually buying my coats! What better way to see which women are looking at similar products to yours, and which kind of items they’re picking up from the shelves? I was out recently in an organic store — which targets women in their 30s like me — and got asked where I got my coat from. Meeting your target market in person enables you to see how old these people are, what kind of budget they have. I want my products to speak to a city girl, so I think I’m in the right place!
It’s also a very multicultural, international city. There are lots of cultures and different languages. All the consumers of the world are present here. So whatever your business is, you can hit the streets and get to know your target consumer.
London offers fantastic inspiration, which you need to keep going…and to have fun!”
Small business takeaway: Where you set up your business has a huge impact on you and your business. Your immediate environment influences the decisions you make: the type of product you produce, the people you connect with and your knowledge of your market. Set up in a place that, firstly, you like, but also somewhere where you can easily interact with the people who are buying your product and the people you’ll be working with. And make sure it’s a place that’s bursting with inspiration!
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