Just last week, small Boston-based fashion start up Ministry of Supply raised over $400,000 to fund their line of sweat-resistant men’s shirts. That’s significantly more money than the winner of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gets and they didn’t even have to stage a presentation in front of a cold-hearted and intimidating Anna Wintour. So, how did they do it? They launched a project on popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
Crowdfunding in fashion has become more common over the past year or so. There are even a couple of sites now that you might describe as “kickstarter for fashion,” like FashionStake and StyleTrek. Of course, Kickstarter blazed the trail for crowdfunding and has been used to finance everything from Ari Seth Cohen's Advanced Style documentary to Bret Easton Ellis' forthcoming film The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan, to a fancy wristwatch that raised a whopping $10 million.
So far, fashion has brought in $4.39 million on Kickstarter, despite a relatively low success rate of 26.76%, the lowest of all the categories (Dance projects have the highest success rate at 69.73%). Still, fashion lends itself well to Kickstarter's format and guidelines, which are quite specific and it's becoming an increasingly popular category on the site. From the layout to the video to the language, a lot goes into determining whether or not a Kickstarter project is successful and for fashion startups, there are many factors to consider. So, to learn more about the process, we spent some time poking around the website and spoke with a Kickstarter rep as well as a couple of people who successfully funded their fashion projects, including one of the founders of Ministry of Supply (who we mentioned above), record-holders for most money raised for a fashion project.
Kickstarter goes against the traditional model of selling clothes and launching a fashion line, which has in the past revolved around finding one (or a handful) of well-financed investors and making an impression on fashion's big-name players, whether it be by going after a Vogue editorial, or getting picked by Barneys. Kickstarter proves that fashion products can be sold and funded on the internet, sight unseen, by the general public, and the company's success may be an indicator of the direction the industry is heading. It's also more conducive to getting feedback from your target customer without much risk. Revolution Apparel founders Kristen Glenn and Shannon Whitehead whose product, Versalette (a clothing item that can be worn 15 ways) raised $64,246 on the platform, used Kickstarter as a way to test the waters. "We really wanted to see if there was this interest that we hoped there would be. It seemed like a pretty risk-free way to go into production," Glenn told us over the phone. "It was mostly for testing the market. We thought it would be much easier than just giving our friends a survey and taking that to investors."
Ministry of Supply co-founder Gihan Amarasiriwardena also liked the risk-free feedback aspect of Kickstarter. "What we love is that it has such a supportive community that gives lots of constructive feedback, which is important for a young product company." MoS had already sold four small runs of shirts as a way of perfecting the design and used Kickstarter as a way to scale their operations. They had also witnessed previous fashion success stories on the platform (like previous record-holder Flint and Tinder who raised $291,493 for their line of premium men's underwear). "They proved that fashion projects could ignite interest within the Kickstarter community."
Being on Kickstarter also seems to be a great way to get press, which makes sense as a Kickstarter page is basically a more fun version of a press release with videos. The founders of MoS and Revolution Apparel all got several media requests, mainly from online outlets. Also, your page lives on the site even after funding ends. Conversely, no one's going to find out about you from a meeting you had with an investor.
How to do it
Basically, anyone who wants to can launch a project on Kickstarter, but there are several requirements and guidelines. The main requirement is that the project must be finite rather than open-ended: It has to eventually be completed and something must be produced. Thus, you can't technically start a business on Kickstarter. Other than that, it must fit into one of Kickstarter's categories, all of which are more or less focused on creativity, and cannot be used to fund a charity or personal needs. Other things Kickstarter can't be used for include bath and beauty products, cosmetics, products not directly produced by the project or its creator and to move existing inventory.
The creator must also shoot and produce a video that explains or demonstrates the product and what will be done with the money raised. The project also always functions as a value exchange, so if you donate money you always get something in return in the form of "rewards," where for each level of donation, a different reward is promised. Often, the reward is the product itself. For example, in the case of Ministry of Supply, a donation of $45 or more gets you a fancy high tech "base layer" shirt with armpit venthilation and nipping prevention, while $560 gets you five Appollo shirts and five base layers.
Once you're done and have submitted your project, a Kickstarter staffer reviews it and can approve it or reject it and/or give feedback, like making the price for each reward more reasonable, for example. However, both of our sources said getting approved is pretty easy as long as you follow the guidelines
When it comes to fashion specifically, and this is true of certain other categories, there are two types of projects, which Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler recently explained to the New York Times: a "transactional" start, where backers are essentially buying the product; and a "patronage" model, where a designer intends to subsidize the creation of a traditional collection and rewards are t-shirts or sketches or a chance to meet the designer.
Make it good
Both of the Kickstarter fashion success stories we spoke with spent a lot of time preparing their kickstarter pages before launching them, just as one might spend a good chunk of time preparing a proposal to investors or, say, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund panel. Having the video, rewards, title, visuals, copy, and even overall attitude can make make all the difference. Here are some key pointers:
Have a good, unique, well thought-out product. MoS's Apollo dress shirt uses NASA technology to regulate your body temperature so you're comfortable in all climates. It also wicks away moisture and controls odor. The four founders all went to MIT, so that's how that happened. Revolution Apparel's founders didn't go to MIT, but still managed to design The Versalette: a stylish, sustainably-produced garment that can be worn over 15 different ways.
Make the rewards attractive and well-priced. "When it came time to price the reward we tried to price everything so that it would be the same as when you would buy something from a store, so it was more like a pre-sale model than a donation model," Glenn explained. MoS' most popular reward was at the $95 level and was one of their featured product, the Apollo shirt. Likewise, RA's most popular reward was a Versalette for $75.
Tell a story. Successful Kickstarter pages all seem to tell the story of the creators' journey to come up with this perfect product that can solve everyone's life problems. Or at the very least, it's an appealing product that the founders seem to genuinely care about and be truly invested in in a relatable way. "The most important part about Kickstarter, is [presenting] the product as part of a story - the quest to solve a problem," Amarasiriwardena asserted.
A big part of telling that story is the video--and these certainly aren't your janky homemade YouTube videos. These are produced and edited and professional. "Working on the video was really important," said Whitehead. "It really gets your message across in the most easy-to-watch way possible." For MoS it was the hardest part. "Creating the video was extremely difficult, and we actually completely redid our video midway to better communicate our product," said Amarasiriwardena.
Promote and update. Kickstarter pages can be updated daily to keep backers posted on progress and production and new developments. That way, the people giving you money feel like they know what's going on and are engaged and a part of the process. They can also message you. MoS dedicated a 9-person staff full-time to promoting, updating and engaging. It was still a challenge to keep up. "Backer engagement is really fun but it takes commitment to responding to the over 1000 inbound messages we got," Amarasiriwardena explained. Glenn and Whitehead did not update as much, but started a blog a year and a half before they launched on Kickstarter and built a small community of people interested in their ideas and that helped a lot.
Promoting is also important. In addition to social media, Glenn and Whitehead did every interview they could, even if the blog only had five followers. MoS did a really strong PR push and it worked. They've already been featured in Tech Crunch, Forbes and HuffPo (and now Fashionista!) and raised $50k in the 48 hours following their Tech Crunch article.
After It's Funded
Once a project completes its funding round, that's really just the beginning. The creators then have to deliver on their rewards and for a young, inexperienced brand, that can be problematic, especially when the demand is bigger than anticipated. Glenn and Whitehead are still in production and trying to get their deliveries out, but have been experiencing some delays. "We started with wanting to make 300 pieces and now we’ve ordered 1400 so we’re still producing and we’ve started shipping out one of our colors."
Amarasiriwardena, whose project exceeded their goal by $400,000, called production "an exciting challenge." He explains, "Because of our increased demand we're able to work with larger scale manufacturers with even better manufacturing processes. We've exceeded capacity in NYC, so we're moving some of our garment manufacturing to LA - working with some awesome manufacturers that work for Patagonia and New Balance."
Right now Glenn and Whitehead are touring the Northwest, speaking about sustainable design and meeting people with similar interests. They're focusing on getting out their deliveries and perfecting the Versalette. MoS has loftier, more business-minded goals that, given their track record, seem feasible. "We see MoS as a wardrobe solution - so ideally one day you may see an MoS Store!" You totally might, and it would all be because of Kickstarter.