Why my fashion business failed and the lessons I learnt

WORDS BY Charlotte Dallison

“I was heartbroken because I had failed, at business and at love.”

Last week I closed my clothing business for good. After a year of trading, and 18 months of dedication, I came to this bittersweet decision after much thought. The decision wasn’t just due to the COVID-crisis – it was driven by the combination of a derailing break-up, a subsequent downsizing, my finances and my own poor physical health.

It was clear to me that I could no longer sustain a start-up without the help of my now ex-partner, nor cope with the 24 hour cycle, and often physically demanding job, that is running an eCommerce clothing store.

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As I’ve closed up, I’ve experienced two distinct feelings: shame and relief. Shame at the thought of how my friends and family will judge me. Shame about the assumptions people may make about my business savvy. Shame because I couldn’t make my shop work despite believing it could have become a roaring success.

But the utter relief I feel eclipses all of the above. The relief that I don’t have to keep pushing. The relief that I no longer have to keep asking for favours as I bootstrap. The relief that I don’t have to go to the dreaded postoffice every week anymore.

A friend once told me that we always put too much of ourselves into our first business. In terms of my business, this statement couldn’t be more apt. I had put my face, my name, my living room, my everything into creating this boutique world. I was entwined with my brand, it was my business baby.

I had stored racks of vintage in the middle of my apartment during lockdown. I had to rely on friends, and my now ex-partner, to help me and ask reluctant connections to post about my shop online. After a while I didn’t know where I ended and the business began. It completely consumed me.

There is an inevitable emotional component to working with vintage. I had started this business because I love vintage clothes, and I wanted more people to have access to the good stuff. I also know a lot about vintage, garment structure and fashion history.

When it came to sourcing I was confident I could find the stock I was after – I knew from experience how much treasure was stowed away in dormant wardrobes around the city, after having spent my early twenties working for an auction house. Each garment I sourced and restored for my store pulled at my heartstrings. To bring something back to life creates a bond.

I also felt I was a good bridging person between the world of serious vintage dressing and modern fashion. Yet my business didn’t work out beyond a year. The day I decided to close up I felt a similar, sinking heartbreak to the one I was in the midst of experiencing at the end of my romantic relationship. I was heartbroken because I had failed, at business and at love.

While the business was growing steadily, further lockdowns in Melbourne put a stop to my regular trunk shows as winter came. Lockdowns in Sydney halted a good chunk of interstate online orders and cash was beginning to run dry. I was beside myself with frustration and despair. In hindsight that was probably the right time to wrap things up, but I was desperate to keep on going, to save face more than anything.

I am also a shit businessperson. Yes, we could go down the rabbit hole of how anyone who’s not a White man is never taught about business (which is mostly true) but certain skills are innate, and there are certain business skills I don’t possess. My business skills lie in vision, sourcing, presentation and customer relations, more than balancing the bottom line.

I had also forgot to factor in the aforementioned physical aspects of the job, certainly not suited to my list of ailments, especially not my stage four endometriosis. My main, major business flaw was the fact I was giving friends discounts like I was made of money. The problem with this was that my markups didn’t have much breathing space.

I had priced everything perfectly in order to factor in overheads, and an eventual small salary for myself, but as soon I started slashing prices I was cutting into my business’ bank account in a major way. This is not to criticise my friends – they’re far from a greedy bunch. So much of this overt discount giving was actually down to me jumping the gun, seeing something look good on someone and reducing the price before they’d even responded to their own vintage-clad reflection.

I want to be a generous person, to give without having to receive. In fact, that’s something in life that brings me a huge sense of joy. But I also want to break even, make a profit, and be able to look after myself thanks to creative abilities.

The desire to run a business and to be self employed are two separate things. And you never know, there may be a second rendition of my clothing business. I can already pinpoint the million things I would do differently next time. I’m also still self-employed, so a lot of my small business sentiment needs to keep rolling into my freelance life. I currently have the last bits of excess stock listed on Etsy, but building a boutique clothing brand I am not.

Despite all of the above I do not pity myself, in fact, if anything, I’m proud of myself for having given this a go. As I began this business I thought my life was taking me down a certain path – one where I was staying put with a partner – and because of that I thought this was sound choice of career. All I will say is that things are always in flux. Don’t be afraid to give things a go, and remember that failure is an integral stepping stone on the path to success.

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