How I Started a Fitness Apparel Clothing Company During the Pandemic
I launched my clothing company during the pandemic. I had always wanted to have a business. I always wanted to figure out how to sell something so that people would buy it. As an artist, that always eluded me. I could make things, I had a lot of skills, but I couldn't convince people to spend money on my work. In high school I used to paint. In college I started doing photography and print making. We'd have print sales at the end of the year and I was never one of the top earners. I looked at the other artists and I wondered how they figured it out.
When I graduated, I became an actor. A few years into that I learned that I'm simply trying to sell another work of art: myself. I was terrible at that for a long time too. But in 2019 I went on tour in South America with my theater company, went to a few festivals with a short film that I starred in, and booked a lot of modeling work. January of 2020 I was on the national tour of my play, having the time of my life. Until we came back on March 6th and a week later the world shut down.
I applied for unemployment a week before everyone else, so I got it fairly quickly, and then I started getting the extra $600 per week, that was the most money I'd ever consistently made in my life. But I couldn't be an actor, so I had to do something else. I started going to a capoeira class near my house. I had been watching my friend doing it for years and wanting to join, and suddenly I had enough time and money. It was all I did, it was the thing I looked forward to every day - sweating my butt off for 2 hours in the evening five, sometimes six, times a week.
A photoshoot for a friend's Airbnb in the leggings and sports bra I ended up selling.
I needed more workout clothes. I wanted cute ones. I had to wear a mask. So naturally I wanted a matching set of leggings, sports bra, and mask. I couldn't find it anywhere.
Around the same time I met my friend Bryan. He was starting a laundromat business, and had a number of other side businesses, one of which was selling pet products on Amazon. That one intrigued me the most. There was a brand I really liked on Amazon that had great leggings, but they didn't have any matching sports bras. I thought if I could fill that niche, I could sell a lot of product.
I started obsessively watching YouTube videos about selling on Amazon. There were a lot of get-rich-quick schemes, a lot of online classes and coaches, and a lot of good advice too. Ultimately my goal was not to just sell on Amazon, but to create a brand and website and drive traffic there as well.
Lots of people recommended Alibaba, so that's where I went. I could not believe that you could just get a factory to make a bunch of products for you. Of course, it wasn't that simple. There's usually a language barrier, and there are also a lot of sellers that will say they will make something to order, or to your exact specifications, but then they'll send you an item that is clearly not customized, or not at all like the photo they listed. That happened to me and I reached out to Alibaba support and got a full refund because I was very clear with what I wanted, and I sent in comparison photos.
What I got vs what I ordered. Clearly very different items.
Initially I was looking for tie-dye patterns, but then a sales agent from a factory reached out and offered me the fabric that you see on the Oil Slick Leggings now. I had never seen that kind of fabric on leggings before, so I asked them if they would customize it and they said they would. I then had to send them measurements and specifications.
I'm not a seamstress, I never went to fashion school. I had no idea how to do that. But I looked up some tutorials and used my photoshop skills to create a simple mockup. I measured a pair of leggings I loved and added a bit for a higher waist and longer legs and prayed that it would work.
The mockup I made in Photoshop and sent to the factory
I picked one of their standard designs for the bra, but I do regret that I didn't make the straps adjustable. If I ever order more bras, I will ask for adjustable straps.
So I sent them the mockup and ordered a sample, which was $90 for both the bra and leggings, and hoped for the best. The sample took a month, but once I got it I was very happy with it. I got 2 other samples from 2 other factories and they just weren't as well made as the Oil Slick ones.
Once I was happy with the leggings I asked them to make the mask. I had already asked them previously if they could do masks and what the MOQ or Minimum Order Quantity was. A lot of factories didn't do masks, or the minimum you had to order was 500 or 1000, and that was too much for me because I was just starting out. Their MOQ for each product was 100, so I was happy with that.
I found a face mask pattern that I liked on Esty, and bought the pdf, then I sent the pdf to the factory. Instead of shipping the sample mask to me, I just had them send me photos, and I approved it from there. Then I had to pay a deposit for half the order. I ordered 100 leggings, 100 sports bras, and 100 masks to start.
The Oil Slick Leggings packaged, with tag and size sticker, ready to be sent to Amazon or to a Shopify Customer.
I was able to order 5 sizes for the leggings and bras, so I chose to get 20 of the standard sizes: XS, S, M, L, and XL. After seeing how my leggings sell, for my second order I did 50 mediums, 30 large and small, and a handful of the rest. Mediums sell the best, and the XS sell the worst. So I might not get the XS next time and do a XXL instead. I would recommend getting slightly more mediums if you are selling clothes, because that's the most popular size. It may not be the size of the average woman, but it's the size that is most purchased. I got all the masks in one size.
Production took about a month, and then I had to pay the rest of the invoice, and pay for shipping. They weren't able to tell me the cost of shipping before they produced the clothes, so that made me nervous. It came out to be about $400, which was more than most YouTube videos said to budget for. Luckily, they did say that they would put the cost of the sample into the order, but I did have to remind them of that.
A flat lay of the mask, along with the tag that I designed.
It only took a week for my packages to arrive. I was surprised to find that they already came in individual poly bags, which I didn't ask for. I had ordered branded poly bags from Alibaba, but I decided to use the ones they provided because I didn't want to be wasteful. I bought suffocation warning stickers on Ebay and stuck those onto every bag because Amazon requires those warnings to be on every poly bag.
I also designed tags and bought them from VistaPrint. And then I needed some way to attach the tags to the clothes. Starting a business really comes with a lot of tiny decisions. Like, "what kind of strings should I buy to attach my tags to my clothes?" I bought some from Etsy. Etsy has a huge category that is just art and craft supplies, and they are really inexpensive. My main issue was finding an order small enough. I didn't want to buy 1000 strings when I only had 300 items of clothing coming.
The strings for the clothing tags that I ordered on Etsy
Once I had my product, I worked on scheduling my photoshoot. I live in Los Angeles, so I had a lot of great resources at my disposal. I asked a friend who is a photographer if he wanted to help me out. He wasn't working on anything because of the pandemic, so he agreed to help. Don't get me wrong, photographers and artist absolutely should be paid for their work. However, sometimes you can find friends who are willing to collaborate or you can trade their services for something that you can do for them. I paid to rent a studio that he suggested, because I knew that would go a long way toward making the photos look professional.
I sent him a mood board with some examples of how I wanted the photos to look. My main inspiration was Alo Yoga. I love Alo clothes, even though I can't afford them, and I love their clean photography style. Here are the inspo photos I sent.
The inspiration photos I sent to the photographer for my product photos. I think they came out very close.
I made a post in a model casting Facebook group looking for models for my clothing line. I put inspo photos of what I wanted, samples of the photographer's work, how much time it would take, that there would be snacks, and that it would be in a photo studio. I asked for portfolio and Instagram links. I also promised to send the models every single photo. I have done a lot of "trade" shoots (that's where you model in exchange for photos) and I hate it when I get 3 photos for a full day's shooting. I got a few responses, and picked the models that I thought fit the brand.
One of the models doing some yoga poses during the photoshoot.
The night before the shoot I sent out a call sheet, which tells everyone coming to the shoot what time to get there and the address, and a shot list, which tells the models and photographer which shots we need to get for the shoot. I bought snacks and water, and made sure I had everyone's phone number.
The shoot went great, we had a lot of fun and got all the shots we needed. Then it was my turn to edit them. I used to work as a retoucher, so that part was easy for me, but you may need to have your photographer do that, or learn some basic editing in Photoshop.
I sent all the edited and unedited photos to the models, like I promised. Then I went to work creating the Amazon listings. I wanted to launch those as soon as possible.
Amazon has very specific rules for what kind of product photos you can upload, so check those rules before you have your photoshoot.
One of my favorite photos from the shoot
Amazon requires UPC codes for every item they sell, so I had to buy them. There's a website that charges like $200 for 10 bar codes. You don't have to use them. I used BarCodesTalk and they worked just fine, and were only like $20 for 15. I needed a separate bar code for every size of every item. So 5 for the leggings, 5 for the bras, and 1 for the masks.
Amazon listings can be pretty complicated. Amazon Seller Central is not very user friendly at all. I got stuck on US sizing charts, but I did eventually get help from customer service. I also had my friend Bryan help me with what to write in the listing. I looked at high sellers in the categories I wanted to be in, and wrote my descriptions in the same style, using lots of keywords and phrases.
Then I had to print out the barcodes for everything I was sending to Amazon warehouses. I opted to do FBA which stands for Fulfilled by Amazon. That's where you send your items to an Amazon warehouse and then they pack and ship them whenever someone places an order. That way, your items can be purchased under Amazon Prime, and shipping is free for the customer. Amazon does take a bigger commission, but it's worth it because your items are included in Amazon Prime.
My cat, Noodle, helping with packing my Amazon warehouse shipment.
Once the listings were up, I wore my new leggings to my capoeira class and told my classmates to buy them on Amazon if they wanted a pair. I had to send them a link because my listings where not showing up on Amazon search yet. I also asked them to leave a review if they liked it. Reviews are everything on Amazon and you have to have them.
Then I started on my website. Initially, I chose WordPress hosted at GoDaddy because I had a lot of experience building WordPress sites. It was great for a while, but my site would occasionally go down and I would have to get on the phone with GoDaddy support to straighten it out. I switched to Shopify, hoping that it was a more stable platform. It is more stable, but it doesn't get as much organic traffic as my WordPress site used to. I kind of regret it because the whole thing was a hassle and I ended up hiring a Shopify "expert" who didn't do the work they promised and I had to get my credit card company to reverse the charge.
Once my Amazon listings where up I worked on my Instagram page. I had made it prior to ordering the leggings and I just posted photos of music festivals or things that I thought were the right vibe. Getting Instagram followers to a brand new account is really hard, and I don't expect to get any sales that come from Instagram. It's mostly there to prove to people who search for my brand that it's a real brand run by a non-scammy person. I always repost photos of customers wearing the clothes if I get tagged on Instagram.
My bestie wearing the Oil Slick Leggings.
So that's it. Those are all the things I did to start my business. It took months, and cost a few thousand dollars. There are definitely things I would do differently if I were to do it again. If you have any questions let me know! Thanks for reading.