From the doghouse to the catwalk

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By Rick Kang

Every time you see the Snug label stitched on a shoulder bag or a pair of cargo pants, think of Greg Blagoev.  More importantly, think of how the label got there.

Blagoev, a former Ryerson fashion student and co-founder of Toronto-based Snug Industries, didn’t need $1 million to start his urban streetwear business that now sells clothing across Canada and the United States.

Blagoev and his two partners each pooled $200 after researching the market for their designs in the summer of 1995.  They bought materials, made two kinds of bags (sewing in Blagoev’s attic apartment) and personally went to stores to sell them.

As many designers find out, running a fashion label is more than an idea and a design.  It takes work, research, money, persistence and then more work.

Blagoev’s not the only one who started small.

Marcus Fraser began his streetwear line, Friction, in Edmonton in April 1993 by designing T-shirts and selling them to stores on cross-country road trips.  Like Snug, Friction is now based in Toronto, selling in stores like Delphic, Mothership, Noise and Speed.

Fraser describes selling as “hand to hand combat.”

“When I came across the country, we’d stop in every city and hit all the key shops and meet people,” Fraser says.  “It was small, maybe two or three shirts, a dozen shirts per shop, but I built my clients.  A lot of clients I sold to then, I’m still selling to now.”

After graduating from Ryerson’s fashion program in 1994, Crystal Siemens started her own upscale women’s clothing line in Toronto, which carries her name on the label.  Like fraser, she visited stores across Canada, “schlepping and driving around samples in the trunk of the car and saying, ‘Will you see what I have to offer?’”

From first-hand experience, Blagoev is full of advice for would-be designers.  Start the line and build it slowly, he says.  See what products are doing best for you.  See what people are wearing the most and go with that.

Blagoev also says you should stick to your prices.

“At first people barter with you,” he says.  “But if they want it enough, they’ll take it [at your price].”

Blagoev recommends making a line sheet — a list of your products and prices with technical drawings or descriptions for retailers and buyers.  And always insist on cash on delivery, with a minimum and possibly a maximum order.

“It’s not worth your while to be producing a couple of things for a store.  You kind of have to start it off with some rules,” Blagoev says.

Be selective about who sells your line.  Fraser says it’s important to deal with reputable stores.  “How long they’ve been open kind of shows their reputation,” Fraser says.  “Like if they pay bills and are a serious ordering store.  If they’re open for a couple of years, pretty much established, they’re ready to take your line seriously.  If they carry lines you respect, then it’s nice to take an order that way.”

Blagoev says the location is important when finding a place to sell your products.

“You never want to have them too close to each other,” Blagoev says.  “You’ve got to be picky because you can’t over saturate the market with your product.  Then it’s not cool anymore.”

Although Snug is available in many Toronto specialty shops, Blagoev says he has refused many offers, including one from Eaton’s, to avoid losing their hip edge.

Losing his edge in the market isn’t Blagoev’s only concern.  He also worries about quality.  “Once these people made these pants for us, and we had shipped off about 50 pairs to New York.  So the next day I was testing it, pulled it on, and the whole back tore open at the seam.  Luckily it was just at the border ready to go to New York when we stopped it.”  Since then, Blagoev has been careful about who he chooses to manufacture his product.

Business headaches like these prompt Siemens to warn some designers away from starting their own labels.

“I think you have to understand whether you want to be an entrepreneur or not, whether you want to run a business or not,” she says.  “Because really, that’s what I am, an entrepreneur first, a designer second.

“If I look at the amount of time taken up in my daily schedule to operate the business, it will tell you I’m an entrepreneur,” Siemens says.  “So if you just want to make clothes, maybe starting your own business is not for you.”

Blagoev says designing is the most fun aspect, but it’s the one you’ll spend the least amount of time on.

He is optimistic for designers entering the business.  With high unemployment right now, he says, “the only way we can create a future for ourselves is by creating these small businesses.

“I think people like ourselves will be able to create a future where we’ll be happy doing what we love to do.”

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