Over the last few years I had a few people asking me about doing costuming as a business – and since in the last 3 months I have had several graduates and future entrepreneurs ask me the very same questions again and again, I have decided to deal with them in one place – so that everybody who thinks of operating a business can benefit.
Just a short background note first – I am a self-taught costumier – my adventure started in 1997 or so, after spending a summer with historical interpreters from Past Pleasures. I first made a few medieval things for myself for a Christmas party of my group (I was taught the basics of sewing at school and my mum ), and although the garments were, to be honest, quite horrid, I soon had friends and other members of the club asking me to make them kit too.
Within a few years, I made loads of outfits for friends and re-enactors, and after 3 years of serious stitching and even more serious research and costume education, I had a side business established, adding a few good zloties ( I still lived in Poland at that time) to my normal income. For 5 years I ran it with a friend, making mostly medieval clothing for clients in Poland, Scandinavia, France and Italy.
When I moved to the UK in 2005, I had to start anew, more or less – and the first year or two I spent most of my professional time working, teaching in the colleges, getting more teaching qualifications etc. But then I got the bug again, and started attending more events, and as a result, was asked for more kit.
Prior Attire was born in 2009 – as a supplementary 1 woman business. In 2010 I was able to switch the college workload a bit, and work 80% – leaving Friday and the whole weekend to costuming and teaching the rest of the days. In November 2011 I left the college stint for good – and never looked back… It hasn’t been easy but since then I am usually fully booked up 3-6 months ahead, sometimes more – and although I do work more hours than ever, it is worth it!
If it all looks great and peachy for you – well, don’t be deceived. It does take years to establish a good customer base, find a niche in the market, and invest your time, money, resources… I am doing the job I love, and am quite good at (false modesty aside), but it was not an easy path – and it not so easy to maintain and grow either….
Still, hope this helps a bit – find below the questions I am asked most often:
* Do I need to have a degree?
Not necessarily – I read English at University, and it encompassed the history of the language as well as usual history. It did come in useful, as, being able to decipher Old English or Middle English texts during the research, it provides you with more data. So a related uni or college degree would be very helpful – but with or without it, be prepared to do a LOT of studying and learning on your own as well. and if you want to maintain your business, you will never stop learning….
* Had you already done a lot of work before you started bespoke historical costuming?
Yes. Yes. Yes. – as mentioned above I was sewing for years before I was able to dedicate my career to costuming entirely. It helps if you can phase it out, but it usually takes years. Work also means research – and when I was starting research meant actually going to museums, travelling to other countries to trawl the libraries, galleries etc. Nowadays, with the internet it is much easier!
*How do you advertise and get clients?
You can advertise on Facebook (not worth it, unless you study the algorithyms and can use it to your advantage)), google adverts, magazines, fora, etc. Not really sure how effective that is – for me the greatest advertisement proved to be – well, wearing my work! Due to my academic background, I am also an interpreter, and I wear historical costume for work. Seeing the clothes worn, on a person, is one of the best adverts you can get, in my experience – be it at an event, or a market, a gown on a person is much more interesting than a small add in a magazine.
And the same goes for my clients – 60 % of my customers find their way to me via word of mouth – usually seeing my work on another client.
Professional social media and internet presence is essential too – that’s the rest of the customers accounted for, mostly. Here you do need to put some time too – learning fb algorithms, posting regularly with quality content, engaging etc – but it is all worth it.
Do you work by yourself?
Yes, I am a 1 woman business. I have a loving and long suffering husband who helps at the market (he possesses much better people skills than I do!), but apart from that, all I do is just me and my needle pricked fingers! Recently I have started hiring a workshop space and some help for the busy periods when I need to make lots of simple stock fast though – and it proved not only fun but profitable too!
Do you work normal 9-5 hours?
Ha! Nope. My normal working day may start more or less at 9, but it does not finish at 5 – I do take breaks for lunch, to go training in the evening, etc, but it is often that I am still doing some stitching at 11pm, watching a telly or playing scrabble.
Weekends – yep, same applies. In fact I do need to plan my holidays better – in the last 5 years I had much less holiday than the national quota…..
I do like keeping busy though and cannot imagine it any other way – but you will need to manage your time efficiently (see my article on that here)
Did you research the market first?
Not much – as I started by making clothes for myself, to be able to work as an interpreter and for living history demonstrations, the market research was done more or less on the go. But it is essential if you are starting with a clear business purpose in mind. You do learn what people need and how much they are willing to pay for it if you are a part of the community – the basic supply and demand laws of economics apply. You might be making lovely Viking dresses, but if people don’t need them, you won’t make much profit! But if you have a particular product or line in mind – yes, market research is essential. Learn what events are popular, what periods, and how it works with your area of expertise. I would love to make more late 17th century mantuas – but there is scarcely any demand for them as there are almost no big events in UK for this period – so it doesn’t matter if my mantuas are exceptional pieces, if people don’t have a reason to wear them, they won’t buy them.
Still, I made one just for fun…. just in case, you never know…. 🙂
*How big was your profit in the first year? (Yes, people do ask that!!)
To be honest, forget about any profit for the first few years at the very least. For me, whatever I earned that didn’t go towards taxes, bills, living expenses etc, was spent right back on improving the business – getting more stock, making more samples, getting better websites, banners, courses, equippment,books. If you are after a quick profit, well, that is not the business for it, it seems! It does get better though, as you are becoming more established – I can now afford occasional treats now… ( read – more silks….) ;-0
Who are your customers?
Mostly re-enactors, historical interpreters, both professional, part time or hobbyists, museums, heritage sites, event companies; less often film and theatre; used to do bridal and Steampunk stuff too, but in the end decided it was not my cup of tea. Really varies!
How to you work out the pricing?
There are many ways to do it, but the general thing is – make sure you charge what is right for you – the cost of the material, the cost of time, research etc. Remember that undercharging just so that you get a sale is not a good strategy – but neither is overcharging. If you are an artist and price your items as unique masterpieces – be prepared to earn like one – and yes, from time to time there will be a person who would pay several thousands of pounds of a dress just because it has your name on it. But this is not a reliable income that would pay your mortgage and bills…. If you are in a happy situation that you don’t need to rely on your business to survive, that’s great – but very few of us are!
Generally my prices are mid-range – I don’t really do cheap stuff, and people who expect to pay £20 for a corset or £100 for a dress are simply not my clients. If I accepted such prices, I wouldn’t even begin paying up the costs of the materials in some cases, let alone time and profit! I sell off the peg items cheaper than bespoke – I don’t have to go through the measuring, consultation, fittings etc process – so they take much less time. Bespoke stuff is more expensive – but then you get a much more personalised item – my prices can be found on my website, if you want to get a feeling for it.
It is really important to learn to work fast and precisely. Not in a hurry, mind you – but if you take months to finish one dress, it won’t pay your bills. But with experience, you will be able to speed the process up with no loss of quality – my first bustle cage took me over a day, as I was puzzling out the construction, playing with design and pattern. Half a year later and a few cages more, I was able to make one in 6 hours. Nowadays I make one in just under 2 hours, maybe 3 is it is a fancy one – mostly because I know the process so well and don’t need to ponder on what goes where…
*Do I need to do my own marketing?
Hell yes…. As mentioned before, you need to be visible – have a separate page, website, Instagram account, update it often, learn Facebook algorithms to manage the reach of the posts – and yes, it does take time, and yes it is a part of the job. Set up promotional photo shoots, invest in making showpieces – it all pays up. When I was developing the bridal side of the business we set up 4 seasonal photo shoots in one year – I made about 20 gowns for these, in between work on historical items. It was an investment – in time, resources, fabric, organizing the shoots around the country, finding models, MUAs, and photographers – and it was worth it. Most samples sold anyway, and the commissions I got on the strength of my portfolio paid up more than once over the original investment.
At the same time – do not go over the top and over market – There is nothing more irritating than a starting company who is trying to sell in an overaggressive manner. Steady, moderate and tasteful – yes, loud, in-your-face, incessant – not so much…
*Do I need to have contracts etc?
Absolutely. Contracts protect you and the customer alike – they specify what is to be made, the deadline, the fittings, pricing, deposit, all terms and conditions. And yes, especially important when making stuff for friends. Always specify the non-refundable deposit (either a percentage of the labour prices, or the cost of fabrics etc) – if the client defaults, you will at least have something, as it may be too late to book another customer in the suddenly vacant plot. Also specify payment options and what happens to unpaid/uncollected items.
Remember the contract binds you too – so make sure to allow for enough time to make the garment…. It doesn’t matter if you produce a fantastic Victorian gown two weeks after the ball the client needed it for – they won’t be coming back to you, and will make sure their friends don’t either.
Some general points and advice…
*quality – goes without saying, strive for the best you can do. Always. And be proud of what you make – don’t cut corners on fabrics, styles etc if you don’t have to – well made outfit in quality materials will bring you more customers. A poorly made one, or one that sports inferior fabrics, finish or fit will most likely lose you some potential business.
*communicate – make a point of answering emails in a timely manner, keep people informed about the development, and if you have a problem – talk about it. It won’t go away just because you are ignoring the messages, phone calls etc. deal with it. Be reliable, finish things in time – the reputation for reliability will be crucial in obtaining new customers.
*Mistakes – accept that you will make them. Everybody does. So be prepared to deal with them and learn from them. If it means that you need to start stitching anew, and buy an extra length of fabric out of your own pocket – so be it, shit happens. You will remember next time.
* Don’t stop learning. Ever. There is always something new to learn, a new technique to muster, more in-depth research to do, a new pattern to develop. Don’t accept that this is it, you have made it and know it all, no need for more learning. As you learn, your skills will improve alongside with your reputation. I think we have all been there – we look at an outfit we made a few years ago, and we thought then it was brilliant, the pinnacle of our achievement – and yet now you see how much better you are able to make things now. I look at my past garments and cringe – there is always something I now know I could have done better! But that’s ok, next time I do similar style, I will make it ever more perfect.
Read articles, go on courses, watch how to videos on youtube even – and experiment. It is time well spent.
*invest in good quality. Good quality sewing equipment, good quality fabrics, boning etc – it will pay off.
* manage your time to avoid procrastination, digressions and distractions. Plan for every outfit commissioned, and plan well in advance.
* It helps if you have a unique product you want to sell. But remember that may not be enough. Also, if your product is not unique but your service is (you deliver on time, exceptional quality, etc) – it will work too!
* if you are an introvert, like me, markets, networking etc will be double hard. I am lucky in having my hubby to share the workload at the markets, but even then it takes me days to recover ! Still, it has to be done – but try and share your work at markets with a friend, spouse – or hire help, if necessary. Dealing with people is necessary – sometimes fun, sometimes hard work – but it is people who buy your products, so treat them right!
* be flexible. Some years you will find demand for different items is greater – the last few years it was mostly Regency, Titanic and WWI era – because there are events planned to go with the anniversaries. It meant I had to do more research on those periods, play with patterns and invest in shoots, etc – but it was worth it. I would never have thought that in the last few months our greatest earner would be a Victorian and 1914 style corsetry – but hey, so it is. No doubt a few years on, something else will be in fashion, and more research and learning will be needed – but hey, that’s fun!
*Network. work together with other people in the industry – help them out, learn from them, enjoy working together.
*Have fun – don’t forget you started your business because you wanted to do what you love doing. Yes, it may take a few years when you may be stuck doing 50 boring shirts – but this is your bill money. In time you will be able to choose the commissions you want to do, but before that simply award yourself by working on private projects – make a gown you always wanted to make , spend a day or two just on lace making, embroidery, simply re-affirm your love for the craft. If you have made a gown of your dreams, wear it – have a photo shoot in it, go to a ball in it, invite friends for a tea in kit !It will keep you motivated and keep the costuming joy going.
Do comment if you have any other questions you’d like answered!
And if you want a more in depth information on all the aspect of running a creative business – check this little book, Craft a Creative Business by Fiona Pullen. It covers all the basics and more in an accessible way, presents you with a nicely develop points and business strategy and offers invaluable advice on marketing, legal matters, planning – a must to read!
p.s. – part 2 of this article, answering more questions and dealing with time management, contracts etc is now available too – Running a Costuming Business part 2; we are dealing with perception of your own work in part 3 – The Art of Objectivity, and finally saying what it takes to make a successful business that lasts in part 4. Getting Real.