Dr ILYAS talks to Fundera about starting a clothing line

Read more as Dr ILYAS discusses with Fundera 

published in October 2018

 

Background: Did you have any experience in the retail industry before starting your clothing line?


None at all- this was truly a learning experience at every turn.  The only semi- experience would be in starting my dermatology practice. The benefit here was my understanding of the consumer experience.
If not, what was the biggest learning curve you had to conquer when starting your own line?
The two biggest obstacles: finding the right manufacturer and tackling social media. 
From a production point of view- you can have a great idea, great concept- covered all of your bases. If your manufacturer cannot produce to your specifications and maintain the quality and stay true to concept then the message is just lost. I still learn more about this every day.
Social media was an entirely new experience for me and an absolute necessity. I didn’t even have a Facebook account before this. The only real gauge people have as to your popularity or success is what’s available for them to see! Luckily, given the story of my line I gained a lot of publicity during my launch which built my social media platform quickly. I do see the world through the lens of content now and am always trying to keep our feed fresh and relevant!
Finding Your Market: What was the inspiration behind starting your clothing line?
My inspiration was my patients. As a board certified dermatologist I started my Dermatology practice from scratch almost 10 years ago. I now have 30,000 patients and perform almost 150 skin cancer screenings a week. It’s surprising to me that in spite of all of our knowledge about skin cancer and prevention, the incidence of skin cancer is still extremely high making it the most common type of cancer there is. My patients have routinely told me year to year they wear their sunscreen. However in tracking people year to year I couldn’t help but notice that the same patterns of sun damage persist and worsen over time. I got more specific with my questions and asked do you wear sunscreen every single day of the year? The answer was no- I wear it religiously at the beach and the pool. This is the disconnect. The daily UV exposure we see in the traffic, walking the dog, out at lunch, watching a game- this is the same sun causing the same if not more damage than at the pool. The problem is that there’s an assumption that our clothing is probably protecting us. However, not only clothing can protect us as much as you think. The spf of a white t shirt can be as low as a 3.
How did you decide which niche to fill, or problem to solve with your clothing?
I decided to start the clothing line almost as an educational tool to start the conversation on the need for daily UV protection. I was at a traffic signal one afternoon with the sun beating down on my left arm through the car window. I searched my car for sunscreen and found a bottle. I went to squeeze it out on this hot July day. The greasy slimy mess that poured out made a mess on my clothes and just couldn’t be used! I wished I could just pull my sleeve down but I was wearing a sleeveless top. I went shopping that weekend looking for things to wear. I realized all of the options out there were athletic wear. I needed daily wear that I could wear to work and play. I decided this niche needed to be filled. I hoped by doing so the biggest marker of success wouldn’t be dollar signs- it would be an actual measurable drop in the incidence of skin cancer.
 
What kind of research did you conduct to pin down your target demographic and their spending behavior?
 
This was the easy part- I know my patients and I have a ton of them. I know the challenges they face with sun protection. After years and year of talking to my patients every day I knew exactly what my demographic was!
Sourcing and Producing the Clothes: How did you go about sourcing your material, manufacturing facilities, pattern makers, and other aspects of the product development process?

I looked at a number of mills looking at sun protective textiles. The challenge here is that my patients that do not wear sunscreen typically say it’s out of fear of chemicals. Sun protection in textiles can be from the weave of the textile or from chemicals added to the textile to cost them. I knew I had to avoid the latter. I had to have textiles tested at labs to verify they had a UPF of 50 + before using. 
I found a manufacturer that had pattern makers on site hoping I could keep things ‘in house’. This was helpful although at times it can result in some delays depending on the resources the manufacturer has at their disposal. I have only been using US based manufacturers as I simply do not have the ability to travel abroad easily to monitor production. I still have a full time practice and 3 kids!
I.e., Did you know exactly which materials you wanted to use, or was there some trial and error involved?

 

Lots of trial and error in finding the right textiles. I’m back in this a bit as I have decided to make sure my textiles can withstand 40 washes and maintain the UPF of 50+. Much harder to achieve with very light weight textiles! 

How did you reconcile costs vs. quality?
This is a great question- given the quality of the textiles, the design elements and low minimum order quantities I started with I do have a higher price point than I would like long term. After all, I want to make sure anyone can access this amazing product for their benefit! My hope is that over time I can bring this cost down. 
Branding and Marketing: How did you develop your brand, sales strategy, and marketing tactics? I.e., Was it baked into your value proposition, or did it develop over time?
This has developed over time. The question here was do I approach this from a style or health angle. I started with the former simply because my intention was for people to pick up these items and say ‘ love this top!’ Then look at the tag and see the sun protection in it and just say ‘bonus!’ By doing so it would just become a natural purchase that people add to their everyday rotation of clothes that has benefits of style and health. Interestingly, the media attention I receive is based on me and health. I can’t deny that this has driven sales more than I could have imagined. I have changed my strategy to focus on this as a lifestyle brand as a result of this success.
How did you figure out how to price your items?
Based on cost of production- I did not want to take a loss unnecessarily. I also did not want to be in the mass production business by myself- I would need the infrastructure to pull off a lower price point! 
Last Thoughts: What’s the most rewarding part of starting your own clothing line?
Truly it has been to see just the volume of emails and messages from people saying ‘thank you’. I recognize that this niche was just not filled and people are so grateful to have a beautiful way to address their needs. It’s also been wonderful to see how excited my patients have been for my success. I’m actually a shy person and am used to an audience of one in my patients. When I’m seeing patients I focus on them exclusively and never really talk about myself unless I think it will help comfort them or put them at ease for anything they are experiencing. I’m not used to media attention at all. It’s been wonderful to see how excited my patients get when they see a story come out:) They laugh because when they say something to me about a story they read or saw on television i still say ‘aw thank you but tell me what brings you in to see me today!’ They know I’m desperate to change the topic of conversation back to them! 
What have been your greatest challenges?
Time. I didn’t realize this would become something so quickly. I thought it would be a side hobby and my staff could package an item every time a random order came through and send it off. I had never planned to open a store or do much more. Not only have major retailers taken a huge interest, we have had to open a store (coming in january) as I just need a place to house everything and display new lines coming out. Also, keeping up with timing of requests. I receive constant requests for plus sizes, men’s, children’s, accessories etc. Each request requires design, development and unique considerations. I hadn’t planned to do any of these until a few years went by. Given the demand it looks like I will have all of these by next summer. (Plus sizes this week:) 

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