If you love fashion, have an eye for trends and consider yourself something of a tastemaker, why not open a clothing boutique? It’s a great way to be at the forefront of style and get your hands on designer pieces before anyone else. Boutiques are a great way to support young designers while carving out your own distinctive style.
How to start a fashion boutique – in 10 steps
1. Narrow down your business model
There are two main approaches here – designer fashion and fast fashion.
For most people, boutiques are synonymous with designer fashion. They are small shops with highly-curated, super-chic collections from prestigious or exciting brands.
Fast fashion boutiques will buy clothes wholesale, curating them to fit their audience and current trends. It sets a friendlier, more affordable price point, but there are a few downsides: it’s terrible for the environment, requires a larger inventory and feels less luxe. With the advent of AliExpress, customers are also savvy enough to buy the exact piece directly from the source.
You might decide to do a mix of high and low fashion, or to have a very specific product line. North London’s Mainly Black literally stocks mainly black clothes with interesting cuts; 69b Boutique only stock ethically-made clothes.
Don’t count out vintage, either – especially high-end. If you have a good eye for quality and authenticity, vintage designer is hugely in demand and can be sourced readily and very reasonably from estate sales, second hand suppliers and private sales. This also opens up scope for consignment pieces, which can set you apart from competitors.
2. Define your style
Your boutique should have a clear aesthetic and audience – are you aiming for well-heeled Hampstead mums or grungy art students? Do you cater to women, men or children? Will you stock shoes, accessories and leather goods, or just clothes?
3. Think about premises
Online-only boutiques are becoming common as the overhead is lower than brick-and-mortar shops, but there is still very good money to be made with the latter. As niche brands become increasingly popular online, many consumers are moving toward specialist boutiques rather than large retailers. Many boutiques do so well that they don’t even maintain an online presence.
Bricks-and-mortar boutiques are generally seen as more prestigious than online shops and have their pick of a wider range of designers. They deal with fewer returns, but have to worry about staffing, rent and utilities on top of stock.
You should also think about foot traffic. For many boutiques, sales are led by passers-by who wouldn’t have found them online – but it doesn’t work if your premises are off the beaten track.
4. Research, research, research
Find out everything you possibly can about your customers – especially the sizing, colourways and pieces they buy. Some boutiques stock only sample size, while others offer a broader range. Online communities and creating surveys will help; you can also ask your suppliers which sizes they find to sell best.
5. Create your brand
… but don’t spend too long on it. Many business mentors absolutely hate the word branding, because people get so caught up in it that they forget to have a killer product. All you really need to start is a name, a logo and a stylistic vision.
Fresh, exciting designers and makers are everywhere, even the smallest towns. Search out fashion PR firms and sales agencies – in London, LE WORKS (formerly Sewn Agency) and The Bridge Co are good places to start. PR agencies typically work with designers to land press coverage and handle fashion week, so introduce yourself as a buyer in order to see new collections as they come out.
Fashion weeks will be the most important events of your calendar. Most British buyers will attend London Fashion Week to see the looks and Paris Fashion Week to make orders – they fall twice a year in February and September. You will need to apply for tickets with PR agencies.
Attending local fashion weeks is equally important. Supporting homegrown designers will help you to make important contacts and become part of the community.
7. Put together your first season
Here’s the deal: generally you will either buy product outright, or work on a sale-or-return basis. More established brands will only offer wholesale, and once you have the product it is up to you to sell it. New designers will often be happy to work with sale-or-return as they are still establishing their stockists and getting their name out there. If this is the case, you will have their products for a season and any unsold, undamaged pieces will be returned to them.
You will need to weigh up the products you want to stock against the risk of not selling them. A £2,000 coat is bound to be stunning, exquisitely made and receiving tonnes of press coverage, but your clientele might not have the money to spend. As time passes, you will develop an instinct for what will sell.
Once your product line is sorted, you should stock up on paper carrier bags, tissue paper, branded stickers and business cards – all important for a polished look.
8. Promote your boutique
Work with local magazines, influencers and designers to launch your boutique and get the word out! A launch party is always a good idea, and you could offer exclusive discounts for attendees. Year-round, look for opportunities to work with others – designers are always looking for sponsorship for their shows, and you could put money towards local events.
9. Create an experience
Consumers are moving away from the high street and buying more online. Why should they come to you rather than order the same piece online? Consider holding cocktail parties, beauty pop-ups and hosting or sponsoring your designers’ runway shows and presentations. You could stock niche fashion magazines, offer complimentary makeover sessions or simply offer your shoppers prosecco and treats.
If you’re online-only, there are still ways to stand out. Consider partnering with influencers and brands to run an online event with exclusive discounts and free gifts. Celebrate your customers and make them feel like a part of your brand – Glossier is a great example of this.
10. Stay on the pulse
Be current, and don’t forget to have fun – the best boutiques are always inspired and their enthusiasm is contagious. Keep abreast of fashion, pop culture and design, and you’ll come out ahead.