Why Some Fashion Brands Release One Product At A Time

Before it became the menswear ecommerce behemoth that it is today, Bonobos began by selling one product: better-tailored khaki pants. The founders wanted to solve a specific problem:

Founders Andy Dunn, 29, and Brian Spaly, 31, wanted to solve a couple of sartorial problems common to men: “diaper butt,” the unbecoming pouch of material under the derriere; and clown shoes, an unflattering optical illusion brought on by tapered-leg slacks.

Bonobos isn’t the only brand that started out with one product before expanding. Ministry started out with a Kickstarter for their Apollo dress shirt. Everlane, too, started with a single shirt and release one product at a time. As one-product debut and release concept becomes something of a trend it’s important to dive into why these brands are doing it this way. More importantly, it’s important to figure out if it’s right for your brand.

The two major reasons a brand might do this are: branding and finances.

Most of the brands mentioned so far are trying to solve very specific problems. Bonobos wanted to solve the fit and tailor that beleaguered pants, Ministry wanted to created professional activewear and Everlane wants to be the go-to brand for basic items. The folks at Casavva, too, want to focus on a staple first: the classic flannel shirt. Co-founder of the brand, Shin Woon spoke to Open Source Fashion about their choice in item:

Our mission is to create quality products at the foundation of every guy’s wardrobe. We knew we couldn’t do that all at once, so we wanted to start with one product and do it really well. Flannel is something we always felt had a lot of opportunity space and the selection out there was particularly lacking. Usually when people think of the fabric, it’s the red and black plaid lumberjack. But with the rugged quality and warm, comfortable napping, we thought it could be a whole lot more. We redesigned the fit, selected high quality fabrics and added convenient life-hacks for the modern gent.

Starting out with one item can help you focus on the next steps in your brand. For example, the core idea behind Ministry’s Apollo shirt was to build a ‘better’ dress shirt–one for the modern professional on the move. From there it made sense to apply that innovation towards other essential items that make up today’s business wardrobe.

On the financial side, it seems obvious to point out that it’s easier to launch one item instead of a line. As Woon explained to OSF, it took the founders four years to prototype their ideas, while also making contacts within industry. That was all before deciding on their flagship item and beginning to crowdfund. If it takes that long to launch one product, why spend the money, time and stress launching an entire line or collection? If you’re an emerging brand, it seems to make sense spend the time getting first product right.

Both Casavva and Ministry started out with Kickstart-ing their first item. The open secret of a successful Kickstarter is that not only are you crowdfunding your item, it’s also a way to market your item. However, not only do you want to convince people to buy your item, but you also want to convince them that it’s also worth it to help you produce your item. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, you’ve got a built-in core customer base who is invested in your success.

As for why these brands continue to release on item at a time; it’s because that they realize that the typical fashion calendar is becoming increasingly out-dated and unuseful for brands. Everlane for example, is unconcerned with trends, according to an article in Quartz from earlier this year:

The flat-front pants, pocket tees, and round-neck cashmere sweaters that Everlane sells might look basic, but behind them is a total reinvention of what it means to be a fashion company. Being on-trend is not the goal, Preysman said.
“We don’t want fashion,” he said. “We want lasting styles.”

This, of course, is part of their branding, but a paragraph later the article explains why this decision makes good financial sense (bolding ours):

Its model allows Everlane to avoid one of the biggest inefficiencies of retail fashion: Traditionally, companies create collections around seasons, so designers currently working on spring 2017, for example, might be sketching out t-shirts, shorts, dresses, and outerwear that will hit stores a year from now. Once those clothes have been manufactured, they’ll sit there for a few months until unsold pieces are discounted to make room for the next delivery—a business model so inefficient that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) recently contracted with the Boston Consulting Group to try to fix it.
Everlane, on the other hand, has judiciously added other product groups to that basic t-shirt—cashmere sweaters, leather shoes, wool trousers, and so on—that reflect how customers actually shop and layer their clothes. Most of us don’t go looking for our spring 2017 wardrobe; we search out a new sweater, silk blouse, or a fresh jacket. Everlane sells all of those year-round.

 

Of course, the major catch of this style of release is that moment after the success of the first project. The question of “what do you do next?” is an important one to solve. Your company is no longer “new” and there is the real fear of a “sophomore slump” that haunts creators and innovators alike. However companies like Bonobos, Ministry and Everlane have done it and they’ve done it by using the original problem they’ve attempted to solve as a guideline on what to expand to next.

Casavva, still in the first item stage, has already been thinking about where the industry will lead them:

We definitely want to expand our footprint into different products in the future without losing our foothold on the flannel button-down market. We have done product development several times, from sweaters and sweatshirts all the way to dresses. And we’ve also come up with many more lifehacks in our products (and have beta tested several). But we want to keep true to our mission and make sure everything we release is a notch up from the status quo.
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Alex Tunney

Alex is Managing Editor of Open Source Fashion. His work has appeared in The Billfold, Lambda Literary, The Inquisitive Eater and The Ink and Code. Alex earned his MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.