Catherine Doyle and Jessica Gold Newman met 11 years ago when they both worked at Liz Lange Maternity. They bonded over their mutual love of Paris, ’60s sportswear designers, books — and a desire to someday start their own fashion company. Eventually, Catherine became director of design and Jessica, director of marketing, and when Liz Lange sold the company in 2007, the two considered realizing their dream.
They had a few vague ideas about what they’d like to do, but ultimately decided they weren’t yet ready to go out on their own. Instead, they opted to learn more about the fashion industry, make additional connections and figure out exactly how their fashion company should be positioned. Catherine helped start an accessories company for a large retail designer, while Jessica did freelance consulting for small designers and retailers.
Finally, in 2011, they felt they had gained enough knowledge to clearly articulate what their business should be. They had observed that fashion had separated into either poor fitting, poor quality “fast fashion” or extremely marked-up designer goods. So they started raising money among family and friends, and in 2012, launched Dobbin Clothing. The name is based on an old English word for workhorse, based on the idea that they would sell wardrobe workhorses that would last their customers for years. The website sells women’s clothing for a wider range of sizes and builds (00 to 16), for less than $200, but made from the same quality fabrics, in the same factories, that high-end designers use.
Dobbin Clothing has doubled its revenue every season and has been profitable since the second season. We talked to Catherine and Jessica about what it takes to launch a fashion retail company.
Photo: Jessica Gold Newman and Catherine Doyle
You both have a lot of experience and contacts in fashion. How has that contributed to Dobbin Clothing’s success so far?
Jessica: We probably wouldn’t have started this business without our contacts, both in the manufacturing and marketing worlds. We started working on the brand in summer 2011 and launched in spring 2012. Many people think this is a crazy-short timeline, but because we had so many contacts in the production world, we were able to get going quickly.
Catherine: We had established relationships from our time at Liz Lange, with fabric vendors, and factories, pattern makers, etc. So we had good relationships going into this, which is invaluable.
Jessica: Both of us have worked in the industry a long time — I’ve worked in fashion retail since I was 16 — so this wasn’t just jumping in with no idea what we were getting ourselves into. This was coming off of experience. We were at least somewhat confident we could pull it together quickly in the way we wanted to.
A lot of people want to go into fashion. What would it take for you to comfortably tell someone they’re ready?
J: I think it would be pretty hard, to be honest. If you didn’t have the background, have some idea of how the financial end of this business works, of the logistical and shipping and e-commerce, and particularly the fabrics and pattern making and manufacturing, I think that would be a tough nut to crack.
C: If someone didn’t have any experience going into this, they would need to work with people who did. I think that’s why Jessica and I are great business partners — we have very complementary skills. She had a lot of experience doing photoshoots and marketing and e-commerce, and I had a lot of experience doing fabric and fittings and working with factories — design and product development and production. So we both brought a lot to the table.
How else do you work together and share responsibilities across the business?
J: We work very closely on pretty much everything. Although we have our strengths and are complementary, we talk to each other throughout the day and night, consulting one another about our dealings in different parts of the business, including customer service, shipments, fabrics, whether the site is working properly, about a new photo, a new ad — we’re talking constantly.
C: Jessica said it right: It’s a very collaborative process, so I’m learning more about e-commerce and marketing, and Jessica has learned so much about producing and how the fitting process goes. So we’re learning, but we’re also teaching each other.
How has your approach to starting your business affected fundraising efforts?
J: We've tried to follow a lean startup approach — focusing on perfecting our product and finding product-market fit — before spending money on bigger marketing pushes. With regard to fundraising, we’ve had just friends and family, and we’re doing it organically for now. But we're considering how best to fund further expansion, whether that be a traditional A round, something closer to factor financing or continued bootstrapping.
C: We do talk about bringing on investors all the time and whether we want to at some point have outside influence on our product.
Doubling your revenue every season is impressive. How have you done it?
J: When we first modeled out the business, it was a single-page spreadsheet with only about 30 columns — mostly educated guesswork based on past experience in the fashion and tech worlds. We were wrong on almost every single guess, had completely left out a slew of important costs (we hadn't for example, incorporated tariffs and customs costs for importing fabric) and missed by as much as 50 percent on most of the others. But because we started small — only a few hundred pieces — we didn't break the bank and were quickly able to incorporate what we learned into the model for the next season.
By now, we have a pretty elaborate model, based on much more accurate cost estimates and historically-guided assumptions about customers. We know return rates, how much of the inventory we sell on sale, etc. As a result, we can now take more chances on new products and better keep up with demand for the signature pieces we know our customers love.
We also have an incredibly loyal customer base. More than 70 percent of our prior season customers have reordered with us in subsequent seasons, and about half of those order multiple times even within the same season. In the beginning, we reached those customers largely through social media, leveraging our own networks and those of our friends and family. We also supplemented that with small but targeted ad buys on Facebook, Google and a handful of other sites.
By our second season, we had as many return customers as new customers, and that's held steady season after season.
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