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Kickstarter: Changing the Game for Apparel Entrepreneurs?

Starting an apparel brand used to be easy. During the post-war boom years, an entrepreneur with a bright idea could scrape together six figures, hire a young designer and manufacture locally.

In 1976 fashion designer Liz Claiborne famously co-founded her own firm with husband Arthur Ortenberg and two partners, $50,000 of savings, and $200,000 raised from family, friends and associates. Ten years later, with sales of $5.6 million, the firm broke into the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations, making that original, intimate group of investors very happy indeed.

But in these post-recession, technology-driven times, traditional funding for apparel start-ups is in short supply. Enter “crowdfunding”: the collection of funds from a large pool of backers via a web platform. Generally reward-based, crowdfunding is becoming the go-to for fledgling fashion designers and brand entrepreneurs who think they have what it takes to launch a product, or even a company–often with a raison d’être such as “sustainable” or “customized” or “made in America.”

Kickstarter, probably the most well-known of the crowdfunding platforms, lists dozens of “fashion” campaigns: from T-shirts, underwear, wedding gowns, footwear, premium denim and ultimate hoodies, to less-mainstream “orgasmic” jewelry, laser-cut rubber garments and super-hero capes.

Some of the most successful fashion campaigns in Kickstarter history have been run by Jake Bronstein, a New York-based entrepreneur, who established his made-in-America menswear basics line, Flint and Tinder, in 2011. His 2012 Kickstarter campaign for a premium line of Supima cotton underwear and T-shirts garnered $291,493, nearly ten times his goal of $30,000.

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However, the campaign’s success meant that its supporters had ordered a total of 23,000 garments, rather than the 3,000 garments Bronstein was prepared to make and ship. Three months late, and $3,000 in the hole, Bronstein fulfilled every order. But the Kickstarter exposure enabled him to establish a customer base, raise an additional $850,000 from interested apparel executives, and start Flint and Tinder’s online shopping site.

Bronstein continues to launch products via Kickstarter. In 2013, the 10-Year Hoodie, which comes with a free mending guarantee, sold 11,000 units, raising $1,053,830 against a goal of $50,000. The latest project, Denim on Demand, promotes customized, premium denim jeans, made-in-America, with a 50-percent buyback guarantee. On its closing date of April 15, the denim project had received pledges in the amount of $325,215, over four times its goal.

Flint and Tinder sales topped $3 million in 2013, and Bronstein announced plans to build a factory in New York City for the brand, receiving a $100,000 grant from the New York State Regional Economic Development Council. However, he recently shared that “we are putting the ‘building our own factory’ idea on hold for a minute.”

The Kickstarter campaign run by American knitters Appalatch last autumn raised over $50,000 which was used by the company to finance the purchase of a Stoll full-fashion knitting machine. Appalatch, based in North Carolina, makes custom fit sweaters from 21.5 micron American Rambouillet wool and Texas-grown organic cotton, along with other carefully-crafted, sustainable apparel and home goods.

Tamagear, a fledgling line of active and outdoor apparel designed in Colorado, is very direct in its new Kickstarter appeal to raise money for its production of “The Perfect Mid Layer,” offered with a lifetime guarantee. The line previewed at the Outdoor Retailer show, with good reception; and the factory already has the artwork, technical packs, materials, and samples. “Unfortunately, in order for us to make them, we have to order a TON of them,” says company founder Dean Dormady. If the goal of $55,000 is met, the production run will complete in August.

According to Lauren Benet Stephenson, writing for the collaborative platform ZADY, “the evolution of technology, and most notably easy-to-use e-commerce platforms, has significantly lowered the fiscal hurdle for a fledgling designer. In lieu of investing in a physical retail space, a young upstart can now spend the majority of his investment on product design, quality and sourcing, and use a branded website as his storefront. He can use his capital to invest in how and where his work will be produced instead of simply how cheaply and quickly it can be churned out.”

Kickstarter says that just under half of its campaigns are successfully funded overall. But whether a campaign funds a single project or the purchase of equipment, or allows an entrepreneur to launch and promote a new brand, Kickstarter is clearly changing the way American fashion gets made.