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October 8, 2021

MVPs: a budget-friendly way to test new design ideas

By: Peter Gregory

Fashion design: it’s a scary, high-stakes business! Before a fashion label can sell a single garment, they first have to invest a huge amount of time, passion and money into creating that product. It’s not until after the product has been created that you can see whether or not there’s any demand for the product.

This kind of up-front creative work is a bit of a gamble at the best of times. There’s always a risk that the design you come up with just won’t be something that customers are willing to buy … and that can have devastating consequences on career and cash reserves. The good news is that, using a concept that originates from Silicon Valley, the risks associated with this kind of up-front innovative design work are getting smaller. 

In this guide, we’ll explain how Minimum Viable Products (or MVPs) can help your fashion label to innovate and test new ideas really quickly. We’ll show you how, with an MVP, you’re free to make bold, groundbreaking design choices in a low-risk way.

If you’re just at the point where you’re about to invest in a new design or clothing line, then this is the guide for you!

MVPs in fashion

In every creative endeavour, there are two ways to define a product. There is ‘what the maker wants to make’, and ‘what the buyer wants to buy’. You might have a grand vision for a line of beautiful accessories, but until you put one of those products into the hands of a buyer and see if they’ll pay for it and use it, you have no idea whether you have a business on your hands. 

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) exists to bridge this gap between the seller’s ideas and the buyer’s appetite. In fashion, an MVP is essentially a trial version of a finished clothes design. You use it to see whether there’s any demand for a new clothing line or product. Unlike a prototype, which you might create to see if the garment ‘works’, an MVP is built to see if the garment  ‘sells’

Your goal with an MVP is to take an idea that excites you and strip back any unnecessary elements until you’re left with a raw, essential version of the design. You make this MVP, then you bring it to a paying customer and try to sell it to them.

Your MVP should be good enough to put on a shop shelf, but it doesn’t have to be the finished article. It’s OK to bring your MVP to market if you still have a list of different colours, details and finishes that you want to try. MVPs are all about testing the commercial potential of your designs as soon as possible, before you’ve spent too much time and money on it. 

Where did MVPs come from?

The concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) comes straight from the tech industry. In Silicon Valley, MVPs are used all the time to see if an idea is good enough to become a billion-dollar business. A developer will launch a stripped-back version of an app or website, offering the smallest, simplest essence of what that app or website is and does. The developer then puts this MVP in front of real customers and users, and watches their behaviour to see if their idea is worth spending more time and money on. 

Internet Entrepreneur Michael Seibel gives a great explanation of MVPs and how they work in the tech industry in this video. It’s a great explanation of how MVPs fit into the world of creative and high-risk businesses like fashion:

MVPs in the Fashion Industry

The phrase ‘Minimum Viable Product’ might be new, but the idea behind it has been around for decades. It’s especially valuable when you’re bringing a brand-new type of product to market.


Spanx: a billion-dollar business that started with a single prototype

American hosiery entrepreneur Sara Blakely worked weekends and evenings on her first pair of footless, body-shaping pantyhose before sitting down with Neiman Marcus, a large US based department store. Blakely didn’t have a wide range of textiles, deniers, sizes and styles in that first meeting with the buyers — she had a single prototype. That prototype was proof enough to the big department stores that Spanx was a winning product … and it launched a billion-dollar business. Learn more about Sara Blakely and the Spanx story on the Spanx website

Gymshark: from sewing machine to sportswear behemoth

Back in 2012, a Birmingham teenager named Ben Francis bought a sewing machine and asked his grandmother to teach him how to use it. He was struggling to find a bodybuilding vest that would fit his frame and thought that there may be other teenagers and young sports fanatics out there who wanted a similar product. Starting with nothing more than an image of a prototype vest on a web page, Ben’s vest product caught the attention of a young, athletic demographic, and the global sportswear brand Gymshark was born! The story of Ben Francis and Gymshark is truly incredible — if you have a moment, check out this article on the BBC website

The pros and cons of an MVP

MVPs are all about bridging the gap between the designer’s dream and the buyer’s wallet. There are good sides and bad sides to MVPs, so think carefully about whether it’s the right choice for you before you launch:

Where to take your MVP:

The best places to test your Minimum Viable Product are outside of your immediate circle of friends and family, ideally in a commercial setting. 


Face to face: Local markets and festivals are a great place to test out an MVP. You can book exhibition space for a relatively small amount of money, then buy or borrow a marquee and sell some stock to real-life customers. You’ll discover, very quickly, where your idea falls short, what people love about your idea and whether you’re onto a winner with your new line.

Online: If you already have an online shop, then a few photos of your latest product can be enough to get the ball rolling. Just take care with this approach:  you need to promise realistic delivery times and make sure that you don’t sell more of the product than you can realistically deliver. We’ve got more advice on online retail in our guide. 

Direct to retailers: If you’re trying to get your product into big department stores and high street shops, then a trunk show could be the perfect way to get the attention of a buyer. With trunk shows, you can gauge the reaction of the professional buyer there-and-then. If trunk shows aren’t an option, you can always ship a sample product directly to a potential client — just bear in mind that, if they’re busy, you might not hear back from them as quickly as you would like. 


 I hope this guide has given you a good idea of what an MVP is and how it works. When you use this technique correctly, you can keep creative costs low while still letting your imagination run wild. 

Sometimes an MVP uncovers an absolute gem that helps you take your business to new heights. You might stumble across a popular design that nobody else has been brave enough to try. Sometimes, it can leave you feeling a little depressed (if you find out that some ideas just don’t work for your customer base). Whatever the results of your MVP are, just remember that it’s all grist for the mill. The more you know about what customers want and need, the better you’ll be at designing in-demand garments … and that’s never a bad thing! 

Thanks for reading!

Pete

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