How To Start a Clothing Brand With $2,000 and a Dream
He walked alone across the stage as he heard his name over the loudspeaker, “Entrepreneurship & Technological Innovation major, Jordan Sack.” The audience erupted in applause. Usually walking at graduation is no spectacular feat, but Jordan was the first, and only, graduate of the program at the University of Delaware.
Jordan started college as an accounting major, but soon realized that it wasn’t for him. He met a professor who was formulating the new major, but the business school hadn’t yet approved it. So Jordan took a chance and started signing up for all the classes on the professor’s prospective list. By his senior year, the school approved the major and he was the only student who fulfilled all the requirements to graduate. His name is now displayed on the wall of the entrepreneurship school under ‘first graduate”.
After graduation, he worked for a series of desk jobs in the e-commerce industry. The misery of commuting an hour and half each way from New Jersey to Manhattan was the catalyst for starting Tillinger.
“I was seeing all these depressed businessmen getting on the train every morning and I thought, is this really what I’m going to be doing? So I asked myself, what is going to make me the happiest?,” said Jordan. “The only thing I had going for me at the time was playing golf and I’ve always had a problem with the golf shirt. They are boxy, ugly, plain, uncomfortable, and often have big logos.”
So Jordan decided to make a shirt that is different; an athleisure polo that is comfortable, moisture wicking, stylish, and versatile. He created Tillinger out of a series of serendipitous moments and grassroots human connections.
Fashion 101: Tillinger
Unfortunately, the fashion world was a foreign land to him. He reached out to a friend, Julia, who works in the fashion industry and asked her to teach him everything there is to know about fashion. “We met a few times and my head was absolutely spinning,” said Jordan.
She explained that the first step is designing the pattern — which is how the shirt fits. It’s drawn out on paper based on the measurements of the “fit model”.
Julia’s designer friend, Liz, happened to be staying at Julia’s apartment and owed her a favor. Liz drew up the first pattern using Jordan as the fit model. Even though he didn’t speak their language, Jordan had spent hours trying on other brand’s shirts. He took notes about features he liked and didn’t like and tried as best he could to communicate them to Liz.
Jordan went through 8 different patterns. “I know that when you try on a shirt, you’re only going to go back to something that fits you right so it was the most important thing to me.”
The next step is to bring the pattern to a factory to get a sample made, but this requires choosing a fabric. “I didn’t know the right fabric to order or where to get it. So I emailed clothing companies with cool fabric and said that I am allergic to certain kinds of materials and needed to know where they sourced it,” we both laugh. “I had a couple of them email me back with the blends of fabric and which mills they sourced from.”
He sampled over 200 swatches of fabric to find the one with the right “hand” — the fashion term that Jordan learned which describes the feel of the fabric. The difficult part of this process for a small brand is the order quantity. Most factories have a 3,000 yard minimum. One of Tillinger’s shirts only uses 1.3 yards.
Eventually he found a fabric factory in Canada with a lower minimum order requirement and found “a button guy” as he calls him. The final step in production was finding someone to actually sew the shirt. Julia helped Jordan connect with a custom sewer named Simon, someone you will see often if you follow Tillinger’s story on social media.
“This guy works in a little factory in the Garment District with his wife and doesn’t speak a word of English. The fashion language was so foreign to me and combine that with an actual language barrier — it was really tough in the beginning. But Simon is one of the good guys in a cut-throat industry. I truly believe I’ve gotten this far because I try to treat everyone with respect. Pretty much everyone I’ve dealt with is not from this country and they have all been such hard-working people.”
To fund his business, Jordan continues to work his day job in e-commerce. He uses his lunch breaks to run to the Garment District to get as many Tillinger meetings done as possible.
Jordan has been able to keep start-up costs low by always figuring out what makes the biggest impact with the least amount of money. “It’s crazy to me because people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to start clothing lines.”
So far all of his advertising has been word of mouth and Jordan making personal connections with potential customers. “I started an Instagram account months before I even had a shirt to sell, but I wanted to show the process of how the shirt is made. People appreciated the authenticity of that and I had a website set up to collect emails.”
Jordan’s ability to connect with people is his greatest asset. Tillinger shirts have now been worn by handfuls of influential people he has made connections with. “If someone is an early adopter of something, they will want to tell a lot of people. So it helps having a small batch to get into early adopter’s hands,” he said. Jordan believes the secret is being sincere and to avoid asking for something without providing anything in return.
“I’m actually a very shy person, but sometimes you just have to do things you’re uncomfortable with in order to grow. What helps is that I do believe in my product. If I had a shitty shirt that I bought from China and slapped a logo on, I wouldn’t feel as sincere when reaching out to these people. Once you work on your product and your message, then you have no fear.”
Knowing It’s Possible
Jordan is confident in himself, but seeing other entrepreneurs start businesses reminds him that success is possible. “The first entrepreneur probably had a lot of balls, but seeing other people do it really helps,” Jordan said. “Brands like Nike don’t just pop up one day.”
“The main thing driving me, is just creating something,” he continued. As simple as that sounds. Creating a tangible product that people wear is one of the coolest feelings.”
Staying motivated wasn’t easy in the beginning. “I kept asking myself, what are you doing starting a clothing company with $2,000, no experience, no customer base, and no fashion education? But I believe in myself and this idea,” said Jordan. “It’s a basic thing to say, but I didn’t want to regret not trying it 20 years from now.”
At one point during the prototyping phase, Jordan considered throwing in the towel. “It’s mentally exhausting. I don’t mind running around; that’s fun. I kept thinking about the future and I thought, people are making ships to go to Mars, you can’t make a golf shirt?”, he laughs.
Now he is using all the positive feedback as fuel. “I’ve had some reviews saying they won’t wear another brand golf shirt in their life. Or people said they bought a shirt just to support me, but then actually really loved the shirt. That pushes me to keep going.”
Tillinger is a lean business, making it agile. Initially, Tillinger was about golf. Soon Jordan realized the shirt is versatile enough to wear in any situation. So his strategy is evolving. “Getting the most out a piece of clothing is essential. Since it’s made of performance fabric, logo-less, and has some subtle style to it, you don’t feel weird wearing it to golf, work, or out on the town. I’m a big fan of functionality.”
Eventually he wants to expand his athleisure line into tee shirts, shorts, and pants. “I want it to be more than just a clothing brand too, but I don’t know how yet. It’s always going to be changing, that’s the fun part”. Tillinger’s most recent, and largest, batch of shirts is now available with new colors and patterns.
To find out more about Tillinger, visit their website at shoptillinger.com or follow them on Instagram @Tillingerbrand. I hope you found inspiration in this story and if you did, please CLAP. Comment below or email me at email@example.com to let me know what you think!