How to start a 21st century fashion brand in 3 easy steps

Susannah Emerson makes clothes to think in.

Emerson wearing one of her original designs.

The Keep Collection sells only one item: a white T-shirt.

It’s meticulously made, wonderfully soft, and gender-neutral. After visiting the site, you may find yourself $70 lighter. You may also find something a bit more meaningful.

In addition to clothing, Keep’s site is a platform for original essays, art, and photography. The result looks something like a zine — albeit without any pretense of haphazardness. The shirt and content are tied to a specific theme, which will change with each new “edition.”

“The hope is that the experience is somewhere between a shopping and reading experience — you can naturally move back and forth,” Susannah Emerson, Keep’s 26-year-old founder and sole employee, says.

The concept is noble; the goal is lofty. Emerson wants to create a space online where, artistically, “nothing is sacrificed,” and people can digest content in an intentioned way, akin to picking up a book or visiting a museum. “The fact that [the clothing] is ethically sourced is almost an afterthought, because it should always be,” she says. “I want to make things that meet people’s expectations and I want those expectations to be really high.”

Radical transparency is a given, as shown in this explainer video.

Fashion school dropout

Emerson was born and raised in the northeast, where she studied studio art and English literature at Williams College. She spent her post-college years teaching art in Madrid and entering fashion school in Paris, where she became disillusioned with many aspects of the industry.

Her instructors encouraged her to seek superficial inspiration by cutting and pasting images from magazines onto a mood board. As she writes in an introduction to the site, “Collaging does not count as research, the punk movement cannot be reduced to Billy Idol and his hair, and taking a picture of a person is only the first step to knowing and caring about them.” She dropped out soon thereafter.

The revelation took her on a soul-searching and entrepreneurial journey that landed her in the Bay area. She launched Keep in June 2016, with an edition centered around the theme of identity.

“This t-shirt was tied to my identity,” Emerson says. “If I want to give someone a solid representation of who I am, then the T-shirt shows it — it’s pretty classic, a little bit quirky, a lot of attention to detail paid, but not in a showy way. I can get behind presenting myself in this way.”

The Longer Tee on vacation in Thailand.

So how does a twenty-something artist make a concept like this work, logistically?

Step 1. Kickstart
Emerson launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised over $18K and enabled her to work on the project full-time.

Step 2. Meet the manufacturer
She then sketched the shirt and shared it with her manufacturer, which she chose because of its affiliation with ethically-conscious clothing co. Everlane (which, coincidentally, also started with a single t-shirt). “It was important that [the manufacturer] be close by — they’re in LA — and as a single person doing this, I need to be involved. I really wanted to be able to see the facilities firsthand and meet the people who would be at every stage of making my shirts.” After a bit of back and forth, the manufacturer returned a pattern and fabric for use in production. The shirt comes in two models: the Shorter Tee and the Longer Tee, which are designed to fit a variety of male and female body types. “The business is totally e-commerce for many reasons but a big one is that it keeps my markups down,” Emerson says. “The shirts are quite expensive to make, and I want to keep them as affordable as possible.” She will continue to sell the shirts until she runs out of inventory. The next edition, slated for Spring 2017, will feature a new product (she’s thinking beach towels) and a new theme.

Step 3. 21st century marketing
As for other technical details, the site is run on Squarespace, and Instagram is the major marketing channel. “I spend a lot of time and not nearly enough time on Instagram, which is really helpful because it does have both the visual and the caption component,” which reflects Keep’s ethos. The item for sale doesn’t just speak for itself; it has a story and is imbued with meaning. She’s currently exploring the idea of partnering with other entrepreneurs, artists, and bloggers that she’s met via Instagram.

Emerson sends out newsletter updates via MailChimp, and processes payments using Stripe. “I figured the Internet was the best place to start with this. It’s pretty low overhead and it’s the best way to access most people.” Emerson hopes that through sales, the site can sustain itself.

Without sacrificing anything.

Originally published at