Meet Robert Bowhan. Rob didn’t really get into fashion until after he graduated his master’s in business management. He became close friends with another young man whose family owned factories in Egypt - apparel manufacturing factories. They clicked right away and even talked about becoming business partners in starting a boutique in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was going to school. While that didn’t work out, it did open up the door for Rob to go work for his family as an agent - to come to America and find brands to have their shirts manufactured in Egypt. He was extremely under qualified for the position, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
Rob took the job with high aspirations. After spending three months in Alexandria, Egypt, learning about how shirts are made, he moved to America. He landed in New York, New York and was ready to take on the world - get brands like Ralph Lauren, GAP, and Polo. That didn’t happen. He did, however, find a niche in smaller, up and coming brands. After a year and a half, they amicably parted ways and Rob spent the next seven years in jobs ranging from wholesale to brand management (especially brand management).
After living in Switzerland, Egypt, and New York, I asked Rob what brought him back to his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin to open the shop. During his time as a sales rep, he traveled around the country getting orders, visiting accounts, and doing market research. He visited all of the big cities, of course, but he also did business in the smaller cities too. All of those big cities - oversaturated. While the smaller cities were left open with more potential for growth. If you want to make it in a big city, you probably need more than just a good idea. Something like a celebrity endorsement, or an angel investor to get you off the ground. A good idea, however, could go pretty far in a lot fo these smaller cities. During his travels, Rob befriended a lot of these small-town shop owners, all the while keeping an eye on Madison.
Next, Rob moved to Detroit to work as an apparel buyer while remaining in touch with his friends and previous coworkers back in New York at The Foundation. An opportunity came up for Rob to work with The Foundation while living in the midwest - an opportunity to represent Under Armor - he had to give it a shot. While working in the corporate world, provided him with a steady stream of income, he soon discovered that it just wasn’t for him. That was the kick he needed to leave and start a shop of his own.
Rob opened August in October of 2017 - a year ago this month! It was definitely a big jump from working in a stable corporate environment. There was a lot of budget balancing for sure. Rob and his wife had to go into this process knowing that the shop wouldn’t bring in a lot of money at first (or in some months, any at all), so they lived mostly off of his wife’s income.
Even in the small(er) market that is Madison, where the competition is low and opportunity abounds - this takes sacrifice.
And that’s exactly what Rob’s doing at August.
The first thing Rob advised, right off the bat, is to just jump in and learn - learn as much as possible about every aspect of the industry. All of his experience across the fashion industry gave him a more well rounded perspective. Nearly everyone he works with while running his shop does something that he’s had a bit of experience doing, so he knows where they’re coming from and can work better with them.
And it’s that process of paying your dues, of learning, of working with people in the industry that will build your network and prepare you to go in on your own (because you won’t really be on your own). Work for free. Go intern somewhere, swallow your pride, and put in the extra hours. All of that work will build your reputation.
Rob has been in the industry for twelve years working, learning, and growing his skill set and network. He worked a lot of fun jobs and he worked just as many not-as-fun jobs, but every part was a piece to the puzzle.
Next I asked Rob about building brand equity - something he’s very good at. It really starts in the brick and mortar shop. Rob took great care in getting the space too look and feel inviting. Everyone who works for him has really interesting backgrounds and interesting personalities - they love art, music, pop culture. Next is the extra value he’s providing the customer past simply being a retail space. One way he does this is with August Aux - the performing arts extension of August, giving a platform to local artists to express themselves.
I recently launched my first mini line of clothes. I don’t think they were retail ready, but I wanted to experience as much of the process as possible, so I approached Rob about putting my clothes in August. He took a look at what I made and gave me some stellar advice. I’m making more clothes now, and am hoping to approach a few more local spots about the possibility of putting my clothes in their stores, so I asked Rob what advice he’d give me after I first met with him.
There’s so much product out there, so there’s got to be a hook. Overall, you need one of three things. Did I create something that no one’s ever created before? Do I have a celebrity endorsement? Or is my product as good as my competitors, but I undercut them in price? You’ve got to find a way to check at least one of those boxes. And for someone like myself (and maybe you too), who’s young and up-and-coming, the most accessible is the first. This could be an event, where your clothes are almost an accessory to the experience.
Rob had a perfect example: only a few weeks ago, August hosted a fashion/performing arts show organized by a young creator. If he had approached Rob simply asking to put his clothes in August, he probably would’ve gotten a “no.” Instead, he came to Rob with an idea for an event that he would organize, promote, and execute. He wasn’t just asking Rob to provide him value, he was providing the value to Rob and that made all of the difference.
Rob’s final advice was on taking feedback. First off, don’t get discouraged. People will tell you your stuff sucks, whether it’s true or not. Don’t take it personally, but don’t completely disregard it either. Analysis criticism, and learn from it. Don’t take positive feedback too heavily either - especially when it’s coming from friends and family. Don’t let either the criticism or praise fill your head; instead, let them both drive you to be better.
Podcast SANS END theme music: Church by BenJamin Banger. Find him @ http://smarturl.it/hjfi20