Growing a business

How 5 Independent Clothing Brands Succeeded

Do you have a plan to grow your B2C fashion business? There are valuable lessons to learn by reviewing five micro case studies from successful independent clothing brands.  

Sometimes it helps to take a step back from your own business plan. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but comparing what you’re doing as a founder or owner with how other similar fashion retailers have grown and finding out what their stories are can offer insights into tactics and approaches you might not have considered previously. 

That’s why we’ve assembled quick case studies for five independent clothing brands that gained success (notoriety, even).

Indie Clothing Brands that Made it Big

Marine Layer

Meet the Founder: Michael Natenshon started the company because he was looking to recreate the soft, worn, relaxed feeling of his favorite old t-shirt. Natenshon came from the world of finance, skills he has put to use in running the business since 2009. 

Meet the Product: Marine Layer’s signature product is t-shirts, but hoodies, skirts, swimwear, shoes and more have been added over the years. The “Mini” section of the website shows they offer fashion for kids as well.  

The Early Years: According to Natenshon, it took a year to develop the company’s MicroModal fabric, made from recycled beechwood pulp. He and other early employees then transported product from their factories to stores themselves in a 1969 VW bus, creating a unique presence that continues to this day. 

Achieving Scale: Building relationships with customers and other retailers is core to the success they’ve achieved. The website promises customer support is done via a real live human in their San Francisco headquarters. 

Making the Sale: 

  • Company website 
  • Brick and mortar stores, some of which now feature company-designed Airbnb locations
  • Off-site eCommerce marketplaces
  • Social media profiles on Instagram and Twitter are used for promotion and branding, but not for direct sales. 

Key Lessons:

  • Have a mission: Earlier this year Marine Layer launched Re-spun, clothes made from recycled tees sent in by customers for up to $25 in store credit. Those shirts are broken down and blended into new fabrics, keeping them out of landfills. 
  • Be friendly: The company’s website uses informal language to establish a friendly connection with visitors, something that extends to its physical retail locations. 

Nasty Gal

Meet the Founder: Sophia Amoruso started selling vintage clothing online out of her apartment, launching the Nasty Gal brand to appeal to young women who wanted to create unique identities for themselves. It became a cultural phenomenon. Her 2014 book about that experience, “#GIRLBOSS,” was adapted as a Netflix series in 2017.

Meet the Product: Nasty Gal offers a wide variety of products for women who want to make bold fashion statements. That ranges from dresses to swim wear to casual sweatshirts and more. 

Earlier this year it introduced EMRATA, a line of clothing inspired and designed by supermodel Emlly Ratajkowski. 

Back In Time: Amoruso named the company after the song from funk singer Betty Davis. At first she was simply selling clothes and other items found from thrift stores and sold through eBay with marketing done on MySpace. 

Achieving Scale: The company’s initial growth was due in part to its popularity on social media. Though that growth wasn’t fast or big enough for investors and venture capitalists. However it was too fast for the company. “That money and expectation were a real shock to the system. We hired 100 people almost immediately and made a growth plan without having a lot of data to back it,” said Amoruso. The brand was acquired by British retailer BooHoo in 2017 after filing for bankruptcy. 

Making the Sale: 

  • Company website
  • Mobile app for iOS and Android
  • Physical stores were closed in 2017 and has operated occasional pop-up shops

Key Lessons: 

  • Own your identity: Nasty Gal has had a unique value proposition since the start, outfitting the girl with “the confidence to just be themselves.”
  • Don’t overextend: Amoruso admits the venture capital investments came with growth requirements she had no idea how to fulfill. That’s a risk any time you accept outside funding.

A.C.F. Clothing

Meet the Founder: Founder and designer Alexandra Foster launched the company in 2016 with the dual goals of creating simple fashion choices using ethical business practices. That involved a move from Australia to Hong Kong, allowing her to be near manufacturing facilities used by A.C.F. 

Meet the Product: A.C.F. specializes in “streetwear,” or the kind of clothes you wear for every day going out. That includes tops, bottoms and jackets along with a handful of accessories. 

Most importantly, the company promotes its products as being eco-friendly, vegan and gender-neutral. Items are made from dead stock (material otherwise headed for landfills), are never tested on animals and are tailored for men or women to wear. That’s part of a generational trend favoring sustainable products.  

Back In Time: You can watch A.C.F.’s product line evolve and grow by scrolling through the site’s Editorial blog, where it’s shared newly available lines along with lifestyle tips and movie recommendations that match the company’s values.  

Achieving Scale: The growth of the company has been very deliberate as Foster and others make sure it doesn’t expand faster than it can maintain its ethical sourcing and manufacturing. New collections are added regularly. 

Making the Sale: 

Key Lessons: 

  • Transparency earns trust: Many companies talk about their ethical practices, but A.C.F. offers behind the scenes looks at its sourcing to provide examples. Each product page also includes the names and pictures of the people who made it. 
  • Help the next generation: Last year the company launched A.C.F. Bespoke // Fashion Refinery, a consultancy of sorts where aspiring fashion label founders can get advice, be introduced to vendors and learn from A.C.F.’s experience. 


Meet the Founders: Apolis – Greek for “global citizen” – was formed in 2004 by Raan and Shea Parton as an outgrowth of their travels. The two are still actively involved in the company, splitting administrative and creative responsibilities.

Meet the Product: While the company sells an array of fashion items, bags are what they’re best known for. Aside from that shoppers can find a tops, bottoms, jackets and select accessories for men and women. 

Back In Time: T-shirts were Apolis’ first product, with the line of offerings expanding based largely on what the Parton brothers found while traveling and what production arrangements could be made. 

Achieving Scale: While business had been going well, the introduction of the market bag in 2011 seems to have been the turning point into bigger success. That gave them something distinctive and stylish that set them apart from other retailers. 

Making the Sale: 

  • Company website 
  • Select retailers in the U.S. and elsewhere that carry the company’s signature market bag
  • Select retailers carrying other items
  • Occasional sales posts on social media, which is mostly used for branding and messaging

Key Lessons: 

  • Offer self-expression: Customers can personalize the market bag with with a message of their choice. A personality quiz is offered that includes suggestions for customization. 
  • Show commitment: Products are only introduced when the Partons can partner with to make them responsibly. That’s very different from the “add items as quickly as possible” approach others take.

Elizabeth Suzann

Meet the Founder: Elizabeth Suzann Pape, who founded the company from a desire to make high-quality garments that would last, encouraging people to buy less. Her husband works with her on the business side and the two live in a small building just steps away from the Nashville factory.

Meet the Product: A wide range of items only for women, including tops, bottoms, outerwear and more. There are a couple collections called out, including the “Signature” collection of the company’s favorite, most well-known items. 

Back In Time: Pape has been making and selling clothes since college and selling at local craft shows, but starting the company in 2013 was something that grew out of a realization that simple, minimalist pieces were what she and others were consistently looking for. 

Achieving Scale: From the small list of available products at the start the company added shoes in 2015 and bridal gowns in 2016. More products have followed since then as Pape’s profile has risen within the fashion world, especially around her commitment to “slow” fashion that’s original, not altered or recycled. 

You can hear more of her story in this podcast interview

Making the Sale: 

  • Company website 
  • Promotions on social media

Key Lessons: 

  • Allow for shopping options: In addition to garment type, shoppers can browse by fabric in case they’re looking for something specific. 
  • Tell a story: The site’s “Clothing is…” section has feedback from customers and others about what clothing means to them, a great showcase allowing people to share their own stories and opinions. That’s also seen in the “Community.” 

Each retailer above has something unique to offer in its story of how it went from well-intentioned startup to successful fashion brand. Many of those lessons are applicable to those currently in the initial stages of launching their own business. 

The one consistent takeaway from all these mini-case studies is that having a clearly defined mission and set of values is crucial to success. Each of the founders have found a way to explain what they want to achieve with the brand, why that’s important to them and how they are working to meet those expectations. 

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