He was crowned fashion’s next big thing. But that doesn’t pay the bills.

Edvin Thompson canceled his New York Fashion Week show after his sponsors fell through.  (Wall Street Journal)
Edvin Thompson canceled his New York Fashion Week show after his sponsors fell through. (Wall Street Journal)

Summary

Edvin Thompson’s clothing brand has won top awards, creative grants and a spot on the New York Fashion Week calendar. Why can’t he afford a runway show?

Edvin Thompson had everything a young designer could hope for: accolades from Vogue and the CFDA, dresses selling at Bergdorf Goodman and a spot on the official New York Fashion Week calendar.

Then, with just two weeks’ notice, he canceled his February runway show.

His sponsors had fallen through, he said, which meant he’d be paying around $125,000 out of pocket to stage the show—a move that could put his brand in dire financial straits. The choice was obvious. After he called off the show, he said, “I slept like a baby."

“I want to be here for a long time, not a short time," Thompson, 31, said on a recent morning from the Manhattan studio of his brand, Theophilio. “And I want my business to stand on its own, regardless of the New York Fashion Week calendar."

It is harder than ever to be an independent designer. Wholesale opportunities are dwindling, as department stores face decline and luxury shopping sites are losing money. Commercial real estate rates are climbing, ruling out brick and mortar for most upstart designers, and even indie e-commerce is a financial and logistical challenge. Between materials, studio space, production, labor, marketing and distribution, the costs can be staggering, running from just under six figures into seven for a small indie brand. Even successes like Thompson struggle to make it work.

“The smallest slip-up in finances, or not having an aerial view of your spending, can change things," said Christopher John Rogers, a fellow fashion designer and one of Thompson’s friends. “No one teaches designers how to run a business."

Through a spokesperson, CFDA CEO Steven Kolb declined to be interviewed but said in an email that the nonprofit trade association “has long admired Edvin’s talent."

“Fashion shows, while impactful, represent a significant financial commitment," Kolb added. “It’s important to note that there are alternatives to presenting a collection."

Designers say it’s become especially hard to get sponsorship now. Carmakers, tech giants and payment apps that used to pay to have their names featured at fashion shows and brand parties are reassessing how they allocate budget.

“Sponsorships have changed because coming from top down, it feels like everyone is tightening up," said Maxwell Osborne, co-designer of the fashion label Public School who launched a new brand, anOnlyChild, in 2020.

Mia Vesper, a New York designer, began shuttering her namesake label in October, citing untenably high operational costs and unpredictable returns. “I’ve had a day of $75,000 in sales in 24 hours, because of celebrity, and you think it’ll keep going," she said. “But then the next month, it just doesn’t."

Some designers take creative-director positions inside big fashion houses, where they can land a salary and work on a namesake label on the side. Thompson, who is self-taught and runs his brand with a team of five part-time employees, said he’d rather grow slowly than work for someone else.

Born in Jamaica, Thompson moved to the U.S. when he was 9. He learned how to sew from his grandmother and started making clothes for friends in high school. He said he took one college fashion course online but didn’t have enough money to go to school full-time.

In 2014, he moved to New York and worked as a waiter at Red Lobster while interning at the labels Amanda Uprichard and Gypsy Sport.

He started Theophilio in 2016, making one-off pieces from repurposed thrift-store purchases. In late 2019, a buyer from Ssense, the Canadian e-commerce site, contacted him on Instagram about carrying the line and he incorporated his business. In 2020, he quit his job at Red Lobster.

Thompson makes bright leather trousers, fishnet tanks and strappy dresses which are meant for a shopper who is “sexy, provocative and loves to have a good time," he said. He said his brand made about $227,000 in annual sales in 2022. Federico Barassi, vice president of menswear buying at Ssense, described Thompson’s designs as “bright, fun and hopeful."

In 2021, Thompson won the CFDA’s Emerging Designer of the Year award and a $50,000 grant from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. He has also received funding from Your Friends in New York, a program founded by Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and luxury conglomerate Kering.

He makes all of his clothes in New York, where materials and labor are costlier than manufacturing overseas.

And because his manufacturing orders are small, each unit costs more than it would in the bulk orders larger brands can afford to place.

“A handicap for a young brand is that they can’t meet minimums," said Gary Wassner, chief executive of financing group Hilldun Corporation. “Producing a couple of units of a style is exponentially more expensive than a competitor producing hundreds of units of stock." Osborne said upstart designers are almost always operating in the red.

“It’s a constant struggle when you are paying factories, buying fabrics up front, shipping goods," Osborne said. “You lay out cash, and if you grow, you have to lay out double. It’s a vicious cycle. You rob Peter to pay Paul."

Selling wholesale to department stores doesn’t necessarily provide relief, Thompson said. A potential retail partner recently said it wanted to pay him 45 days after receiving his clothes. “That’s a month and a half," he said. “My company could be under." To deliver a $50,000 order of clothing, he said, “you still need $25,000 minimum up front, and then you’re waiting two months."

Some retailers have also stopped offering deposits. Designers used to get a 30% payment up front, but some stores have stopped offering them, Osborne said.

Taking the plunge to grow the business also comes with risks. Last year, Thompson took out a loan to fill a wholesale order, and the high interest rate threw him into debt.

“It can feel difficult to say, ‘Hey, can I borrow some dollars?’" Thompson said. “It is not easy for a young designer to navigate within this space. It is entrepreneurship in a recession."

Some designers choose to raise money with investors to keep themselves afloat, but bringing other partners in can feel like “selling your soul to the devil," said Osborne. “They can try to change your vision. Sometimes people’s opinions will muddy the waters."

Thompson said he was open to outside investment, but is cautious of the wrong partner.

Instead, he’s eyeing other ways to grow his business. In March, he debuted a collection of sunglasses for Warby Parker. Next up are leather goods, starting with handbags coming later this year.

“I just want to be successful," Thompson said. “I’m not asking for too much."

Write to Chavie Lieber at Chavie.Lieber@WSJ.com

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