First find your niche — and then hire an accountant.

This story first appeared in the March 10, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Those were the major pieces of advice from panelists participating in Fashion Institute of Technology’s Dean’s Dialogues series, held at the school late last month. The panel on “Designers: Is There a Retail Store in Your Future?” was presented by the Fashion Service Network, a networking council of service professionals from finance and operations who help fashion companies develop and fine-tune their businesses.

The program was moderated by Andrew Jassin, managing director of consulting firm Jassin-O’Rourke Group, and Charles Klein, a partner at the law firm of Davidoff Malito & Hutcher. FIT’s dean, Joanne Arbuckle, opened the event. Panelists included Scott Kay, an FIT graduate and fine jewelry designer known for his specialty in bridal bands and his use of platinum and palladium; Scott Morrison, a former professional golfer who launched premier denim brand Paper Denim & Cloth and is now designer and president of Earnest Sewn, and British designer Lee Copperwheat, who partnered with Pamela Blundell in the Nineties under their Copperwheat Blundell label and is now working with Daryl Kerrigan in her NYC NoHo design studio/retail space.

“Once you find your thing that drives your passion, when it’s something you do even on your days off, you’ll be successful,” said Kay.

He also noted that it is important to know what the competition is doing: “If pastels are in season, maybe there’s an opportunity to work with the primaries. You can buck the trend. I built my business in a white metal when [the business was primarily all yellow gold].”

Morrison, who started his first jeans line in 1999, said that at the time, the “premium denim market didn’t emerge yet…so it was easy for me to create a niche.”

He described how he created the premium denim niche through washes, and, once the market started to emerge after four or five years, he was able to create a lifestyle denim company since one hadn’t yet existed.

Kay emphasized to the students, “A lot of people go out and start companies…but just because you put a name on a brand doesn’t mean it’s [really] a brand.”

Kay pointed out that a true brand “triggers a thought or idea, or represents a service or look.” He emphasized that a brand is something that people respect because the name triggers a connection, but cautioned the students that it can be something that is hard to establish “in these times.”

Kay told the students that his focus was on the business first, with the product coming in second. Kay also made sure the attendees understood that they couldn’t just focus on the creative side, that the business side is important too. “In order to be successful, you have to use both sides of the brain,” he said.

Moderators Jassin and Klein zeroed in on that point, explaining to the students that after graduation, but before embarking on their own business as entrepreneurs, they should talk with an accountant. Jassin said an accountant will help make sure both the financial and creative aspects of a business are addressed. Klein added that many accountants have contacts in the industry and can help entrepreneurs find a business partner.

Copperwheat pointed out that graduates will have to decide between working for a small or large company, and that some will find that for them it is better to work in a big company for their apprenticeship.

“It’s good to go work in the industry first [before setting out on your own] to find out how to do everything properly,” he said. He noted that designers can hurt themselves if they start their own label first, and then can’t properly develop it, such as through an inability to deliver the product.

But where does retail fit in?

According to Morrison, “Anytime you are selling through a retailer, the biggest challenge is getting the product into the store and selling it the way you would.”

“The reason why many designers open their own stores is because department stores can’t present the product [the way] they want,” Kay added. He explained that the department stores control the buy, and for designers it is the orientation of the product that is important. It is also the reason why many designers choose to design their own displays.

Copperwheat said that sometimes a designer’s own retail store can enhance the product and the line as an “alternative to a catwalk show.” He explained that a designer’s store can provide great feedback on what’s selling, information they don’t always get from department stores.