Update from the front lines: folk industry
Saturday, July 23rd, 2005
If you’ve seen my Powerpoint spiel recently, you know I’ve got a page called “new media = new merchandise” devoted to the most interesting advertiser on the Internet, the archetype in a coming consumer revolution in which people customize their owns goods and experiences. Volvo? Microsoft? Google?
Here’s a hint.
Though I think this is really a business story in the long run (and was covered very nicely in the WSJ a couple of weeks ago), its worth noting the NYT’s coverage in the style section last week
Lately limited edition T-shirts, most likely made in someone’s cellar in Brooklyn, have suddenly become the hipster’s preferred mode of expression. Whether produced by college pals with studio art degrees or sold by highly organized Web companies like threadless.com – visitors to the site offer ideas and vote on designs, which are then put into microproduction – the limited edition T-shirt has become impossible to avoid.
Often crude and uncommercial-looking, its imagery represents a kind of generational response to the bland uniformity of the mass-marketed “vintage” lines found in every mall. This development has not been lost on those same manufacturers, however. Some are already producing T-shirts that mimic the do it yourself look of indie T-shirts. “T-shirts are a really cheap blank slate,” said Ariel Foxman, the editor of Cargo, Condé Nast’s shopping magazine for men. “People have found a relatively inexpensive way to distinguish themselves.”
The trend partly reflects the great democratic welter of the e-commerce ether, and it partly serves as a marker of hipness, defined by the savvy with which a consumer can navigate the Web labyrinth in search of the coolest obscurities. For a snapshot of the estimated 1,500 sites now selling limited edition T-shirts, one might double click on Wowch.com, whose designs ring changes on the visual conventions of painting-on-velvet kitsch, or to Trainwreck Industries, a 10,000-shirts-a-year site run by a San Francisco designer, Alec Patience, whose motifs run to sight gags like Mao as a D.J., or Che Guevara’s face morphed into that of Ace Frehley, the lead guitarist of the rock band Kiss.
For that matter, one might even check out Prada’s recent foray into the arena, a collaboration with the Chilean graffiti artist Flavien Demarigny, also known as Mambo. His shirt, the first in a series of proposed limited edition T-shirts grouped under the highfalutin’ title “Unspoken Dialogues,” has a drawing of a figure and a boom box that could politely be termed an homage to Keith Haring, as if drawn by a 5-year- old.
So some combination of the Internet, Moores’ law, network computing, swarms and outsourced production have made it historically easy for anyone to create and popularize blog posts, podcasts, software, jamCDs, home-brews, t-shirts.
The common theme here is that individuals — folk! — are producing and distributing their own wares through networks of their peers. (Pause to reread Ctrain.) The old production chains and sales channels are being bypassed. Viewed in the context of Christiansen’s distruptive technologies life cycle — cheap, weak, new gizmos slowly create new markets and evolve up-capacity to fill old markets — we can expect that these gizmos will invade other markets and slowly disrupt established industries. Expect home-brew cars, PCs, furniture, blue-jeans, movies, house-blue-prints…
How might this work? Take Dell’s model and fold in Cafe-press. Right now Dell lets you “build your own” computer and CafePress will print/sell anyone’s t-shirt designs. What if Dell let you “build your own” laptops (with a funky screen size or panel color or configuration?) and then sell them yourself via a relabeled Dell page to your peers. Dell gets a new sales channel. Consumers (producers!) get the goods they really want/need.