Underground Brands : The Rise Of The Designer Capitalist?

NY Magazine carries a very important look at the activity and motivations of counter-culture capitalists in the US called ‘The Brand Underground’. While we think author Rob walker is a tad too romantic when he suggests that modern bohemians are actually underground hustlers like aNYthing’s A-Ron who are making dollars from sales of items created by their wry neo-brands (fueled by the internet); there is a huge amount of insight about modern entrepreneurs and tomorrow’s business world.

And guys like A-Ron are supposed to know that better than anybody. Which is why the supposed counterculture nature of his brand might arouse some suspicion. Manufactured commodities are an artistic medium? Branding is a form of personal expression? Indie businesses are a means of dropping out? Turning your lifestyle into a business is rebellious?

And yet thousands and thousands of young people who are turned off by the world of shopping malls and Wal-Marts and who can’t bear the thought of a 9-to-5 job are pursuing a path similar to A-Ron’s. Some design furniture and housewares or leverage do-it-yourself-craft skills into businesses or simply convert their consumer taste into blog-enabled trend-spotting careers. Some make toys, paint sneakers or open gallerylike boutiques that specialize in the offerings of product-artists. Many of them clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.

And on the meaning of these neo-brands from Daniel Casarella of Clothing brand Barking Irons:

It is often said that this generation of teenagers and 20-somethings is the most savvy one ever in its ability to critique and understand commercial persuasion, and it is probably true — just as it was true when the same thing was said of Generation X and of the baby boomers before that. (And it will no doubt be true when it is said, again, of those now in middle school.) But understanding or “seeing through” the branded world is not the same thing as rejecting it. What bothers Casarella about mainstream branding are big, blatant logos that turn the wearer into a walking advertisement and are supposed to function as simplistic “badges.” That approach, he suggests, is what makes big brands as shallow as most Top 40 music or Hollywood movies. It is not that these forms are inherently bad; it is that they always seem built for the lowest common denominator, and the contemporary consumer demands more — more originality, more sincerity, more not-in-the-mainstream, a greater goal than just making money. That is what he sees Barking Irons as doing in the realm of the brand.

Barking Irons does have a logo, but it appears inside his T-shirts, where only the consumer sees it. That’s the way, Dan Casarella maintains, to make a deep connection. If it seems a little incongruous to combat superficiality by way of T-shirts that retail for $60 or more at Barneys or A-list boutiques, well, in his view, that’s the best place to find an audience that “gets it.” When Casarella declares that his project is part of a “revolution against branding,” what he really means is not the snuffing out of commercial expression but an elevation of it.

On the training you need to run a neo-brand:

It is impossible to overstate the number of tiny streetwear brands with names like Crooks & Castles or Married to the Mob that are working variations on this territory. And it is easy to see the attraction for the new upstart branders that seem to jump into this realm every day. You don’t have to worry about the credentialing procedures that now define the traditional high arts, like getting a master’s degree from a well-connected art school or hobnobbing on the writer-retreat circuit. For people like Ben and Bobby Hundreds (or the Casarellas or A-Ron), you don’t even need to study marketing. Their apprenticeship was the act of growing up in a thoroughly commercialized world.

Much of this sentiment reminds us of something David Gensler wrote about in his magazine, Royal Magazine – a journal he claims to have created for Designer Capitalists. He said,

“The money made me do it.”

Welcome to a new era, a time of limitless luxury never before seen by any other generation, anywhere, at any point.

Through the aid of technology, we can access a truly global market, command a massive audience, and shatter the control that the old, dying corporate machine has on youth culture.

Enter the new Designer Capitalist. They are the vanguards of a new wave of thinking, a cut and paste aesthetic, and new methods of production, marketing and distribution.

For PSFK, it’s as if these brands and ‘hustlers’ are taking advantage of a huge failing by larger brands to remain connected to their customer base. Large brands have become ‘corporate’ and ‘soulless’ with every move being analyzed to understand the impact on marketshare and bottom-line – not on the relationship between brand and consumer. These neo-brands and their designer capitalists believe that the brand is at the heart of their organization and it’s this concept that motivates their products, marketing and fuels the tight-relationships they have with their consumers.

The Brand Underground – New York Times:

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