While working on a writing project, on Starting Somewhere, the words ‘artist’ or ‘designer,’ and the word ‘entrepreneur’ kept popping into my writing interchangeably. It occurred to me that I should be addressing one or the other, as it might get confusing and certain thoughts might be misconstrued as exclusive to one or the other. I realized the dilemma: that I’m trying to reach both with the same message because both are functioning in much the same way these days, we just don’t recognize it yet in our rhetoric or in our communities. I know this because I actually consider myself a hybrid of these categories, and but have had a hell of a time coming to terms with that and communicating to people where I fit in this disjointed system.
Although their activities are very similar, just packaged differently, it still challenging for an artist or a designer to be seen as an entrepreneur. The worlds are entirely separate, although the values and experiences are often the same. For artists, as for entrepreneurs the goal is to connect with an audience to sell your product or service. The term ‘design’ is being used more often to describe business practices and in job titles as industries evolve. The relevance, therefore, of the artist in the business world is understood now not to be a purely aesthetic thing. Design is systems and programs and infrastructure and interface. Startups use design skills everyday, employing their creativity and their inner artist.
Because artists are always expected to make choices for the sake of their art rather than to make money, they do not fit our conventional idea of an entrepreneur, whose primary pursuit is commerce. But this line has been blurred now that artists run businesses of their own and have access to many of the same outlets as businesses through which to reach their community, some of whom might be other businesses looking to outsource artwork or design work. Artists have had to learn to become entrepreneurs to promote themselves and build a following. And so a conversation with an entrepreneur and another with an artist might have many parallels. The startup and the artist pass through the same phases of discovery, experimentation and diffusion.
When starting out after graduating from Parsons in 2009, it took me years to understand that the language I was speaking was not the language of a fashion designer, but rather a hybrid of a fashion designer and an entrepreneur. It meant me meeting the right people at the right time, having conversations that I never thought I would have, and stepping off of a path that had been laid out in front of me since my first taste of fashion industry at the age of 18. In doing so, I had to step away from what I knew and into an abyss, hoping to find my voice and my people.
Once you decide to be a designer there is only one path to take, whether you have your own design business or you have a job with another brand: you must keep up with the cycle of all of the other fashion businesses. When you are in a startup you are basically required to do something totally different than what already exists. There is a huge dichotomy here, and for anyone who is interested in change and progress, fashion as it exists is quite suffocating.
There is a real opportunity here to start considering the business of fashion at all of its levels and in all of its shapes and sizes, and accepting entrepreneur as synonymous with designer.
There are bridges forming between the fashion world and the startup world, but they are all being built from the land of technology towards the land of fashion. The land of fashion has little moments celebrating the innovations of technology, but mostly through content creation and in various novel ways. They know how to create buzz, but they aren’t changing the world. Even an example like Burberry, celebrated for their embracing of all things digital, are only dressing up a business that remains tied to the cycle.
The innovation in these big companies has to be in communication and marketing, because they are too big and working too well to alter from the bottom up. The problem is not that heritage companies all function in the same way, but that all fashion businesses starting out head down the same path by default, without questioning it. that's just the way it's done. We celebrate unique aesthetics and content creation, but new business models cannot take off because they are rejected by the gatekeepers. Our innovation comes in marketing strategies and commercial channels, but not in business models. And where would we go to find a mentor to guide us through innovation? Likely to tech land, where a new idea can be flushed out and developed rather than scoffed at.
When you are a startup in tech land, you have access to long list of incubators, accelerator programs, and mentors. New ideas are encouraged and plentiful, and are up for grabs to the one who does it best. As a designer our options are limited to competitions, show room sponsorships, and a select few programs, like the CFDA incubator in New York, where the focus on the business is a bit more long term. But these tend to focus on businesses that already have some traction, whereas for a startup you find support from, well, the moment you start up.
This is not a question of fairness, or of all designers deserving a shot. It is an argument that I’ll eventually (in another article) bridge into how fashion can be more sustainable as an industry if we learn a little something from the startup model. And this is speaking to both designers and industry decision makers: we need to start building the bridge back towards tech land. Young designers should consider business models that break from the rules of the gatekeepers, and industry decision makers should encourage this dialogue for future change.
Why are the most exciting things about Fashion the ones happening in underground movements like those of ethics, sustainability and tech?
There is a real opportunity here to start considering the business of fashion at all of its levels and in all of its shapes and sizes, and accepting entrepreneur as synonymous with designer. Conversations on Omni channel retail and Omni channel marketing, interest from big tech companies to collaborate with fashion brands, and organizations like Decoded Fashion are all breaking down the barriers that have restricted movement within the fashion industry for so long.
What I’ve learned is simply that in order to find a place in the no-mans-land that I linger in, somewhere on the fringes of fashion and the fringes of tech, the conversation must continue. Every new discovery leads to a new opportunity, a new idea, and a new door. This is the thrill of innovation and newness that has always inspired entrepreneurs, and has begun to cause fashion to loose its edge. Why are the most exciting things about Fashion the ones happening in underground movements like those of ethics, sustainability and tech? The beauty of the garments becomes, at a certain point, obscured by their detachment from reality.
It’s not just in regards to fashion; the future of all industries is going to be a hybrid way of thinking. To think like an entrepreneur and designer means being capable of imagining new platforms for communication and ways of exchanging and engaging with information, products, and our environments. It means to face problems in the market with a viable solution and become responsible for creating a new way. Not all of us need to be both, but we need to build our businesses and our industries in a way that cultivates this mergence of ideals. We, the individuals to drive that movement already exist and are taking our own steps in that direction. But our real achievement will be showing that it’s possible for us to remove the stigma of classification and adjust perceptions now engrained by adjusting the rhetoric.