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Starkweather and Barns

What does Starkweather have in common with barns?

One of my favorite books on Barns. An in depth study from Eric Sloane

One of my favorite books on Barns. An in depth study from Eric Sloane

Going back into documents from the early days of Starkweather, I dug up some great juice that has been absorbed into the DNA of the brand but that I rarely think of anymore. There are certain subjects that I have always been drawn to and that resurface across all areas of my work and projects, my own philosophies of living, and my design preferences as an aesthete and observer. I have collected hundreds of images, dozens of books and life experiences in locations that tie back to these themes. It’s that natural pull that guides our choices, designs our environments, and brings us close to people who share our affinities or who want to learn more about them from us. Some of those for me are space travel and future technologies, Native American culture and binary design, and American barns.

An image and concept description from the original Starkweather business plan.

An image and concept description from the original Starkweather business plan.

We were told in design school that, if we had our own businesses, designing would become about 10% of our job. And that has turned out to be 100% true. It has been almost six months since I picked up a pencil and paper to lay down a new design, as I have been completely focused on the design of my business.

Remembering where the garment design comes from is not on the top of my mind, because now I am seeing the garments as products and numbers rather than art or creations. This is strange and satisfying in its own way, but I miss the sensation of putting something down on paper and watching it come to life through the prototyping and sampling process. Then the moment of first seeing it in motion, on the body.

I miss digging through image libraries to find that graphic or rural portrait that informs the lines of a design or leads to the cross disciplinary (with biology, in this case) design of the crux. I miss the imagination I have when my brain is full of the visual references that fill up and mix up in my mind to create new compositions and arrangements that I can put down on paper, adding my own images to the world. And the curious dreams that I have after this research is done.

A page out of the book An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane

A page out of the book An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane

Sometimes it’s not the most fantastical, but the most pragmatic that blows my mind. The North American barn, for example, keeps me constantly in awe. Cross state lines, all over the country, cross generations, new and old, modernized and defunct, they all share one fundamental design principle: every structural decision is made with function in mind. This means that, if you close your eyes and picture a barn, what you'll see in your mind's eye is much like the image of a barn 200 years ago. The function has not changed, so the design has not changed. It is only optimized by scale and, advances in construction methods and building material. For hundreds of years we see it repeating itself in the way of the tried and true.

A second image and note from the original Starkweather business plan.

A second image and note from the original Starkweather business plan.

And while I haven’t looked at my books on American Barns for ages and that phase of my research has long been over, that sentiment still resonates with me fully.

This is what I hope for Starkweather, that the design of the business and the design of the garments will follow the path of the barn. That they will serve their function and be beautiful in their minimalism and enhance the landscape while also representing the hard work that takes place within those walls. That they will adapt to improvements in structural integrity, but outside of the pressures of trend and fad, and that they will stand the test of time.

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Of Brands and Distributors

We are witnessing a shift at this time in the fashion industry, a rapprochement to the tech industry, opening up opportunities in distribution and marketing models that were not possible before the internet. From the fashion industry side, we've barely tapped into the potential of this alignment. The challenge is finding a way to introduce the concept of endless possibilities to the fashion community in terms of technological tools and innovations, and the endless possibilities of branding through design (back and front end) to the tech community getting their toes wet with fashion companies. 

Fashion companies are accustomed to the idea of "anything is possible" in terms of realizing a creative vision, but when it comes to compromise concerning industry pain points, there is a consensus that generally accepts things to remain the same. Why can't we imagine our businesses with the view that anything is possible– design our businesses with the same precision and care with which we design our garments? 

Emerging product based technology doesn't need fashion designers for the time being because the most important and relevant innovations are in the health and fitness realms where tech-y looking things are ok. The innovation in online platforms is mostly coming from the tech and business side and acting as distribution models or branding 'basics' by adopting an existing aesthetic identity and ameliorating the experience through technology/online. There is an available space here for brands with unique and distinctive creative identities to step in, answer to a lifestyle and also define the direction of that lifestyle by carrying it into the future. That being said, there has to be a point of entry, a place for the consumer to connect with the product from where they stand, but for the brand to take the consumer away from the predicted trajectory–the rote of the fashion cycle, for example–and into a better and more highly designed, curated, and cared for experience.

What is the difference between a brand and a distributor? 

A brand has to have a creative ethos & a specific customer they create products for a lifestyle. It's about the aesthetic and the narrative.

A distributor speaks to a specific lifestyle through its curated selection of products from a variety of wholesalers. It's about range and customer experience.

Naturally, a bridge of similarities exists between the two and the obstacle is the status quo of how products reach the end consumer. Technology offers the chance to create a model  the benefits of both: reinforcing the brand identity through the methods of lifestyle curation pioneered by distributors.

What can the brand do beyond the creative ethos to add value?

A distributor focuses on experience, and hierarchy amongst distributors is determined by the quality of service and the level of personalization. Distributors take on characteristics of a brand when they capitalize on consistency. The narrative power of the distributor is in the brands they use to help tell their story. Again, rather than existing as two separate entities, the benefits of each to the other can be realized in one hybrid business model.

If the brand could provide a service that became a powerful acquisition tool, the product can tell a narrative that strengthens the ethos of the distribution model. It's something like a perfect storm of design, experience, online, offline, service, and communication. Empowering the business to prioritize all of these things through the use of technology. In places where digital can be more effective than brick and mortar, for example, the online experience will differentiate itself from the offline experience and already create two different demographic appeals. 

That bridge between brand and distributor is as real as the bridge between fashion and technology, but we're still swinging across the divide one by one, and even then it's only a brave few. In many cases I believe the fashion brands of the future don't exist yet and what we know of the industry today will get stuck in it's own vicious cycle. We adventure and explore more easily with lighter loads, so if brands start experimenting while small and agile rather than follow the predetermined business model of fashion brands which seems more certain at the time, we'll see some exciting changes in the way consumers engage directly with brands to get their hands on beautiful things while sharing a beautiful experience.

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'Designer' and 'Entrepreneur' Have Become Synonymous but are still Divergent

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.

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Another Tick on the Measuring Stick: 2013

You’ll see articles and lists from almost every blog for the next few weeks on how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, or what kinds of resolutions you should make if you want to be ‘X’ kind of person. But rather than looking at this day as a time to fabricate change, I prefer to look at it as a means of assessment, a unit of measurement. Imagine each year as a tick on the measuring stick. Marks growing higher and higher on the wall. Some years you grow a centimeter, other years several inches. It is an erratic system that is never identical between individuals or predictable within oneself. However, unlike the growth analogy where we have little if no control over the rate of our body’s vertical climb, we do have control over the growth that the New Year’s measuring tape evaluates.

Our lives look rather strange in yearly snapshots; imagine it as an infographic assessing the previous 365 days from different angles, with different hypotheses and with different quantifiers. For example, think of your professional life and personal life as two pillars that strengthen each other by growing side by side. If one becomes neglected, the other risks blowing over. Strength is not always in the sum of two parts, but in their equilibrium. And so there is an active participation required in cultivating that balanced growth.

This principle is never more true than in growing a business. When a year goes by, a business goes through the same kind of self-discovery as an individual. As with any moment of assessment, it is a time to address pain points, improve communication and strengthen infrastructure. This can also mean eliminating time wasters and inessentials. It is a moment to realign ones practices in the direction of reestablished goals, and to reinforce core values in so doing.

In the year 2013, Starkweather made great progress in many ways, ultimately leading to an important pivot that will take place during 2014. These alterations are all a function of customer feedback, recommitting to essential founding ideals, and a better understanding of where Starkweather fits into the market. This pivot takes into account the short and long-term goals of the company, and the customer’s best interest. There will be a lot of exciting news in the coming 12 months. We look forward to sharing new products, new projects, and now collaborations with you, and receiving your feedback in the coming year.

Here's to hard work, and new horizons.

All the best for a happy and prosperous 2014!

Hard Work Starkweather New Year.png
Starkweather New Year.png

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