At a wedding I attended in Karachi last year, all of the guests received a parting gift from the bride's family. For the men, it was a beautiful dark brown wool satchel, festooned with colourful embroidery and handwork by talented Pakistani artisans. No two bags were alike so each guest received a one-of-a-kind gift which was rooted in symbolism and meaning.
All around the world, in the West and in the East, artists work away in cottage industries and small businesses rooted in the passion of making of beautiful things. And yet, it seems so many consumers' lives are dominated by just the opposite of this. We live in a world where global megabrands at the high-end and on the high street drown out the quiet beauty of products by independent artists and designers. Up until now, it has been a challenge for them to reach a global audience, due to their small scale and geographic constraints. And so the victory march of the big brands has continued on.
Enter revolutionary web 2.0 sites like Etsy.com and threadless.com, which could alter the way consumers think about luxury and exclusivity, thereby changing the design process as we know it. This forces us to ask ourselves a few questions.
Is real luxury a $2000 bag made of the best materials, produced in the thousands? Or, is it a one-of-a-kind piece at a fraction of the price, lovingly made by a designer whose name you might not even recognise?
Luxury, of course, is a relative and subjective term, so the truth is, it could be either one, but Etsy.com is paving the way for the latter meaning to take hold. Welcome to the luxury of mass individualisation.
Etsy is a virtual co-operative of 50,000 artists, designers and crafters selling, promoting and bartering their custom-designed products to appreciative customers who are looking for something that is truly one of a kind. London style bible Dazed & Confused magazine says Etsy is "a movement sounding the death knell for generic, mass-produced design. That means custom clothing, accessories and housewares and more that's guaranteed never to appear in your local H&M or Ikea."
Young designers like Monie and James of Working Class Heroes have found a way to directly reach consumers without the responsibility and challenge of managing a wholesale business or retail stores, for that matter. Etsy.com has become a platform for selling their beautiful handmade laptop wallets and iPod pouches.
Should you involve your consumers in the design of your product?
The 300,000-strong user community over at threadless.com thinks you should. Users vote each week on more than 600 unique designs submitted by t-shirt designers from around the world. The top 4-6 t-shirts each week are produced and sold to the community in limited edition quantities. In return, the designers receive $2,000+ in cash and prizes for their winning designs. They are even taking their products to the bricks-and-mortar world, having just opened its first retail store in Chicago this past August.
Earlier this year, Threadless founder Jeffrey Kalmikoff told the Economist that his model could work in any industry. “I am convinced Detroit could use it for designing cars,” he said. It will certainly be interesting to see if and how traditional apparel and accessories companies will use the wisdom of crowds to shape their own designs.
Many fashion companies struggle with re-ordering items that have blown out the door more quickly than predicted. Imagine if they knew upfront which of their designs would become best sellers. It would be one way to help inform the process of deciding how much to produce of each style. While one might argue that this approach makes less sense at the high-end level, where consumers expect the designer to take a strong stance on defining what's cool, for high-street brands it could still be a very interesting way to predict the future. More pragmaticaly, it could also reduce the costs of slow-moving excess stock which ends up going on sale and eroding margins.