Thursday, September 8, 2016

Handmade Nation now

It's so funny that I felt compelled to write a post tonight, because I hardly ever do. What makes it funnier is that what compelled me is something that began around the time I first started this blog, a very different time indeed.

Waaaayyy back in 2008, back when Etsy was so young, back when I was just starting to explore this idea called MischaLee, there was a woman named Faythe Levine who was exploring this exploding movement, a reinvigoration of craft culture. She published a book that year called Handmade Nation, titled after her documentary which would be released the following year, in 2009. I excitedly scoured the internet and magazines during that time period, learning about all of the crafters doing their thing, reading craft tutorials and stories. I learned about her project while she was still making it, and I ordered the book immediately when it came out. She began screening the documentary after its release, and I missed every screening. Would you believe that I didn't watch it for the first time until tonight?? I ordered it on (another blast from the past from that era) when they sent me an email that it was soon going out of print. What the heck took me so long?

I'm not gonna beat myself up about how tardy to the party I am (by 7 years, haha), but it was actually interesting watching it now in this later context. I had so much nostalgia for the excitement and possibilites I felt when I used to see these women making their own careers and forging their own paths. I remember so clearly the aesthetic from that particular craft revival. Everything felt very punk, very kitchy, so DIY. It was incredibly cool seeing these people around my age bucking the norms and experimenting with what it means to be an artist or maker as a viable path in adulthood. I have a lot of craft books from this time, when it was really novel to see a craft book that wasn't something your mom or aunt would use to do a weekend project. These were young people recycling materials, making things with a modern feel, and rejecting the trends. I went to the first few Renegade Craft Fairs in New York, and would geek out seeing the makers whose blogs I read.

What struck me was how much has changed. The question was posed towards the end of the documentary of how the capitalist machine would affect the handmade movement over time. It felt very grassroots initially, but it has definitely become more mainstream through the last few years and taken on a new life. I've watched big companies jump on board to collaborate with indie makers, something that really wasn't happening much back in 2009. I've also seen big companies striving more to have more "authenticity", or to highlight handmade aspects of their designs. They speak more to the quality or roots of their brand more than ever. There are many more small collections and limited runs being released. One bad thing that has happened is indie artists and makers getting ripped off at a staggering rate.

The aesthetic has definitely evolved too. Things are much more polished. The handmade goods now have a bit less of that homespun character that initially charmed people. Now products are expected to be more perfect, they ride the line between a manufactured and a handmade look. Displays at craft shows are much more involved, everything is more professional. I think it has become much more competitive, so this is part of the reason. It is harder than ever to get into some of the big craft shows as a vendor. I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing, but I think while it's exciting as a customer, it also seems more intimidating to a person who might be interested in moving towards a maker life.

Watching Handmade Nation just had me pondering a lot of questions, although to be fair these are things I think about frequently. Will this trend continue to hold? Will small brands become more and more like polished, sanitized big brands until they are indistinguishable? How much growth can happen if you keep your company small? It sometimes seems limiting. People often shop small brands to "support real people" but big brands employee far more people. I wonder sometimes if it's really unrealistic to be so exclusive, especially when you consider how hard it is for a smaller business to provide things like health benefits. Is smaller really better? Is the current handmade movement too removed from its roots? Where do we draw the line for handmade? There are many people designing on a small scale and outsourcing production to specialized companies. I wonder where they fall in the spectrum.

None of these questions are meant to undermine what's happening today. I still love the handmade, indie, and craft movement. I love small businesses and support them every step of the way, and obviously I AM a small business. I just like to think from different perspectives and explore ideas. I'm curious to see where the indie road goes, so to speak. This culture that Handmade Nation covered has changed so much in just a few years, I can't imagine what else is in store. I will keep following my favorite makers and evolving with the times. I think it's so cool how the internet has really opened up the worlds of possibility for more people than ever, to forge their own paths, make their own careers, and connect to like-minded individuals. Not to mention the easily accessed exposure to new ideas that is at our fingertips. Amidst the insanity of the times (let's NOT talk about our current election) it's good to know there are still things to look forward to.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

an ending with a beginning

I'm sitting at my kitchen table with a laptop and a pile of notes that are being transferred into my sketchbook, on my second official day of self-employment. To say this is a weird feeling would be an understatement, and I'm sure this is just the beginning of a series of weird feelings while I adjust to a very different life.

I worked at Sephora for over twelve years. I started there when I was fresh from college, with the uncertainty of what my future held after school. I was freelancing as a visual merchandiser (which I really knew nothing about), and applying to every retail position I could find, in the hope that I could at least have a temporary job while I figured out what to do with myself. Needless to say, it took a long time to figure that out. In the meantime, I was learning everything I could at work. Skin physiology, ingredients knowledge, retail operations, the psychology of selling. I learned everything I could about how the store ran, experimented with products, dabbled in education, learned about merchandising. I basically did every training I was allowed to do, tried different positions within the store, and just explored the full breadth of the place. At Sephora there is a lot of opportunity, and I took advantage of that for a long time. I really tried to make it my career for a while.

I always did my making on the side, and have had an Etsy shop, in some form, since 2007. It felt good to have side projects that fulfilled the artistic part of me. It was just something fun to do, that I slowly (very slowly) got more serious about. Until it came to the point about 4 or 5 years ago where I just felt like I was hitting a wall with my jewelry making. There were things I wanted to make that could only be made if I took a class or something. And I found one. An apprenticeship program. It was much, much more than I'd bargained for, but I felt this insane feeling of determination, like I HAD to find a way to do it. It was expensive, but I knew I'd do whatever it takes to do it anyway. It was 8 months long, but I was ready for it.

I went in with an enthusiasm I hadn't felt in a long time, and even though it was hard to balance with work, and my money was SO tight, I finished it in 2013. I really felt like I'd found this missing life motivation that I'd been looking for. I had plans at that point to jump right into the industry, but I realized quickly that was a bit rash. So I just kept making, and working retail, and seeing where it would take me. And I made a few goals and didn't reach them. BUT. There were things I never expected that happened instead. Opportunities arose that I never planned for or could have seen. It was all very exciting. I messed up a lot, I made a bunch of mistakes, and I learned a lot. And I got really, really busy.

In the midst of all this, a lot of big things in my life were changing. The only thing that was staying the same was my job at Sephora. But I just couldn't handle it all. I'm an introvert, so being in public interacting with people all day is very draining. I didn't have anything left to give to all my passion projects. There was even more than ever before to balance, and I was doing a really bad job at it. The things I care about the most, including MischaLee, were getting the short end of the stick, while I plugged away at my day job like I always had. I loved the security of Sephora, but something was going to have to give. My life had started to feel like one of those nightmares where you're trying to run, but you can barely move your legs.

So for two years I saved and planned so that I could move on to a new chapter. Here I am, doing something completely outside of what I know, starting all over, trying to learn everything I can about something else. I don't know what's in store for me, but I'm just gonna do what I always do -- try as hard as I can, give it my all, and explore my options. I'm so grateful for everyone I've met along the way, the friends and family who have cheered me on and believed in me, the customers who have had to be so patient, and the hard, hard lessons I've learned (and am still learning). A future so foggy has never looked so bright to me before. I'm ready to see what's out there in the mist.