Designers at craft fairs

Last weekend I went to the Dona Ana Arts Council Renaissance Craft fair; it’s an annual thing. I like to go to these things to shop the designers. Well not to shop exactly, I guess I spy on them (spying sounds ugly; my interest is harmless). It’s a great opportunity to get the status on the state of the grassroots DE (designer-entrepreneurs) industry which -as we all know- is my business. My first interest is always product integrity and quality. First though, I’d have to say that I rarely notice the booth layout; it’d have to be pretty bad for me to notice. I really should pay more attention to that. Anyway, I shop these things very casually; I rarely if ever mention who I am or what I’m doing because it usually ends badly. These designers are paranoid beyond belief and there is just no way I can ever tell them what I do because they’re just sure I represent some big commercial interest who’s going to knock them off. I mean, there have been plenty of times I’ve run across someone with some real talent and I’ve wanted to tell them about the site and book in order to increase their chances but there’s just no talking to them. Without fail, each designer has been doing this for X number of years, business is booming, and they have no problems whatsoever. Yeah, right. I can’t even mention that I’m a pattern maker because that admission usually produces the response “I make my own patterns” with a sniff and lifting of the nose…and I’m always dying to respond “I can tell” but I don’t. Without belaboring the point, the critical problem of DE craft show sellers is product quality and the fact that their business model relies on the burdens and costs of push manufacturing.


At this fair as with many others that I’m sure you’ve seen, there were the booths filled with cutesy pot-holders, quilted toaster covers (you’d think these things would be juried), place mats and toilet paper roll covers (the kiss of death) with sourcing courtesy of JoAnn’s Fabrics and Hobby Lobby. You can pick out those booths at a distance of 50 feet, no problem. You know what I mean; there’s usually lots of ribbon, potpourri and glued-on lace involved. I don’t go anywhere near those. That’s not a criticism either, remember I’m looking for the next great DE company with innovative design ideas, not someone to rent a booth for a church bazaar fund raiser. And speaking of being able to spot an amateur at 50 feet, with the plethora of renaissance costuming for sampling, DH and I have determined that I can spot a home-sewn garment from 30 feet away (I always used to say 20 feet; I’d never actually measured the distance). There are two major tip-offs. First is the failure to fuse necklines (stay-stitching isn’t a good solution) and second were zipper insertions. These are heart breaking and why I went to the bother of compiling the zipper sewing tutorials because there’s just no need of it. And be sure to fuse the zipper inset area, no matter the weight of your fabric.

Anyway, I did see a couple of DEs worth mentioning although none of them -again- needed any help. The first one was Arin Roberts who sold products incorporating molas. Molas are an indigenous textile craft traditionally produced by the Kuna Indians of Panama. I’m a big fan of indigenous textile art. Arin’s products would be pretty tough to knock off but still, she had some Guatemalan vests in her booth that could have used some work. Arin says she’s formed a cooperative to produce molas to her exclusive requirements (which does meet the test for copyright) but her site doesn’t give much information about the co-op. You may not know this but there’s always been a problem with importers failing to pay respectable wages so I’m glad to see Arin is on top of that.

The next DE I saw worth mentioning was a leather worker named Tom Thomas. Tom wasn’t there, his son was manning the booth. Thomas’ designs were very unusual and definitely unique from a structural standpoint with a lot of architectural interest (see this sample); the website just doesn’t do the bags justice. Now this guy is an example of a big target for knock off on several counts because there was a big disconnect between the quality and integrity of the design and the actual expression. As I mentioned in copying processes #5, the quality of the bag design did not match the level of design. None of the bags were lined, some edges that should have been finished were crudely cut and some needed greater structural underpinnings for some of the more rigid pieces (remember, I’m a leather pattern maker). Also, nearly everything was the same ubiquitous cow hide -not to say the quality of leather wasn’t good!- just that he needed more colors and textures. Last of all was his pricing; it was very low (DEs usually charge too much). I tell you, companies like this make me so frustrated. It wouldn’t take much to upgrade the quality level by throwing in a lining and tweaking the pattern to sew better and he still could have sold these bags at wholesale after doubling his price, these were that seriously under priced. He’s gotten a lot of awards and accolades but he should be selling to Neiman’s, not at the Dona Ana craft fair. Oh, I forgot the worst thing –his bags didn’t even have a label sewn in them! Tom’s son did mention that they had been knocked off and that they’d previously been selling to Sak’s but suspended their sales when they found that Sak’s was retailing the bags at $1,000 apiece. Whatever. While I agree that not everyone should feel compelled to grow and meet the demands (and pricing) of the market, one should strive to produce their best work. The styling and design integrity of these bags deserve their best effort.

By the way, speaking of labels and the recent topic of copyrights, I want to mention something here. You should consider putting the little copyright symbol on your label. I’m not saying it will protect you utterly but in the past when I was an employee pattern maker (and not an independent) that copyright symbol would have given me the right of refusal to copy the thing. If you’re an employee, your employer cannot force you to do something illegal. Of course as an independent, I have the right of refusal no matter what. As an employee, you have to do what you’re told unless you can demonstrate what they want you to copy is illegal. I know a lot of pattern makers feel the same way I do. Even if we don’t know the designer personally, we all seem to feel that designers are entitled to product integrity and we won’t willingly subvert that. Putting that copyright symbol on your label can give us the right of refusal in a work situation. Again, I’m not saying that will protect you utterly but every little bit helps. Also realize that nameless pattern makers you’ll never know are on your side!

The last DE I saw was a hoot, he was a real trip. His name is Rock Ridgeway and he’s designed –and patented– a garment he’s calls The Cameleon. He’s got a utility patent (4,180,867) for his garment which can be folded, zipped and gathered to form as many as 4 different dresses, 2 skirts, a jumper, pants, shorts, shirts, a cape, a poncho, tunic, various headgear or can even be used as a handbag, utility bag, sleeping bag or if need be, a tent. I kid you not. Visiting his website won’t give you the full flavor of the product; the best part about it is watching him demonstrate the use of it. He also sells the pattern ($20) which I was willing to buy in compensation for the entertainment value but he was out of them (the garment isn’t the sort of thing I wear). Regarding his patent; this is one of the few products that can be patented. I’m sure the patent examiner had fun with his application. Oh, and he had a great sizing method, I just loved it. Clothing was sized by color. He had this little fabric belt with roughly two inch sections of fabric in different colors that you placed around the hip. If the belt ended at yellow, you bought size yellow so there’s no need for anyone in the crowd to worry that anyone would discern their actual inch measurements. I thought it was a cool idea. His product was one of the few products that probably belong at a venue like this. To be sold, it must be demonstrated -hopefully by someone with some acting ability and a sense of humor- because it just won’t do much hanging on a hanger. His products were very well constructed (it’s obvious that he has been doing these for years; probably has a contractor too), made in plain cotton and then garment dyed in various colors. The last thing I liked about his product was the hang tag. It was a die-cut double octagon folded up that showed all the ways to wear the thing. If I were to have any critiques of his product, it’d be to expand the types of fabrics used. A rayon or silk sample might have been nice.

I saw one last DE but I didn’t get any of their information. It was a line of hand painted shoes painted in wild garish designs and colors. I didn’t pick up any of their info because I’m known to have very bad taste and I was guessing these were the sort of thing very few people would like (in spite of my simple earthiness, I’m very drawn to wild garish colors). Also, the shoes weren’t very well made. I would have liked a display of them for decoration, not that I would have worn them.

Anyway, that was what I did this weekend. Other than more stringent jurying (there were a jizillion booths but only 4 worthy of mention) I wish that people who put on these shows would get at least one vegetarian food vendor; it gets old not being able to eat at these shows. That’s something to consider if you’re ever in a position to stage an event of some kind. Vegetarianism seems to be increasing, particularly among college aged kids.

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22 comments

  1. Christy Fisher says:

    Sounds like you were at a pretty “low quality” show.
    There are actually a number of great art fairs that jury wearables.
    the Scottsdale Center for the Arts has one here in Az in the Spring.. Then of course there are the American Crafts Council shows, Contemporary Crafts Markets, etc etc.. that have high quality wearables..
    Yes, there are a LOT of unjuried sidewalk art shows that allow the “squirt paint on a T shirt” vendors in.. but there are also a number of really good ones..
    Too bad you met a bunch of not so great people.
    I found that the craft show market is a terrific way to pick up wholesale accounts when you are first starting out (or looking in new territories and don’t want to do a wholesale market..)
    I was picked up by Dillard’s years ago at a sidewalk show in Florida…and the Smithsonian gift shop grabbed me at one in Virginia Beach..
    I love venue..and even though I do mostly wholesale now, I am considering getting back on the circuit every now and then as a way to get feedback from the general public and test out new deisgns, etc..
    I hope you don’t think ALL art shows are the same or that ALL wearable/fiber artists are the same.
    I encourage you to look at the atelier desiner site:
    http://www.atelierdesigners.com
    If you “cruise” these designers, you will find that many of them are on the “show circuit”.

  2. I found atelier it a while back cruising links from Ocelot designs (LOOOOVE her stuff. I’m dying to meet her, since she lives close to me, but I have this weird shyness thing that crops up when I want to meet people I admire. I would never have met Kathleen if my Dad hadn’t taken the matter into his own hands).
    anyway, check out her stuff, it’s fab.

  3. kathleen says:

    Jinjer, I just couldn’t be more approachable! I think people confuse the public-me with the private-me (I lecture publicly so I don’t have to do it privately). I think people would be surprised to know that I’m not just shy but I’m painfully shy and I could not be more uncomfortable than when people make a big deal over me if I actually manage to show up some place (rarely, I know). I mean, I’m uncomfortable if people even look at me much less single me out for attention. That reminds me, all of us should meet sometime -in real life. Wouldn’t that be fun?

  4. Cinnamon says:

    So I have to take a moment to purely gush. I’ve only read three posts on your site and I’m already taking notes in my little pocket journal and feeling like a fan-girl.

    I’m a handbag designer who is feeling things out and slowly trying to decide how far I want to take this small business thing. I’ve also helped organize something called the DIY Trunk Show (http://www.diytrunkshow.com) for three years and we had a wonderful food vendor who had meat, veggie, and vegan options available. Our crowd is the young, punk-rock, do it yourself crowd. While you might not have found amazing designers that you would have fallen in love with, I can say that you wouldn’t have found much attitude either. And many of the folks (myself included) would have been so flattered by the suggestion that with a little more training their work could be better and therefore worth more.

    Awesome website. If you view your logs closely, I’ll be the person reading every single post you’ve written.

  5. Christy Fisher says:

    Jinger: I love Ocelot as well. Did you see her stuff/article on the cover of Fiberarts a month or two ago? Interesting clamp resist printing.. reminds me of a modern Marian Clayden (I’m from the first wave of the “artwear group”..Clayden Contampasis, Summa, etc.. BTW.. Susan Summa- who is the head honcho for Atelier is from New Mexico and is one of the original “art to wear” machine knitters from the first wave. She went on into other venues for awhile and now has one of the hottest shows in NYC (Atelier). I’ve been asked to get on board with them, but I just don’t feel like I can handle more production at this point (therefore my extreme interest in learning streamlined production methods without sacrificing quality).. I am revamping pretty much my entire line in the process.. painful but necessary for growth.
    I am curious as to how people like Ocelot, Cynthia Ashby, ..and Homefrocks (also NEW MEXICO..Santa Fe).. are handling their production systems. Kathleen..are you working with Homefrocks or are you familiar with them? oh.. http://www.homefrocks.com

  6. Christy Fisher says:

    Whatever it’s called.. it is “good business”. No matter which field you are in, you should always be aware of your competitors products. In large retail operations, they have people whose job is to “shop the competitors”.
    I have heard a number of designers who say “I never read the trade mags” or I “never look at what other people are doing”.. This is not only arrogant- but it’s stupid.
    A designer cannot just sit in their room and be surrounded by their own thoughts and then slap a price on the designs. You have to be totally aware of the market at all levels to survive in the game. This means seeing what’s out there- whether at at arts and crafts show- or the Javits Center.

  7. Cinnamon’s DIY Trunk Show

    Speaking of designers at arts and crafts shows, I found The DIY Trunk Show for arts and crafts producers in the Chicago area. The DIY Trunk Show is run by Cinnamon Cooper who is a crafts activist (for a better…

  8. Cinnamon & Amy’s DIY Trunk Show

    Speaking of designers at arts and crafts shows, I found The DIY Trunk Show for arts and crafts producers in the Chicago area. The DIY Trunk Show is run by Cinnamon Cooper and Amy Carlton who are crafts activists (for…

  9. Ro-Zs Rings says:

    Okay, I was at this faire. It was my first one I’ve ever been to. If you went by my friend and my booth you would’ve seen a whole bunch of hand sewn leather as well as very well hand sewn bodice, shirt ( my husband and my friend’s husband), skirt, and hand made outfits for my children. You would’ve seen our handmade tent or pavillion made by my husband also. Are you saying you saw all of the faire? I am the one who sold the chainmaille jewelry, over by the wild bird exibit. I did try to look very renaissance, maybe that is why we won the best decorated tent that was there.

  10. Garnets says:

    I have done a few craft shows in the northeast of different quality, and it’s a strange world. My impression is that the show producers may make money, but the vast majority of vendors (oh, excuse me- the artists and artisans) do not. Many of the vendors I’ve talked to are married to people who have very good paying jobs, and they support their spouse’s craft show habit. A few are independently wealthy. Some are sincere creative people who are really trying to make a go of it, but most are just losing money like crazy. You can see the desperate look in their eyes when a show is not good. Like they really were counting on a good show to pay their rent and now they’re screwed. Very few people indeed make a decent living by selling their hand-crafted things. It seems like quite a hoax to me. But I do enjoy doing shows for feedback from people, what do they like, what do they want to see, how much are they willing to pay. I found out early on that even people who want to buy an item hand-crafted by the “artist,” still demand an item that looks “manufactured,” not home-made. They want it to look as good as something you’d find in Barney’s or Bloomingdale’s.

  11. Arin Roberts says:

    Well, I am certainly glad that I wasn’t berated for my work that was seen at the Dona Ana Renaissance Faire by the ‘DE SPY’!

    She was actually forthcoming with me about the ‘scouting’ (not the spy part.. didn’t know I was being ‘rated’) and we had a good chat…
    she didn’t notice however, that the one Guatemalan vest ‘displayed’ in my booth was actually the one I had been wearing and hung up on a rod behind my chair. I do not sell anything Guatemalan, just my own designs made from molas.
    And yes, I do pay my Kuna Indian associates quite well.. as a matter of fact, they set the market price and I pay above that to ensure highest quality and to help create an economic avenue for tribal women. It has been a win win for almost 14 years.

    She is correct about the quality of the show.
    I would say though, that there were also some very fine artists at the show who would not be considered ‘Designer Entrepreneurs’. Many good friends of mine were there who, like me are on the art and craft show circuit because we are ‘Working Artists’ who actually do make a very good living selling our work. We do much more tham pay the rent. We own our own homes and have the time and resources to enjoy life too. My close friends and I do not depend on anyone else for income. I guess we are the lucky ones who live here in New Mexico where people come from around the world to see and buy our work.

    I think it is easy for people like Garnets to criticize and demean us as just ‘vendors’ and not ‘artists and artisans’. She may have been unsuccessful at shows because she doesn’t have a fully developed art or craft.

    It may also be a good idea to wish EVERYONE well who works hard to create and then attempts to sell their work at a show, regardless of their
    ability.

  12. Garnets says:

    I’m not demeaning people who are vendors, just the opposite. I find it amusing that many artists are offended by being referred to as “vendors.” Anyway, it’s wonderful and you are very fortunate that you have made a good living for yourself in that circuit. I think you’re the exception, most people do not. I’ve had fabulous shows and I’ve had crummy shows. It seems to be quite a crap shoot, even at the shows with a good reputation. I do think it’s kind of a racket. The arts and craft show business seemed to peak in the 90’s. There’s more competition for consumer’s dollars now, and a greater availability of stylish, artsy, and inexpensive products in the marketplace.

  13. Christy Fisher says:

    Arin:
    I’m with you, kiddo.
    I have made a nifty living doing the arts circuit and selling through galleries and small boutiques. I own a home (paid off the mortgage last month -yeah!) and have a lovely lifestyle.
    I also live in a state with hefty tourism and support for artisan made goods.
    There are a number of fantastic fiber artists here. I think I did a show with you at the Tuscon Museum a few years ago..it sounds like your work/setup.
    I don’t think the market peaked in the 90s..far from it! My sales were up almost 30% last year. I think the “techno lifestyle” is causing a BOOM in the “handcrafted market. People are looking for “feel good products” and even all the DIY “crap” (and the WOATS and GOATS) is a sign of that. Not everyone wants a plateful of high gloss production stuff on a daily basis. The market is BOOMING if you have a UNIQUE item that is WELL MADE and at a GOOD PRICE POINT.
    Sure..there are “bomb” shows..and scuzzy promoters everywhere who will scam you and PR a new show to death and lead the artists to believe it’s a big deal when it’s not. That happens in every industry and is rampant in the “catwalk fashion scene” as well..
    If you stick to proven shows “American Crafts Council” “Buyers Market” “Contemporary Crafts Market” ,etc. etc.. – those shows (and many more) that have been around with well juried entries for a number of years, then you will find a great audience. I try to stick to indoor shows these days . That way the weather doesn’t become a factor.

  14. Arin Roberts says:

    Thanks Christie.. !!

    Yes, I still do shows at the Tucson Museum of Art.
    In fact just a couple of weeks ago, I had a phenomenal show there.. as usual. Tucson has always been a profitable market for me.

    Since my work is so ‘ethnic and colorful’ the locals and tourists keep me very busy there as they do here in NM.

    You are so right.. it is all about a well made, unique product that is PRESENTED WELL.. and sold at the right price, in the RIGHT PLACE.

    I may be one of the lucky ones Garnet but I, like Christie have not seen a drop in sales.. at all.
    The Clinton years were great and lots of us did well in the 90’s but I just had one of the best summer seasons ever in Santa Fe and so did many of my friends.
    I think it is more than just placing your work in a booth at a show and hoping that it sells.
    When I started out years ago I had a few not so great shows but as Christie said, in order to be successful, you have to do the right shows.

    A few years ago I sold thousands of pieces to 5 stores in Japan in the fashionable Shibuya District. I made that contact at the Pearl Mall art show in Boulder. I don’t think that would have happened at some bogus little show.

    I also know people who have a hard time at any show. They should probably re-evaluate their work and try to key into WHAT SELLS..and become more innovative.
    Like Kathleen, the D.E. Spy (just kidding Kathleen) says.. maybe they should buy her book!

  15. Arin Roberts says:

    Sorry Christy.. I misspelled your name last entry..
    also congrats on paying off your home..!

    Also forgot to add an S on Garnets name.. sorry!
    Vendor is the ‘V’ word to many artists because there is a huge difference between those of us who actually work with our hands and those who just sell a product they have never touched or created.
    I know I am also a vendor but prefer artist/vendor or just plain artist.

  16. Carol says:

    Re: Rock Ridgeway and the Chameleon

    The Carbondale (CO) Mountain Fair has been an institution for decades, juried, high quality, good mix of stuff. Rock and his partner who demoed the thing were there one year – late ’80’s? They had an incredible presentation and when it was over, almost suffocated under people trying to hand money to them.

    They then stiffed the fair – never paid their %. This resulted in all kinds of really stupid legislating for vendors for the next year – one requirement was that you had to pay by certified check before leaving. For a festival held in a park ending on a Sunday afternoon. Right.

    This has not dulled my favorable impression of their presentation, or the fun of their product. If I ran across them, though, I might loudly ask if they are still skipping out on their obligations. Presumably not, if they’re still around.

  17. I feel properly chastised for labelling DIY stuff “crap”–to be fair, I know several people who work the local trade show cuscuit who are producing really great, beautiful, useful products–they’re just in the minority. The majority is producing items that gives DIY a bad name–poorly made, poorly fitting items that I personally would feel embarrassed to wear. It makes me feel frustrated because they are often charging astronomical prices, and matching price with attitude.

    This is bound to be controversial, but:
    I personally have strong feelings about the relationship between art and craft. Conceptual art has led to a separation of the two, but I think “real” artists not only have an intrinsic understanding to what I call the holiness of the world, but a strong connection between that and their hands, so that their understanding can be conveyed through objects that are not understandable in any other way but to experience the object personally. People who bring their intellectual understanding to bear on a problem (such as making a woman look good or advertising a product or holding things) are “designers,” not artists. People who make objects that are interesting to look at but do not solve any problem or foster a deeper understanding of the world are “crafters”.

    Hence, I think of my husband as an artist, myself as a designer, and many of the vendors at craft fairs crafters. Personally, I’m not fond of crafts, they just clutter up precious space. But there are plenty of people who do like it…

  18. christy fisher says:

    The “art VS craft” dispute has been happening forever (My Mom is a fine artist-painter/printmaker- and I grew up at art shows).There is such a thing as “fine crafts” which is way different that the DYI junk.
    I do believe that SOME apparel designers can come under the category of fine crafts. I even think some FABRIC can come in under that listing (attend a wholesale fabric show and go to the Bucol Solstiss booth).
    There is a whole generation (teens- say, mid 30s) who think that WOATS, GOATS, and POORLY MADE GARMENTS are “art” just because they are “one of a kind” or handmade. Handmade does not make an item “art”. I also feel that SOME production work can also be “art” (as in the English apparel line by Basso and Brooke- go to style.com and look at their collection).
    People like that go “one step beyond” just “making stuff”. They study and practice a fine craft and make it an art form.
    I have a problem with “bead stringers” calling themselves “jewelry designers”- when the “art” is really in the making of the bead..not the assembly process. It is a tricky and fine line…but I see an art to anything that is WELL DONE, with THOUGHT behind it.

  19. Jan says:

    What is art? What is beauty? What is meaning? What is truth? I enter this discussion with a heavy heart. I also think it is useless to disparage the terms couture, industry, etc. These are just words. As someone who has spent time studying six different languages, it doesn’t matter what someone calls themselves if it is meaningful to them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  20. christy fisher says:

    Jan.. I agree with you.. but one has to be aware of the categories and terminology that is used in jurying processes for shows..and also which shows use which word for what.
    Confusing? You bet.
    Some shows allow “squirt paint on a T shirt” under a “wearable art” category.
    Other shows stipulate that you cannot “embllish a premade garment”..and still others will allow textiles, but not clothing.
    So homework IS necessary before applying for these shows.And it DOES matter how you describe yourself on the entry form.

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