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.