Material Girl

An interior by India Mahdavi, from Milan Design Week.

An interior by India Mahdavi, from Milan Design Week.

I grew up in a household that was full of books, art supplies, public television, and healthy snacks. On the rare occasions I got to see ads on TV, at friends’ houses, I was entranced by depictions of glow-in-the-dark Nerf Guns, plush dogs that contained an indeterminate number of puppies inside a velcro belly pocket, and kits for making critters out of goo using a special bug-baking oven. All fascinating to me, all totally irrelevant to my actual life. It took me a while to put together that these products were available to buy at any nearby toy store, and that many of my friends in fact got to have these toys for themselves. And further, I realized that I didn’t have these toys because my parents didn’t buy things like that, even though they could have if they’d wanted to. They had made a choice about how to raise my sister and me. Instead of churning out freshly baked bugs while chugging Capri Sun (aka, being cool), I kept busy nailing scraps of wood together, making charms out of melted wax, and wandering around the backyard talking to myself.  

Of course the hours of undistracted solitude and making my own entertainment out of scraps and imagination paved the way for me to start this business, but that’s actually not what this post is about.

My decidedly non-commercial upbringing led me to develop very strong opinions about commercialism that I carried with me into the early days of my business. A few of the tenets that I clung to:

  • The value and worth of a thing varies inversely with its commercial viability and appeal.

  • Drawing attention to oneself is shameless self-promotion, and self-promotion should fill one with shame.

  • All advertising is bad, and to be engaged in the practice of advertising is morally reprehensible.

  • Marketing is manipulation and trickery, and if the work is truly good, it shouldn’t have to be marketed.

  • It is possible to opt out of the world of marketing and commercialism and live a purer sort of life, perhaps working for a nonprofit, or as an artist, or an academic.

Was I shouting these beliefs from the rooftops? Hopefully I wasn’t, because that sounds pretty insufferable. But I did believe myself to be living my life by them. So you can imagine what a paralyzing conundrum I was in when it dawned on me that if I wanted to have a business designing and making handbags—which was really the culmination of the wood-nailing and wax-melting of my childhood—I was also going to have to find a way to convince people to buy them. I quickly realized that just improving the product ad infinitum, in the hopes that people would just see how great they were, wasn’t going to cut it. This led me to a quandary: participate, in earnest, in the commercial world I thought I had opted out of, or quit trying to have a business selling things.

I quickly realized that just improving the product ad infinitum, in the hopes that people would just see how great they were, wasn’t going to cut it.

So far, this inner conflict has been the single most powerful obstacle in my quest to launch a successful small business, and its roots run deep for me. It’s still a conflict, but I’ve at least arrived somewhere different from where I started and stayed for so long. My path to some of these realizations is long and winding and probably couldn’t be traced if I tried, so I’ll skip to where I am on the path now. Here is what I have learned about the role of marketing in the world:

Marketing is the air we breathe. So many of the decisions we make are the result of marketing, not just the ones that result from seeing an ad on TV or the Internet or the side of a bus. The politicians we vote into office, the places we decide to eat lunch with our friends, the art we consider worthy of being in a museum, the nonprofits we choose to donate to, the books we choose to read: all the result of careful marketing. Even my own upbringing, with its 100% juice and only-Mr.-Rogers TV policy, was an expression of a certain kind of messaging, of anti-marketing marketing.

If you believe you are immune to the influences of marketing, I’m going to venture to say you are not. Perhaps you can see through heavy-handed advertisements, but marketing is not advertising. Marketing is about telling a story to the right people in the right way. Marketing is how we bring change into the world, whether that’s good change or bad. If you’ve voted, spent or donated money, decided which movie to watch, gone to a museum, or made countless other decisions about how to spend your time and attention and resources, you have been successfully marketed to.

But this doesn’t mean you’ve been duped. It means you’re engaging with the capitalist world, the only one we live in, with its bizarre bug ovens and Scientology and 64 oz. coffee cups and op-eds and zumba classes and really expensive art. It’s a mess, and a lot of it is really upsetting. But some of it is fabulous, or hilarious, or poignant, or just a nice distraction. And since it’s impossible to opt out, I think it might be better to opt in than it is to linger at the periphery, convincing yourself there’s some way to smoke but not inhale. To live by the tenets I listed above is limiting and isolating. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be thoughtful about how we engage, simply that the act of engaging with eyes open is the best option available to us.

Since it’s impossible to opt out, I think it might be better to opt in than it is to linger at the periphery, convincing yourself there’s some way to smoke but not inhale.

The realities of living in a capitalist world were at the front of my mind this weekend. Today is the last day of Milan Design Week, and Oliver and I spent the weekend roaming through two of the main design districts, Brera and Zona Tortona, taking in the installations and the people who had come from all over the world to see them. Today we found our way to the striking zipper installation pictured below. We were disappointed to learn it had been put up by an e-cigarette company, which had a pop-up shop right next to the installation full of sleek vaping accessories. Was it art? Was it an ad?

Isn’t all design (hello, handbags) ultimately about selling things to people anyway? Both of us were turned off by the discovery that the zipper installation turned out to be an elaborate ploy to sell vape pens, but if pressed, it’s hard for me to say exactly how the branded zipper thing was qualitatively different from the other displays we saw during the weekend, many of which were sponsored by well-known fashion labels and the like. The zipper installation was just on one end of a spectrum of commercialism and art, not in a separate category.

Clearly I have a lot of thoughts about the relationship between capitalism and creative expression, most of which are not very well formed yet. I would love to hear yours. Right now the most definitive thing I can say is that I’m anti-purity; at least, I am skeptical of anyone who makes art for a living to claim to be above or outside of the forces of capitalism. What do you think?