A few fashion crowdfunding projects are trying to harness the Internet to get backers to buy local. But does e-commerce inherently favor centralized, large-scale products, or not?
Let’s say you’re a connoisseur of something, whether it be fashion, art, food or antiques. Most likely, you prefer small boutiques to the mall, under-the-radar restaurants to the Cheesecake Factory and Paris to Phoenix, Arizona.
Now, TechCrunch reports that a new breed of fashion crowdfunding startups are bringing this connoisseur sensibility to e-commerce. Instead of going to the mall and buying fast-fashion made in the Far East, you can crowdfund a small project by a fashion artiste.
For instance, on the Israeli-founded website Out of X, dozens of unique clothing and accessory designs are featured. If you agree to buy one, and enough other people want one as well, the project actually gets made.
Out of X earns money by taking a 12% cut of the purchase price of each item sold. Small-scale designers don’t waste time making an item that doesn’t sell. In a world where e-commerce tends to involve money flowing away from mom-and-pop businesses to large e-tail sites, it’s nice to witness the opposite trend.
But can it scale?
How many people will realistically buy their clothes this way? If up to 50% of clothing purchases are impulse buys, how many people will bid on an item, then wait to see if it actually gets funded, and then wait even longer for it to ship? Conversely, if the site became wildly popular, wouldn’t it eventually defeat its own purpose, sort of like what happened to Starbucks when it went from being a small Seattle coffee shop to an international chain? The items would gradually lose their artisanal flavor and become bland and generic. As “soon as fashion is universal, it is out of date,” said Austrian novelist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.
The question is, can the Internet promote fashion that is local, authentic and helps small designers make a living?
Is the Internet inherently centralized or decentralized? And how will this affect fashion and culture as we know it?
In his 2006 book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson argued that the Internet would be a boon for the little guys. Our economy is shifting away from mainstream, centralized products, he wrote, towards a lot of niches and specialized products. But eight years later, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse lambastes the Long Tail theory in her book Blockbusters. Although advances in digital technologies may at first blush seem to have a “democratizing” influence, she writes, “in reality they tend to have the opposite effect: they foster concentration and a winner-takes-all dynamic.”
Is that really true? Can the Internet promote a broad-based distribution of wealth or does it tend to favor centralization and concentration? Can the Internet boost the little guy and the startup, or is the startup’s only hope to become big?
Yes, this analogy about rum is useful
In his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss addresses this tension. He writes about the antiquated rum distilleries he came across in Martinique, where “the ancient wooden barrels are silted up with sediment, but the rum was like velvet on the palate and had a delicious scent.” By contrast the modern rum factories in Puerto Rico, produced a liquid that was “brutal and vulgar.”
“The contrast illustrated, to my way of thinking, the paradox of civilization,” he writes, “we know that its magic derives from the presence within it of certain impurities, and yet we can never resist the impulse to clean up precisely those elements which give it its charm. We are right to wish to increase our production and cut manufacturing costs. But we are also right when we treasure some of the imperfections which we are doing our best to eliminate. Society sets itself, in short, to destroy precisely those things which give it most flavour.”
If you substitute local artists or local businesses for rum distilleries and digital technology for civilization, Levi-Strauss’ comment is as apt 60 years later. We are right to eliminate inefficiencies through digital technologies, but it is precisely those inefficiencies – local culture, local fashion, local economies – that give our societies the most flavor. While the digital age tends to promote concentration of wealth and power, let’s hope that’s not a law of nature, and countervailing forces also exist.
Featured Image Credit: Out of X