Saturday, February 6, 2010

Curationism: Creators Becoming Collectors

American Apparel, with its Skittle-colored leggings and lascivious ad campaigns, is a party that Red Wing Shoes surely never thought they'd be invited to. But that's exactly where the 105-year-old company, first known as the primary provider of boots to the US forces during World War I, currently finds itself. The influential men's fashion blog A Continuous Lean recently tweeted with surprise, "Red Wing boots are sold at American Apparel. Did you know this?" The awkward pairing is actually part of a larger trend in which popular American companies are extending their brands by acting more like curators than manufacturers.

On the landing page of J. Crew's online men's store right now, there is a feature by the company's lead men's designer Frank Muytjens titled "Design Heroes" in which he muses on five "tried-and-true" brands--Timex, Levi's, Alden, Belstaff, and Rogues Gallery--and what makes them "so darn cool." J.Crew, American Apparel, as well as Club Monaco, which currently promotes Levi's 501 jeans at its stores, are fixtures at shopping centers across the country and brands that have been carefully developed but they are all now piggybacking on established brands to fortify their vision of cool.

This trend of cultural curation extends well beyond mall fashions. Right now any chef worth his salt (Flor de Sal salt, mind you) infuses his menu with hat tips to various food purveyors. Alice Waters' local, seasonal approach to cooking has been fetishized to the extent that a chef's walk-in acts like a sneaker freak's closet. David Chang's menu at Momofuku Ssam Bar, for instance, includes not one, not two, but three country hams, all bearing the name of their respective farms, along with Bev Eggleston's pork shoulder steak and Creekstone Farm's Angus hanger steak. It isn't enough anymore for a chef to be a smart buyer, he must be a savvy curator.

With Momofuku, Chang has developed a sturdy brand that creates a line of people just with its presence etched on the front door. The crowds revere Chang's precise, sometimes cheeky cooking but it's clear that Chang sees himself not only as the creator of great food but also as the collector of great food. It is also clear that J. Crew's Muytjens has bought into a strategy that positions the 26-year-old brand as a compendium of fashion more than a mere fashion line. In a way J. Crew now has more in common with A Continuous Lean (J. Crew currently advertises on the ACL site) than with, say, Red Wing Shoes.

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