The Genteel
February 25, 2021



Almost two years ago, I took a $7 grey H&M t-shirt and painted the words "Not Prada" on it. There was no rhyme or reason, nothing more than my curiosity to try to "make" something myself. (I was, really, just playing with paint.) Around the same time, my social feeds, along with fashion websites, became flooded with profiles of people like Erica Domesek, the New York blogger who created the website, P.S. - I made this, a virtual home for the growing number of craft projects she was undertaking.

I never quite understood why the whole thing was such a big deal, why people were calling it a movement. Sure, the economy was wavering (nothing new) and what better way to sell this sort of thing than as a budget-conscious trend, and as a new way to save money while still having a custom whatever (something I can get behind). 

D.I.Y. embellished gloves

But haven't people been making their own stuff for…centuries? What changed was that making something "cute" was suddenly in vogue, with no chastising opinions associated with being overtly "thrifty" (when what they really mean is "cheap"). While I once saw kids in school being teased for wearing something made by mom ("your family can't afford anything!") and "fashionistas" condescend each other for such practices as adults, D.I.Y-ing has grown to entice those who would otherwise never consider vintage shopping or wear hand-me-downs, let alone pick up a glue gun or a sewing needle.

Conspicuous consumption and blatant consumerism be damned, you could now openly fight the demons of our economy by contributing in your own ways, bypassing "the machine" - both as a buyer and seller. You even became a superstar by helping others do the same. Yes, the spirit of a personalised, handcrafted consumerism is decidedly alive and thriving. But does the recent interest of investors mean that this mutated, industry-in-bloom could come crumbling down and reveal itself as nothing more than a simple fad?

D.I.Y. should really mean "how to get a [potentially better] knock-off for less." Kind of like "the look for less," but a look that requires some serious effort, not just a reduced grand total at the H&M/Forever 21/[insert affordable brand here] checkout. Domesek, for example, became admired for her quirky forays into D.I.Y.-ing that borrowed cues from fashionable powerbrands: flower vases made from milk cartons and Sharpies (inspired by Jonathan Adler and Paul Smith) or Richard Nicoll-inspired necklaces fashioned from twine and finger traps. People like her softened the approval for such creations in mainstream fashion (an industry notoriously against designer "fakes"), but she's hot off the heels of what home décor magazines have been openly encouraging since the 1950s, albeit with less recognisable inspiration cues.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticising Domesek for what she is or isn't doing, or whether or not she's any sort of pioneer. Fact is: her concept is brilliant and useful. While others probably had a similar shtick since the first days of the Internet, P.S. - I made this had a design-savvy, minimalist-approach (not too instruction-heavy) that ultimately resonated with the right audience, an audience hungry for something personal in an increasingly glossy world. Domesek became so revered that in fall 2010, her first book was released.

A lot of the interest in calling it a "maker movement" (or even a movement at all) is the concept's ability to shape shift into other realms of public consumption, re-defining the possibilities of what it means to "do something yourself."

In April 2011, Wired magazine ran a story on this very phenomenon with the cover line, "The DIY Revolution Starts Now." A few months later, in August, the magazine ran a story on its website about the staggering changes this movement had seen in just one year, noting new initiatives by brands like GE, Ford and Pepsi to reach their homemade-savvy consumers, prompting things like Facebook campaigns and competitions. One of the most striking observations in the piece explains, "People all over the world have figured out that DIY can be good business." Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson calls it "the continuing industrialization of the Maker Movement." It also points to the importance of bigger companies investing in, or purchasing, web portals like Instructables, an online community that allows people to share their creations.

In short: people were building and making things again, particularly outsource-happy Americans and other Westerners. Except let's not forget about Etsy, one of the most fertile virtual bazaars for artisans to sell their wares, original or otherwise, and for entrepreneurs to set up shop for one-of-a-kind finds, particularly vintage clothing. Last year, Etsy introduced People Search, a Facebook-ish platform to further connect buyers and sellers and foster an even deeper community mentality.

But D.I.Y. doesn't have to be approached solely from a fashion or home design/renovation perspective. A lot of the interest in calling it a "maker movement" (or even a movement at all) is the concept's ability to shape shift into other realms of public consumption, re-defining the possibilities of what it means to "do something yourself." Its curious impact on something like children's science education is a good example. This June 2011 news report that aired on PBS explores the "superstars of a vibrant, growing subculture called the maker movement, which celebrates, venerates the art of designing and building really cool things." It also explores Maker Faire, an annual convergence "to celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the do-it-yourself mind-set," that, in five short years, has risen to become a Detroit institution, attracting people like Obama's top science advisor. (This 2010 article from The Atlantic is a quick primer on Maker Faire's growing cachet for a growing community, and how ideas like this can be adapted to improve science education in schools.) 

...there are looming questions as the [maker] movement continues to "professionalise" itself and develop into full-fledged businesses that perhaps defeat the very spirit of the entire thing.

And then comes the reality check for this mushrooming "industry." While Wired proclaimed the D.I.Y. movement a glimmering hope of untapped revenue for business and investors just a few short months ago, this piece appeared on Bloomberg Businessweek just a few days ago examining those very implications. With the advent of D.I.Y. fans on the web and growing attendance numbers at events like Maker Faire, there are looming questions as the movement continues to "professionalise" itself and develop into full-fledged businesses that perhaps defeat the very spirit of the entire thing. Now that knowledge and techniques on making everything yourself - from 3D printers to cellphone chargers - are readily shared and heavily promoted, companies are capitalising on this by producing starter kits that make the entire process even easier, or hassle-free.

Now that people want to play the role of so-called maker and "build things the old-fashioned way" (with an Industrial era hunger), of course the opportunistic backbone of capitalism and the modern economy come into play: market things that facilitate the creating, the building. Investors are now laying down cash to fund start-ups and partner with already-established trend leaders.

The predicament is that the D.I.Y. industry operates on an open-source model, so there's a level of transparency with "trade secrets" (in this case, design models). Although investors are funding companies that package tools making D.I.Y.-ing simpler and available to more people (including those who would otherwise feel discouraged from even trying), who's to say the middleman won't be cut out? Did Apple become a prominent leader by encouraging people to adapt and modify the already-existing MP3 player? Do leading fashion houses release their garment pattern drafts?

Perhaps we're thinking too far ahead. Still, the propagation of the D.I.Y. label - and its entrepreneurial/budget-conscious reputation - is being applied to everything. Last week, on the same day, the New York Times ran two pieces under this trend umbrella, one about the D.I.Y.-approach to the promotion of a primetime television show through unusual channels, and another about the new "D.I.Y. coffee culture" emerging in Portland, Oregon, "the spiritual home of the D.I.Y. generation." While it's a jovial sentiment, and the intimacy of small shops is a haven in a big brand world, how long until people pass on gimmicks like the chance to make their own coffee? And, by that logic, everything else?



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