Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Good and the Beautiful 

Recently I’ve been reading Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine. It’s an historical novel about the city state of Athens when Sokrates and Plato sat in its fabled agora. Sokrates was a divisive figure at the time and our protagonist Alexias finds that many of his family, friends and acquaintances will not suffer the sage’s company. Xenophon is chief among Alexias’ friends who avoids Sokrates. Imagine then Alexias’ surprise one day when he finds Xenophon sitting in with the students.

“What brought you to Sokrates?” Alexias wants to know. Xenophon explains that he had been walking down an alleyway when Sokrates blocked his path and asked,
“Can you tell me where one can buy good oil?”

I thought it odd he should need telling, but I directed him. Then he asked after flour and cloth. I told him the best places I knew; he said, ‘And where can one get the good and beautiful?’ I must have looked pretty blank; at last I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t tell you that. – ‘No?’ he said smiling. ‘Come with me, then, and let us find out.’ So I turned and walked with him, and stayed with him all day.
I was very moved by this passage. I love the idea of finding a wise teacher who opens you up to the world. A teacher that engages you in a community of fellow travelers struggling to understand the universe; that discusses the nature and definition of concepts such as “good” and “beauty.”

Down a few conceptual, spiritual, and cultural levels from trying to intuit the Platonic forms of good and beauty, is the matter of seeking the new.

Many years ago, I worked as a headhunter in the fashion industry. The fashion industry has a great divide between the creation (design and manufacturing) and the distribution – (retailing) sides of the business. I specialized in the former; placing designers, technical designers and merchandisers into the major, New York-based apparel houses. Occasionally, folks from other ancillary parts of the value chain would end up at my desk, such as merchandisers from fabric houses, e.g., Loro Piana, who specialize purely in sourcing the high-end fabrics that are sold to the design houses. I never knew what to do with those folks.

One particularly confounding group of people was the trend forecasters. I was learning a great deal about the business world as I transitioned from my former life as an actor to being a headhunter. So it was not the fault of the trend forecasters that I did not really understand who they were or what they did at first. I knew who the futurist and cultural forecaster Faith Popcorn was, probably thanks to an early issue of Wired Magazine, but I did not know that there were trend forecasters in the fashion industry. (And frankly, my fellow headhunters at the agency neither understood nor cared who they were. They were from small companies. They weren’t part of our core clientele. They were not money sitting in the chair in front of you.)

I’m a people person. So I interviewed the trend forecasters. I learned from them about their business. I thought it was fascinating. Trend forecasters in the fashion industry walk the streets to watch what people are wearing. They photograph them. They focus group people who seem like trendsetters. They scan lots of different media looking for emerging colors, patterns, and fabrics. Then they write reports which designers read on what the predicted trends are for the coming seasons. This helps designers choose whether to lean into a coming wave or away from it. Eventually, from my interviews I learned who the major trend forecasting houses for the fashion industry were and how they operated. But I also learned that those companies were too small to use headhunters and so I never could find jobs for those nice people who sat at my desk and patiently explained their art.

A few years later, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker (and later in his first book – frequently referenced here) about Nike’s division of “cool hunters”. Cool hunters are a blend between a trend forecaster and a designer. Cool hunters go trend spotting to see, for example, what urban youth (read: black kids) are wearing on the basketball courts. Then they try to design a prototype of a shoe that will pick up where that trend is headed and take it to the next level. They take the shoe out to a court and have a kid play in the shoe and, in addition to asking for that one kid’s feedback, they watch how others respond to him wearing the sneakers. (By writing about Nike’s team, Gladwell put “cool hunting” into the common vernacular in place of “trend spotting.”)

In the past six months, I’ve noticed that individuals have nominated themselves as cool hunters on the web. They’ve set up sites that track, and point their readers towards, new pieces of merchandise that represent the latest in design trends. The web having a strong geek audience, it’s not surprising what most of these sites are focused on: gadgets, sneakers, and clothing - primarily t-shirts. Some of them also cover trends in modern art and architecture, although not to the same degree. Here then are some of those sages who purport to have the power to show you the good and the beautiful:

Boing Boing
I don’t know of Boing Boing started the podcasters shrieking “Boing!” all the time or if the site’s name is just playing on the trend of geeks to shout “Boing!” when they find something that floats their boat. (“Boing!” seems to be the “schwing!” of the 00’s.) In any case, Boing Boing, subtitled a Directory of Wonderful Things, glosses technology, gadgets, humorous news events and various web-based ephemera.

Cool Hunting
Josh Rubin founded this site and was its sole editor until a few months ago when he asked a host of others to co-blog with him. The site scans sneakers, t-shirts, gadgets, design, music, and nifty futuristic prototypes made by companies and individuals. While I preferred it when it had a single editor, I still enjoy its variety of categories and appreciate its non-tech specific focus.

Being Hunted
The folks at Being Hunted are interesting in part because they’ve crossed the line into commerce. They now have a European retail operation called The Glade that sells some of the fashionable items they review.

Together with Gizmodo, Engadget defines the category of gadgetblog, of which there are now burgeoning numbers. In addition to being the place to find out what the latest cell phone designs are in Tokyo, Engadget is the place to go to read the editors and readers pontifications on the future of TiVo.

Gizmodo carried the 2005 Bloggies for the “Best Computers or Technology Weblog”. It’s pretty duplicative with what you’ll find on Engadget, although for some reason I’ve not yet defined, I prefer Engadget.

Josh Spear
Subtitled The Pulse of Cool, Josh scans art, books, fashion, popular music, design and gadgets. For some reason, he’s elected to group blog on Cool Hunting, but his site is still worth reading because he generously does not write overly duplicative posts to each site.

Mighty Goods
One of the few female cool hunters out there, Mighty Girl of the Mighty Goods Shopping Blog picks out housewares and kid’s stuff in addition to the usual host of fashion items, gift ideas and gadgets.

Shiny Shiny
UK-based Shiny Shiny is gadgets for girls. Very much like Gizmodo and Engadget, but frequently referenced by Cosmo and Allure, Shiny Shiny picks out chic cell phone holders and LED-covered lingerie in addition to the usual gadgets that the guy-oriented sites fixate on.

As a final note, I was amused to note that Gothamist recently posted a (not so engaging) interview with a professional trendspotter from Youth Intelligence. I guess I'm onto something in the zeitgeist.
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