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Trish Ginter is an independent fashion designer who believes in the beauty of handmade garments. In 1994, she co-founded a small boutique, Frock, in Chester, Conn. Like other artists and designers who shun modern technologies in the production of their work, Ginter thought she had little use for the online world. She considered the Internet a “nuisance,” and didn’t even own a cell phone until a few years ago.

Ginter did buy an iPod, however. One day, while downloading music, she had an epiphany. She thought, “If I can create a marketplace for independent fashion designers like Apple has done for musicians, that could be pretty useful.” Shortly thereafter, in February of 2007, she launched SmashingDarling.com to do just that.

Today, SmashingDarling features the garments of more than 750 independent fashion designers, who upload their designs themselves. It’s like Etsy if Etsy was dedicated only to independent fashion designers. Ginter and her business partner at Frock manage the site and get an 18 percent commission on all sales. And, of course, they sell their own inventory.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I now have developers on the West Coast and content providers and I’ve even learned a little HTML coding myself.”

Making the Niche Mainstream

Much has been made about how the Internet, by allowing users to customize both the production and consumption of content, has a tendency to create niches. Chris Anderson’s well known Long Tail theory posits that the unique traits of e-commerce — fewer distribution challenges, endless catalogue space, etc. — are shifting the economy away from a relatively small number of mainstream products and markets to more niche products.

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Jen Bekman

While this is certainly occurring in the art and design world (and SmashingDarling is an example), a less discussed phenomenon is how e-commerce sites in this market may have the effect of transforming otherwise niche offerings into mainstream purchases. At least that’s the hope of Jen Bekman, who started 20×200.com, a site that sells limited edition original artwork by both emerging and established artists.*

Bekman knows that the majority of Americans aren’t currently in the market for fine art.

“The real world experience of buying art right now is pretty abysmal and appeals to a very small part of the population,” said Bekman, who owns a gallery in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. “When you walk into a gallery, the ability to educate yourself is very limited … Something is $2,000 because the dealer says it’s two thousand dollars. It’s a very high-risk purchase … People have misgivings and ambivalence to art buying.”

Bekman attempts to mitigate this online by explaining the story of the artist, offering descriptions of the work, and offering prints at a reasonable price point. She calls the many $20 prints on her site the “gateway drug to the art world.”

While the online model may not necessarily make art-buying addicts of us all, it certainly removes the obstacles — psychological as well as financial and geographical — that otherwise prevent fine art from being a mainstream purchase.

Getting Out There

Ginter shares this mission, and hopes to use the web to create more of a mass market for independent fashion design. When I asked her about her goals for her site, she said, “We want independent designers to be out there everywhere. All of us need to be out there increasing the size of the market. For me, when I get purchases online, they’re always from a different place — California or Texas or Colorado.”

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For her business expansion, Ginter credits the web’s ability to introduce her brand to — and allow dialogues with — customers she’s never met. She increasingly gets customers from people Googling “indy fashion” or “independent fashion,” which she said suggests that SmashingDarling is serving a growing demand. Ginter hopes to fan the flames of that market growth on the supply side.

So, will the Internet, which has supplanted mainstream journalistic and commercial activity with more niche products and processes, have the effect of elevating niche products in the arts and design marketplace to mainstream standing? Only time will tell.

For now, neither Ginter nor Bekman say these new platforms will make in-person transactions obsolete, or disrupt their boutique or gallery. As opposed to books or CDs, where the big box stores that upended smaller retailers were themselves upended by online retailers (think of Amazon hurting Borders) or iTunes replacing Tower Records), Ginter and Bekman insist people will continue to purchase artwork or fashion designs at physical stores.

Photo of Jen Bekman courtesy of Paul Costello

*Correction: This post originally stated that artwork sold by 20×200.com is signed by the artist. In fact, each work comes with a certificate of authenticity, which is signed by the artist. This post also incorrectly referred to Jen Beckman, rather than the correct Jen Bekman.

Mark Hannah is the director of academic communications at Parsons The New School for Design. Coming out of the public relations world, he has conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently worked as an advance associate for the Obama-Biden campaign and Presidential Inaugural Committee. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a 2008 research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He holds a BA from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and an master’s degree from Columbia University. He can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com


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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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