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The Design Dialogues site houses all online publications from the School of Design Strategies at Parsons School of Design.

This site is funded by the Stephan Weiss Lecture Series on Business Strategy, Negotiation and Innovation. This lectureship was launched in 2002 to commemorate the life of the late artist and sculptor Stephan Weiss, husband and business partner of the fashion designer Donna Karan. Weiss co-founded Donna Karan International in 1984, and was instrumental in every significant venture the company undertook: launching and structuring new brands, most notably the Donna Karan Beauty company; signing new licenses; establishing in-house legal and creative departments; devising its computer design technology; orchestrating the company’s initial public offering in 1996; and negotiating its sale to the current owner LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton.

about the school of design strategies


The School of Design Strategies is an experimental educational environment. We advance innovative approaches in design, business and education. In the evolving context of cities, services and ecosystems, we explore design as a capability and a strategy in the environmentally conscious practices of individuals, groups, communities and organizations. For more about the School of Design Strategies, visit the SDS Magazine.

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Section 3: Case Studies

The Brooklyn Flea: A Model for Counter-Consumption?

Lauren Downing Peters
The rhetoric of “slow fashion” has acquired a new sense of urgency in the wake of the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. While the “slow fashion” movement as a cultural phenomenon has largely manifested itself in the form of “green” garments and beauty products, the “slow” in slow fashion can also be glimpsed in the exchanges and interactions happening in places like the Brooklyn Flea, a marketplace that serves as a microenvironment for buying and selling all manner of organic, sustainable, local, repurposed, and alternative items. At a time when people are realizing that our rate of consumption, even of eco-goods, is unsustainable in every sense, can a community vintage market provide an alternative? Do the lifestyles enabled by the Flea, perhaps, hint at an incipient model of “counter-consumption?”

As Henry Alford of The New York Times has noted, Brooklyn has become a powerful cultural signifier, “a byword for cool from Paris to Sweden to the Middle East.” 1 In other words, what begins in Brooklyn—and in particular at the Brooklyn Flea—can in principle have major ramifications for fashionable consumption in far-flung corners of the globe.
The “slow” in slow fashion can also be glimpsed in the exchanges and interactions happening at the Brooklyn Flea, a marketplace that serves as a microenvironment for buying and selling all manner of organic, sustainable, local, repurposed, and alternative items.

Purveyors at the Brooklyn Flea are striving to put the heart and soul back into retail by highlighting the channels of creation and exchange that nurture a consumer good into being. Indeed, there are few other places where can you shake the hand of the man who brined your pickles, or learn the provenance of a vintage acquisition directly from its curator. While money is, naturally, exchanged for objects, these exchanges suggest the potential for a new consumption landscape—or, rather, a revival of some older modes of consumption—driven largely by human interactions and communication. The informal conversations and exchanges that take place at the Flea help to imbue the saleable items with value, and to foster lasting relationships between customers and objects. What makes this scenario a potential model of counter-consumption is the manner in which buyers are encouraged to invest themselves in the stuff they are buying, and in the people who created or sourced that stuff. As Kate Fletcher explains in regard to the fashion industry, what has been lost in the speeding up of fashion consumption in recent decades is fashion’s “original meaning—a group activity of making and doing.” 2 Perhaps it is in reestablishing just such a zone of local, collaborative production and consumption that the Brooklyn Flea hints at a possible “alternative fashion system.”

THE RISE OF FLEA CAPITAL
Since the opening of the Flea in 2008, a vibrant community of making, selling, and trading has materialized out of what was at the time a dwindling flea market culture. Favorable press coverage has included New York Magazine’s description of the Flea as “a cross between a consumer bazaar and a creative laboratory, promising high-quality offerings in a stridently low-key setting,” and as being “packed with people earnestly cultivating a quirky interest … and other people who … are happy and excited to … celebrate those people.” 3

Rarely in their reporting on the Flea do journalists mention the retail underbelly of the market; rather, it is portrayed as a space for the cultivation of identities, sartorial sharing, and artistic exchange. Increasingly, however, places like the Flea have emerged as alternatives to the consumption sites that have historically reinforced New York’s status as a fashion capital. As Fletcher states, “in the collective cultural consciousness, fashion is consumption, materialism, commercialization and marketing. It is buying high street and high end.” 4 Fletcher explains further that the “domination of consumerist fashion within the fashion mindset means that alternatives are squeezed out. Other options seem unworkable.” 5

Figure 1

Two Flea visitors take a moment to pause and play foosball.

Figure 2

A seller assists a customer by holding a mirror.

Figure 1

Two Flea visitors take a moment to pause and play foosball.


In light of its success, the Brooklyn Flea does appear to demonstrate the possibility of alternatives to mainstream consumption, including consumerist fashion. But serious questions nonetheless remain about the sustainability of such an alternative marketplace. Moreover, given that business at the Flea is still marked by the exchange of money for goods, can it truly be an alternative? How different are these retail spaces from the malls and specialty shops that support most consumption today?
While money is, naturally, exchanged for objects, these exchanges suggest the potential for a new consumption landscape—or, rather, a revival of some older modes of consumption—driven largely by human interactions and communication.

The vintage market, once a backwater industry for individuals who could not afford higher-priced apparel, “has moved away from its historical outré and shabby associations, and become a mainstream and highly commodified fashion alternative to wearing new designs.” 6 Meanwhile, as the slow fashion movement has become a trend in and of itself, vintage, artisanal, and bespoke consumption have to some extent encroached on the territory of traditional, high-end retail.

Shopping for secondhand goods can create a certain degree of anxiety in the unacquainted. As fashion theorist Alexandra Palmer explains, “part of the anxiety rests in the subtle nuances of when an item is suitably vintage. The danger exists of making a faux pas and being merely out of date.” 7 Consumers often rely upon social networks to guide them, since they “are frequently too anxious about the choices to be made to proceed without various forms of support and reassurance.” 8 The Flea accomplishes this support function admirably: within its funky environs, relationships are formed, knowledge is shared, and attachments nurtured—all of them aspects of the “Flea experience” on which it is difficult to put a dollar value.

At the same time, the Flea helps to reestablish the task of shopping as itself a worthwhile, legitimate pastime, one in which procurement is but one feature of the overall experience. Indeed, it has been argued that the act of shopping for and wearing vintage garments is only “secondarily about [the] resale of clothing … it is primarily about being involved in a change of status and a revaluing of clothing beyond the original time period or setting.” 9 The smart consumer who spends enough time within the vintage realm, actively engaging with its social networks, can “achieve the status of a connoisseur,” 10 a status that is difficult to attain in traditional retail settings.

Yet the Brooklyn Flea remains a site of commerce, like any other store or shopping mall, thereby problematizing its claim to be truly alternative. With only 140 vendor stalls available, prospective sellers must have a credible business model and appealing merchandise in order to stand out among the other 7,000 vendors who have applied for a stall since the Flea opened. 11 Brooklyn Flea co-creator and manager of everyday operations Eric Demby has the final word in selecting vendors, making him a powerful figure in the cultivation of Brooklyn’s cultural capital. Demby has proven to possess a knack for choosing vendors that contribute to the overall “Brooklyn vibe,” 12 admitting that “the vendors overall ultimately reflect my personal taste in one way or another, and … a certain amount of cohesion has emerged—a ‘look’ I guess you could call it.” 13
Increasingly, places like the Flea have emerged as alternatives to the consumption sites that have historically reinforced New York’s status as a fashion capital.

Demby’s curatorial influence at the Flea helps to draw in customers who are too busy to troll through the city’s many independent vintage and thrift stores, while still allowing them to feel that they are active participants in an “alternative sphere.” 14 In an astutely curated vintage market, “the consumer is virtually guaranteed to find a suitable purchase, given the [diverse] range and amount of stock.” 15

CULTIVATING MEANING AND SELLING HANDBAGS
Much of what is wrong with today’s wasteful and speed-obsessed consumption landscape has to do with the manner in which the human labor that goes into the creation of consumer goods has been hidden. Therefore, in seeking to elucidate what is truly “alternative” in the Brooklyn Flea, it is helpful to consider the vendors themselves.

Andy and Chery Lin sell restored Dooney & Bourke handbags from the 1970s through the 2000s. Their booth at the Flea stands out both for its appearance and for the comparatively high price of the bags: around $100 for most models. Sellers like the Lins carefully select and arrange their goods in order to mitigate potential anxieties that consumers might have in approaching their display, as well as to draw individuals out of the chaos and into their booth. After all, “Brooklyn Flea shoppers are a discerning bunch …. Vendors need to make an impression in order to make a sale.” 16 The Lins accomplish this in part through the descriptive, hand-lettered price tags that accompany their goods, which provide an entryway for fostering a relationship between consumer and bag. Palmer explains that the purpose of such tags is twofold: first, “like a museum’s object label or catalogue record, the hang tag authenticates and interprets the vintage merchandise that is, in effect, curated.” 17 Second, the tags authenticate the merchandise as rare or special: “here, high-end … designer labels are inferred to be removed from the negative, tainted aspects of the used garments.” 18 In contrast to similar bags that do not include mini-biographies, the Lins’ bags have an “aura” that helps to legitimize their cost.
The Flea helps to reestablish the task of shopping as itself a worthwhile, legitimate pastime, one in which procurement is but one feature of the overall experience.

While Andy fields technical and provenance-related questions, Chery teaches her return customers—young women she refers to as her “Dooney Girls”—about the history of the brand and how to identify fakes. She is also happy to explain why her bags are superior to similar versions sold by neighboring vendors. Through the dissemination of this kind of information, Chery and Andy have created a cachet for Dooney & Bourke at the Flea, placing themselves at the top of its hierarchy of vendors. The Lins’ customer base has directly shaped Chery’s market behavior as a business owner. While her high-end European bags by designers such as Chanel and Prada have sold well at other outlets, Chery’s Brooklyn customers prefer the more mainstream Dooney & Bourke. This sort of trial-and-error marketing is not uncommon at the Flea. “There is no formula for success,” says Denby. “It’s an alchemy of passion, talent, luck and timing.” 19 In contrast to large markets, the Flea encourages rapid and informal types of market research that themselves reflect the social characteristics of the market as a whole.

Figure 4

A seller helps a customer by tying on a bracelet.


With its affordable $100-per-day booth fee, the Flea serves as a space both for individual sellers to pursue their idiosyncratic passions and for seasoned business owners to test new markets—although the differences among these types of vendors can be difficult to see. Indeed, in the vintage marketplace, “the borderline between collector and dealer is sometimes not well defined … [since] both dealers and collectors share … a sense of gratification and nostalgia towards [vintage] clothing.” 20 This sentiment is particularly evident at the Brooklyn Flea, whose participants generally downplay the pecuniary aspects of the market while championing those who promote community and connoisseurship among the various vendors and buyers.

CONCLUSIONS
Demby’s curatorial influence at the Flea helps to draw in customers who are too busy to troll through the city’s many independent vintage and thrift stores, while still allowing them to feel that they are active participants in an “alternative sphere.”

Fashion theorist Nathaniel Beard explains that vintage clothing allows individuals to assert their personal identity as well as their affiliation with particular social and political values. 21 “More than a quest for a simpler life, [the vintage] attitude also carries a darker suspicion that recent social, cultural and political developments are profoundly corrosive.” 22 The Brooklyn Flea is close to the hearts of many New Yorkers, who patronize it out of a deep commitment to sustainable alternatives to the consumption economy. Yet, given the many other, similar markets in New York and elsewhere, the question remains, why Brooklyn? Eric Demby responds,

We didn’t choose Brooklyn so much as it chose us…. [The] Flea is more a culmination of a new consumption/production landscape … [which reflects] things that are good about Brooklyn and perhaps show a way to a new kind of economy scale .… When it comes to creating a major locally grown project in their own backyards, everyone at the Flea seems invested in succeeding. 23

While the future of the Flea, and of the consumption landscape of New York generally, is uncertain, all signs point to a profound shift toward more homegrown alternatives. Nevertheless, the jury is still out on how major an impact on the overall economy of New York places like the Flea will be likely to exercise in the near to medium term.

Figure 4

Two Flea visitors search through a pile of vintage kilim rugs.



1

Henry Alford, “How I became a Hipster,” The New York Times, May 1, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/fashion/williamsburg.html?pagewanted=all.



2

Kate Fletcher, “The Dear Fashion Journal … Alternative Perspectives on Style,” Kate Fletcher: Sustainability Design Fashion, February 5, 2013, accessed May 16, 2013, www.katefletcher.com/the-dear-fashion-journal-alternative-perspectives-on-style.



3

Adam Sternbergh, “Can You Guess Where These People Live?” New York Magazine, September 26, 2010, www.nymag.com/news/features/establishments/68492.



4

Kate Fletcher, “Consumerist fashion: innovation repressor,” Kate Fletcher: Sustainability Design Fashion, February 17, 2012, accessed May 16, 2013, www.katefletcher.com/consumerist-fashion-innovation-repressor.



5

Fletcher, “Consumerist fashion.”



6

Alexandra Palmer, “Vintage Whores and Vintage Virgins: Second Hand Fashion in the Twenty-first Century,” in Old Clothes, New Looks: Second Hand Fashion, ed. Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 197. See also Nathaniel Dafydd Beard, “The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-market Reality?” Fashion Theory 12, no. 4 (2008): 447-468.



7

Palmer, “Vintage,” 200.



8

Alison Clarke and David Miller, “Fashion and Anxiety,” Fashion Theory 6, no. 2 (2002): 209.



9

Marilyn DeLong, Barbara Heinemann and Kathryn Reiley, “Hooked on Vintage!” Fashion Theory 9, no. 1 (2005): 23.



10

Palmer, “Vintage,” 200.



11

Amelia Blanquera, “Brooklyn Flea Business School,” The Local: Fort Greene, April 14, 2010, www.fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/brooklyn-flea-business-school.



12

Guy Trebay, “Scavengers on the Urban Savannah,” The New York Times, April 13, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/fashion/13flea.html?scp=1&sq
=scavengers%20on%20the%20urban&st=cse
.



13

Eric Demby, e-mail message to author, April 10, 2010.



14

Palmer, “Vintage,” 203.



15

Palmer, “Vintage,” 203.



16

Eric Demby, e-mail message to author, April 10, 2010.



17

Palmer, “Vintage,” 209.



18

Palmer, “Vintage,” 205.



19

Blanquera, “Brooklyn Flea Business School.”



20

Anna Catalani and Yupin Chung, “Vintage or Fashion Clothes? An Investigation inside the Issues of Collecting and Marketing Second-hand Clothes,” (paper presented at the 8th International Conference on Arts and Cultural Management, Montréal, Canada, July 3-6, 2005): 7-8.



21

Beard, “Ethical Fashion,” 449.



22

Beard, “Ethical Fashion,” 456.



23

Eric Demby, e-mail message to author, April 10, 2010.

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