I consider myself a very blessed and lucky man in part because I never learned how to follow; at least not in the traditional sense.
One of the most annoying things about working within and around the fashion industry is how much follower’s mindset there is. So many of my conversations with bloggers, brands, designers, and marketers for fashion-related companies begin and end with questions about who else is doing something. I have trained myself to hide my disdain with these types of questions in person and over the phone, but it’s not easy.
If technology and social media have taught us anything in the last few decades, it should be that following someone else’s path – especially when building a business – is not a sustainable model. A company cannot be built to last if their business plan is to ride a continuous stream of short burst of copy-cat and me-too successes.
You ever wonder why when people think of fashion industry success stories you very seldom hear the word “entrepreneur”? It’s mainly because very few of them actually are. I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last three years mining through a lot of crap to find good people who approach the fashion and tech industry through an entrepreneurial lense. People like Alle Fister (Bollare) and Ari Goldberg (StyleCaster), Mick Boogie and Marcus Troy and designers and fashion brand CEOs like Seth Weisser (What Goes Around Comes Around), John Varvatos, Billy Reid and Uri Minkoff (Rebecca Minkoff). For every one of these individuals there are at least 10 people following their every move, literally, to try to make money by being an early adopting thief of those people’s best work.
I understand that certain practices are standard for various industries and that innovation – not necessarily invention – is where a lot of immediate profit is, but why even be in a creative industry like art or fashion or music or tech if you’re not actually going to create anything?
And, no, I’m not trying to say we should always be 100 percent focused on creating brand new things at all times. Actually that’s also a quick way to run a business to the ground because you’re not taking the time to focus on what your customers are telling you about your existing products and services. I’m not so idealistic as to think every season’s collection, every new product, every new offering has to be that…new. Recycling things from the past and siphoning from others is what helped the Civil Rights Movement (following in Gandhi’s footsteps) and Facebook (following MySpace’s lead, before taking over).
But come on, man! Or woman, as is often the case in fashion.
Don’t be mistaken, I’ve followed in the footsteps of many men and women before me and learned countless lessons from others. From my mother, I learned about accountability as she raised my two brothers and me alone. From reading about MLK and Ben Franklin, my idols, I learned about finding your calling and following your passions. From my high school track coach, Rob, I’ve learned well-roundedness, as he’s been an exemplary father, public school teacher, and competitive runner despite very little compensation in doing so. From my brothers, I developed my early and continued love for music, sports and style. There are many others I can point to for lessons learned and passions developed thanks to them.
But I’m no follower.
As I approach my 30th birthday later this year, the thing I’m proud of thus far is that I’ve charted a path for myself unlike anyone I know or have ever read about. From the way I spent my time in high school and college to D.C. and back to Austin, I’ve always sought a path that wasn’t made easier by someone else’s footsteps. When I moved back to Austin, I knew I wanted to start a business, but I never knew that Sneak Attack would lead to Style X which would lead to AvecMode getting business with the likes of ESPN X Games and that I’d get to work with some of my favorite bloggers, designers, and events in the process.
Was Sneak Attack the most brilliant, inventive concept? Not really nor was Style X, which largely depended on the success of SXSW. My point isn’t about the most creative, inventive business ideas, though. My point is that people should never follow someone else toward what should be their own unique set of passions and skills.
My passion in 2009 was sneakers, so I didn’t look around to do what someone else was doing, I launched a business. My passion in 2010 was seeing to it that a conversation I had with the late SXSW creative director Brent Grulke led to the creation of an authentic style component during SXSW.
Maybe I’ll never come up with something as genius as the Macintosh computer or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders or Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but I can apply myself to a lifetime of two things: 1) pursuing my passions and 2) trying to bring a new perspective to what I’m doing instead of waiting for others to show me the way.
I have also been blessed to have a number of friends who’ve had the same mindset I’ve had about not following and trying to chart their own path. To these people I am grateful for the inspiration they routinely give me, albeit indirectly. I don’t envy any of my friends…I am motivated by them. People who follow are the ones with envy. They envy because they don’t focus on creating.
Whenever I get emails or FB messages from people, typically students I’ve spoken to in a classroom/speech setting, saying they’re inspired by something I’ve said or written and ask me for advice, I usually try to start by helping them identify their passions and getting them to be very focused on what truly matters to them. Like many of those fashion companies, there are a lot of short term benefits in following others and taking your eye off the creative ball, but the long term rewards take a lot of sacrifice.
I’ve sacrificed a lot of time, energy, friendships, money, and God only knows what else to be in the position that I’m in today. Last week, when I was recognized as an Emerging Business Leader by the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce, here in Austin, in the same hour Austin Under 40 named me a finalist for one of their awards, I thought to myself…”wow, all these years of hard work is finally getting me to a point where my perception of myself matches what others think of me.”
Anyway, back to the original topic…this all one big reason why our new project, The Neighborhood, isn’t an official SXSW event and why it’s going to be built with entrepreneurs – designers, brand managers, technologists – in mind along with the consumers they strive to reach. Someone has to create because so much marketing at the event is about copy-cat marketing that never actually does anything except annoy people. There’s plenty of me-too tradeshows and fashion week events scattered all over the country, but who’s really out there going against the grain and not looking around for tips on what to do based on other companies, but genuinely trying to establish new ways of doing business and new fashion industry trends? Not to be all self-promotional, but I believe the people I surround myself with are.
Thank God! I’d be bored to death if I was one of those fake creatives, just looking around for ideas from people willing to take risks and do something unique. OK. My gripe session is over. Thanks for your time.