Crowd Control

Posted by Rob Walker on July 8, 2007
Posted Under: Consumed,Subculture Inc.,The Designed Life

In Consumed: Threadless: What one T-Shirt company has learned about community power — and avoiding a design mobocracy.

From Wikipedia to “American Idol,” shifting control from experts to the masses has never been more popular. As an example of what this can mean for consumer companies, the herd of anti-expertise experts often points to, which has sold millions of dollars of T-shirts by not hiring star designers. Founded in 2000, Threadless asks for designs from anybody who wants to submit them. These days, according to its chief creative officer, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, Threadless receives about 125 submissions a day. These are winnowed by the site’s hundreds of thousands of user-voters to half a dozen new T-shirt offerings a week and sold in batches of 1,500. Winning designers are paid $2,000; almost everything sells out. The site has evolved to include a variety of clothing for kids; the owners are dabbling in other products through a new brand called Naked & Angry; and in July, the first Threadless retail and gallery space will open in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.

It’s a crowd-pleasing story, but there has always been more to Threadless than mere mobocracy. …

Continue reading via The NYT site, or The Boston Globe site.

Additional links: Glenn Jones’ site; interview with Jones at Threadless. Ross Zietz’ site; interview with Zeitz at Threadless.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Hey Rob, way to have a slightly new take on a Threadless article — mainstream press has been popping up all over for the last 2 years and usually the writers just coo over the irony, as though something intangibly cool is occurring (the NPR spotlight was awful). Meanwhile, I disagree with Jeffrey’s theory about the similarity of the designs reflecting current trends — they are in their own world, and, on some level, stuck in a (highly profitable) rut. When it comes to the users and community on Threadless, there are very few who stick out from the herd of sheep, and most vote highly in favor of things that resemble shirts they’ve seen before — it’s not really about new ideas or even new trends. But whatever, more power to them — they are raking it in on their own terms. It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain the illusion of mobocracy as the company gets larger and more mainstream.

Written By Kate Lane on July 8th, 2007 @ 4:03 pm

Kate, thanks for this. It’s interesting to the response about whether the Threadless look reflects current trends, or some very specific design sub-world, or both. I’d be curious if any other designer readers of this site have thoughts.

I also agree that they do seem to be succeeding on their own terms, which is always impressive. As for other media coverage of the company … no comment.

Written By murketing on July 9th, 2007 @ 11:15 am
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