reverse sweatshop

About a week ago, cozied up with my smart phone after both kids were in bed, I was struck by a sponsored ad in my feed from Minted, urging me to check out their "unique" wedding invitations by pointing me to this design, a truly classic example if ever there was one, featuring a mix of script and block font in black ink on white paper, taking me back to my grad school day job days at Crane & Co. (more on that one-year gig in a future "burning bridges" post). Lovely though that design may be, "unique" it most certainly is not. I fired off a couple of cranky tweets about it, even engaging with the person who runs Minted's tweets a bit, and upon more digging, discovered that the designer, Cheree Berry of Cheree Berry Paper, formerly at kate spade, was the lead designer on that company's line of stationery, which was a collaboration with Crane & Co., a couple of years before my time. So it's not surprising that my first thought when I saw Minted's example of a "unique" wedding invitation was the same company that has printed the "the stationery, invitations and announcements for the White House."

Am I jaded and bitter? Sure. After all, Cheree Berry is living the independent designer's life I've wanted ever since giving up pretty much any dream of my own art practice and/or teaching. To go from working at kate spade (I love kate spade) to successfully running her own design business and custom stationery line is pretty impressive. And I should be happy for others, right? Good for her. But there's part of me that's genuinely disgruntled with companies like Minted, who have managed to create an online shopping experience one notch above Costco Christmas cards, but with the added guise that you're directly supporting an independent designer. You are, kind of. Designers are invited to submit designs in response to specific design "challenges." If those designs get enough votes from the Minted "community", they'll be included in the site's offerings. In addition to cash prizes for 1st place, 2nd place, and so on, designers get a 6% commission of sales. Wow, 6%. Makes the standard gallery commission of 50% look pretty damn generous.

It's hard enough for independent wedding vendors, you know? It's an incredibly saturated market of indie designers alone, on top of competing with sites like Wedding Paper Divas. And don't even get me started on Etsy. Have you seen that Portlandia sketch called "Reverse Sweatshop"? Season 4, episode 7 (I've been on a bit of a Portlandia kick lately.)

That's how it feels to be a seller on Etsy (or, I'd imagine, an "independent" designer with designs on Minted). There's this weird evolution happening, where it began as a forum for independent designers but ultimately followed the path of any big company, where I find myself trying to figure out ways to mass-produce my previously handmade products, now considered prototypes, so that I can attract wholesale accounts that will charge twice what I earn directly from my customers. Wait, what?

Anyway, just as things were starting to pick up toward the end of summer, after fully reopening my shop just about a year ago now, views, favorites, and sales plummeted. Crickets. Seriously. There was much chatter in the Etsy forums about what might be causing so many previously successful shops to die overnight. I'm still not sure. Things picked up a little as summer turned into fall, and I quickly wrapped up a handful of save-the-date and holiday orders, but by Thanksgiving I was polishing off my resume and applying to "real" jobs. Fast-forward a couple of months and I'm now three plus weeks into my latest office gig. I'm not sure what I'll do with my Etsy shops. Business is so slow that it doesn't really matter. I'm working on another post that digs into this six-year adventure a little more deeply. Stay tuned.

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