Thursday, May 5, 2016

The biggest granfalloons

"It's a sacrifice working day to day, for little money just tips for pay
But it's worth it all to hear them say that they care."

A couple of days ago, Kat O'Sullivan, better known as Katwise, posted a video on her Facebook page. It was a follow-up to a video she had posted the day before.

If you are not familiar with Kat, she is the one-women phenom who took the art of upcycling sweaters into coats, arm warmers and yes, more sweaters, and turned it into an empire. And she did it honestly, personally hand-serging collections of 60 or so sweater garments for monthly sales on Etsy. Since 2009, she's done her magic in her sewing room at Calico, her home in Ulster County, NY, which she calls "the house that sweaters built."

Each sweater is a one-of-a-kind work of art, and Kat's legions of adoring fans have swelled the ranks of her Etsy admirers to more than 40,000. Every month leading up to a sale, she posts photos on Facebook, modeling the sweaters, giving descriptions, sizes, and pricing. This is so you can study the goods and make decisions in advance, because when the sale begins, hold on to your hats. For a long time I liked to tune in to her Etsy shop during a sale just to watch the merchandise fly out of there.

At a pre-specified time, Kat would start posting her creations in batches of 5 at a time and Kat-lovers everywhere would be frantically refresing their screens. With each click, sweaters would appear and disapper. Her sales number would creep up and in 20 minutes, everything would be gone.

Once or twice I put a sweater in my shopping cart, but the adrenaline rush only lasted as long as it took me to go through the checkout process, only to see the message, "sorry, this item is sold." Someone, somewhere in the world, with a faster computer or quicker keyboarding skills, always skunked me.

Since Kat started selling her sweater-wear on Etsy in 2006, her sales have topped 30,000. Some number of the sales are tutorials and arm warmers, but each year she sells in the neighborhood of one thousand coats, cardigans, pullovers, hoodies and dresses, priced from about $130 to $800. She works hard for that money, I have no doubt, and I respect that.

Arm warmers I have bought from Katwise.

For whatever reasons though, some of the feeding frenzy has tapered off. In the past months I've noticed "sponsored" ads for Kat's sweater sales. We all know that on Facebook we don't see all of our friends posts, nor do our friends see all of ours. As Facebook has grown, who sees exactly what has become a murky mystery, and Facebook is good at prompting us to target a broader audience by 'promoting" - i.e., paying to advertise - our posts.

Kat seems to be especially troubled by what she sees as resorting to insincere (and costly) ways to reach her fan base. In her video, she admits to feeling sad because, to paraphrase her words, the participation of her audience is dwindling, thanks to Facebook and Etsy changing their algorithms so she's not reaching the amount of people she once did. She's upset that the Internet is restricting her ability to interact with people in an honest, authentic way.

Kat said that she feels the sand of her business slipping away beneath her feet because of the competitiveness of the social media world, and that it scares her. In her May 2 video, she showed a new creation she made, a sort of cross between a cowl, shawl, infinity scarf and poncho. Wearing it felt like a hug, she said, and while she'd be happy to make more and sell them if we like them, she wanted to give the prototype away because of all the emotion it was imbued with. If you'd like it, she said, send me a note and tell me why you need a hug and I'll send it to you.

The May 2 video has 117,000 views, 628 shares and 1,780 comments. As of now, the May 3 video has 55,000 views, 234 shares and 1, 114 comments.

155,430 people like her Facebook page.

It's hard to believe Kat really thought she's get about 4 requests for the poncho instead of the hundreds upon hundreds she did get. And she does say, in her video, that many of the people connecting with their messages were going through some seriously tough times, and that she herself was "a fucking idiot" for being sad about the fact that for the first time ever, the arm warmers she had listed in her shop didn't sell out.

Of course, Kat is so adorable and charming and charismatic that you have to forgive her for her success and popularity and hubris. Even if you yourself were thrilled to hit 1,000 likes on your Facebook page. Even if you have never had a sell-out, anywhere, ever, and are thrilled with the occasional order of multiple items, like the five beads sets I sold to a new customer this week.

But here is the heart of the matter. While Kat is railing about algorithms impeding her global reach, I wonder if that is the only reason her sales are eroding. If eroding even is the right word, because everything still sells, it just takes a few hours instead of mere minutes.

With beads, I sometimes think there is a finite market of bead buyers, a limit to the appetite of buyers for beads. To date it seems to be insatiable, even if it's not for my beads. Every day someone is spending substantial sums on beads and every day new buyers appear on the scene. Still a lot of people already own a lot of my beads.

Maybe that is the case with sweater coats. After snagging my fourth pair of arm warmers, I finally landed my Katwise sweater last summer. It's called Night Train to Memphis - each collection has a theme - and is described as "a deep swirl of midnight blues and dreamy purples with cute silver flower buttons."

That's Kat herself modeling my coat.
My arms must be shorter than hers.

I paid $159 for it all in, a price I would probably not have paid for the cutest cardigan I'd ever seen from Amazon or Lands End or LL Bean. This wasn't the cutest cardigan I'd ever seen, or even my favorite Katwise creation, but I got it into my cart and through the checkout with PayPal process, half hoping and fully expecting to see the familiar "sorry, this item is sold" message.

But it was mine and I rationalized that I was supporting an artist and owning a one-of-a-kind apparel item and a little piece of history, a Katwise original.

I mentioned that Kat sells tutorials for her coats and there are dozens of upcycled sweater coats for sale on Etsy in the Katwise style. I even bought one a few years ago, crafted by Aunty Em on Etsy. It's nicely made, but huge and long and heavy and I've never worn it, and can't imagine wearing it except possibly as a winter robe - if we move to a much colder place.

I'm not sure I'll wear my Katwise sweater either. I promised myself to use it, enjoy it, not save it or stockpile it, but wear the hell out of it, even if it's just to go out to dinner with Neil. I intended to, I even packed it and took it to North Carolina last November. But somehow I let a whole winter slip by without finding the right occasion to don it. It's really not a good fit. It's snug in the bodice but the arms are too long, like ridiculously long.

So I have another theory about Kat and her seeming sales slowdown. After I got my sweater, I stopped looking at her collections. I still got her notifications in my news feed, I just lost interest in looking at the eye candy or watching the Etsy buying melees. I did occasionally peep at her Facebook page because she's an interesting person who makes cute videos and writes the occasional thought-provoking blog post. I just didn't need any more arm warmers or upcycled fashion statements.

I have a feeling that Kat is reaching as many people as ever or at least as many as most of us would be grateful to reach - in our wildest dreams. It's just that the market for her crazy cool designs isn't limitless. I could be wrong, but she's had a fantastic 10-year run. So what if her coats don't sell out in a seller's wet-dream frenzy. They still sell. Maybe she will have to adapt, to become more like the rest of us, whose sales are not events.

I have a lot of empathy for her. I know this is her livelihood. You get used to a certain level of income and security. I don't know what it would be like to get used to a certain level of celebrity but I imagine you get used to that too. And even as you do, you wonder how thick is the ice that you're standing on. You ponder whether all good things really must come to an end. And hopefully you make a backup plan against those eventualities.

But if not, something tells me that Miss Kat will land softly on her paws somehow. She describes herself this way.
I reckon I have vagabonded though close to 100 countries. I've spent years on the festival trail, following the Dead, mermaid parading, moshing, granfallooning, standing on my head in India, and just staring at the campfire. I have hitchhiked to Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Kalamazoo, and pretty close to Xanadu too.
I had to look up granfallooning. And anyone who understands granfallooning must also understand that the Etsy and Facebook cultures, not to mention social media itself, are the biggest granfalloons of all.

She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right

I met her there in the corner stand
And she wonders where she is
And it's strange to her
Some people seem to have everything

9 am on the hour hand
And she's waiting for the bell
And she's looking real pretty
She's waiting for her clientele

She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right

Twenty-eight years have come and gone
And she's seen a lot of tears
Of the ones who come in
They really seem to need her there

It's a sacrifice working day to day
For little money just tips for pay
But it's worth it all
To hear them say that they care

Already knows, she's seen her bad times
Already knows, these are the good times
She'll never sell out, she never will
Not for a dollar bill
She works hard

She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right.

(Donna Summer, Michael Omartian)

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