Category Archives: noticing

How to read a t-shirt (and the future)

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 3.15.59 421PMListening for the future is a tricky thing.

If we listen far enough out into the future, we are dealing with very weak signals. Or, better, we are dealing with noise that may or may not be signal.

One way to solve this problem is to enlist the aid of others. To let them listen for us. We need listening stations. Where ever they present themselves. (And they are likely to present themselves in the most unlikely places.)

One example caught my attention recently.

The first came from an essay by Lauren Sherman. Sherman is an impressive journalist. She examines the fashion world broadly defined and has a gift for seeing the pattern in the whirlwind of data that comes spinning up out of this world almost daily. (She writes for Fashion of Business.)

Recently, Sherman wrote about t-shirts.

Traditionally, the t-shirt is a perfect example of a commodity market. It may begin with robust margins but it’s not very long before people are slugging it out for tiny increments barely above cost.

But Sherman noticed a company called Everybody.World was doing very nicely indeed. Everybody.World had discovered that it can sell wholesale in the very teeth of the commodity market.

There was margin here. And lots of customers. The Trash Tee was a hit with streetwear brands including Noah NYC and No Vacancy Inn. It sold to to Shake Shack, Standard Hotel, Google, Airbnb and Dropbox. It was a feature of music festivals like Coachella.

This is a god send for someone who cares about the future. The t-shirt is a message from the future, a glimpse of the world in the works.

Case study learnings (from the ground up)

1. We can’t monitor everything.

2. We enlist the help of others, listening to the listeners, so to speak.

3. In this case, the journalist Lauren Sherman surveys the fashion business and spots something.

4. is making a success of t-shirts (of all things).

5. This is a big and unlikely change: The lowly t-shirt, once the unloved and unlovely child of the clothing biz, and almost the classic case of a commodity market, is undergoing its own little apotheosis. It has escaped the status of an undergarment, night shirt, softball team uniform and college wear. It is now punching above it’s weight and is now the medium for some very interesting messages. There is something to learn here.

This is where the culture watching really begins.

For starters we are looking at the expression of a couple of new sensitivities. These are, or should be, familiar territory, specifically:

6. People prefer things that are recycled.

7. And they prefer things that are manufactured in America.

Let’s treat these as “so noted.”

But the rest is new to me. How about you?

8. These t-shirts reveal something astounding about music festivals. They work there because they help festival organizers speak to 20 different segments. 20! (And the t-shirts work here because these groups are not going to signify their difference with a cheap and flimsy piece of polyester.) We are put on notice that festivals, once monolithic and a little repetitive, are now various. Very various. Certainly we have absorbed the “diversity” lesson from other sources…but this kind of cultural diversity tells us something about consumer taste and preference that our economic models were never designed to content with. Are we ready?

9. These t-shirts sell as street ware. The world of fashion is changing. Design and branding comes not just from on high from the great fashion houses and god-like designers. It comes also from the fearless, endlessly provocative efforts of people who routinely break the rules of the fashion moment. (In the current world of fashion, the insurgent designer, as Scott Miller would call him, is powerful and rising.) Let’s contemplate what this means for branding and PR. If we think we can speak to the world in the big booming voice of corporate self assurance…well maybe it’s time to think again. Everyone in the marketing and innovation biz is taking a risk on new voices. (Consider Nike as a recent case in point.)

10. These t-shirts work for companies like AirBnb and Google precisely because these companies are working hard to get away from that big booming voice of corporate assurance. Nothing says playful and propositional like a t-shirt. Especially when compared to the official bumpf issued by PR at HQ.

11. The t-shirt are also a calculated effort, as expert Sophie Wade tells us, to send a message to the Millennial employee for whom all companies must now compete. A t-shirt says, “look how much fun it must be to work here! We’re, like, super casual! And also totally awesome.”

12. Perhaps the biggest take-away is the evidence these observations give us of a world in which the basic rules and regs are changing. Three worlds, to be specific. That of the Music Festival. That of the street. And that of the organization. All of them have embraced the t-shirt for their own, revealing, reasons. All of them are primed for change. Are we monitoring these changes? Have we read the t-shirt? Have we grasped its message?

Morgan Friedman, turning flaneurs into planners

Friedman_i In some circles, the "flaneur" is a key idea.  The flaneur is a person walking, watching, stopping to pay attention and otherwise engaging with the city as it presents itself to someone in motion and on foot.

It’s an idea discussed by some of the most gifted observers of contemporary life: Baudelaire, Simmel, Benjamin, and Sontag. Indeed, it has become so fashionable that it has become a kind of pose.  (Baudelaire’s great fear realized.) 

The cost of the pose is high.  Some of the hard and most urgent work of noticing in the city goes undone.  Some flaneurs are so busy posturing and so very scrupulous about what they notice (the post modern list is a short one), they can’t actually see the city very clearly.  Thus does our self-impoverishment perpetuate itself.  Some of the people blessed with the time and education to noticed the city particularly well have been removed from usefulness.

Compare if you will, Sontag’s concept of the city as a "landscape of voluptuous extremes" and the somewhat more practical advice of our own Morgan Friedman, above.  It’s a slide from Morgan’s presentation at Interesting2008 at FIT in NYC on the weekend. 

Friedman_ii While the flaneur is busy swanning the city scape engaged in acts of self exaltation, the Friedmanesque observer is running the city down, seizing every opportunity it gives for further investigation.  Here (image 2) Morgan suggests we take advantage of the people with time, the knowledge, and the incentive to act as our guides.

Thus while the flaneur is posing moodily at a local cafe, hoping that someone will mistake the laundry list before him for a poetic expression of his delicate and yes, of course, heroically tortured sensibility, Morgan and those of us who walk in his footsteps are chatting up a fixture of the neighborhood who has the unforgivable temerity of being badly dressed, and, actually, wait for it, old. 

Everyone retired to the Black Door for drinks after the conference and Morgan and I fell into conversation. And this is when I learned he’s the guy who created Overheard in New York, that magnificent website that allows flaneurs to pool their observations of city life.  Brilliant.  See below my poor effort to take one of the conversations that Morgan has retrieved from city life, and convert it for analytic purposes. 

I fell to wondering what else we could do to bind people together in the more thoroughgoing, less fashionable, investigation of contemporary culture and city life.  In a manner of speaking this is what Pepys did in the 17th century.  It is more or less what Lewis Henry Morgan did when he reached out to people in the 19th century.  It is what Mass Observation did in Britain in the 20th century. 

The good news is that our noticing skills are rising.  We have superbly gifted noticers like Morgan, Eric Nehrlich, Jan Chipchase, and Russell Davies… well, the list is a long one.  (See Davies’ superb noticing on behalf of bacon and eggs.)  We have the makings of a noticing conspiracy.  Morgan came very close to recruiting everyone at Interesting2008, turning all us planners into flaneurs.  Now if we could only persuade flaneurs to act like planners.   Morgan Friedman offers a path to redemption. 


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Overheard in New York.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  March 13, 2007. here

More on Friedman and his several projects here

The wikipedia entry on the flaneur here

Jan Chipchase observes how a city wakes here

See Walking Paris with Henry Miller here


Images are from Morgan Friedman’s presentation at Interesting2008 as taken by Michael Surtees here.