The women of the online Austin Craft Mafia got it made
If Austin Craft Mafia members were to wear pinstripes, shoulder holsters, or gang colors, they'd have to be vintage and handmade. While waiting for their table at the Clay Pit last Wednesday night, these made women -- Kristin Adkins, Jen Nakatsu Arnston, Jenny Hart, Tina Lockwood, and Jennifer Perkins -- epitomized DIY hipster chic with their distinctive vinyl handbags, reconstructed Fifties day dresses, and chunky plastic bracelets. Though these five founding fashionistas of the newest racket in town (there are nine mafiosas total) might be dressed to kill, their hot looks are all business -- online business. For years, they've operated independently, moving homemade fashion online and making a name for Austin in the crafting world. Now these wisegals have joined forces, and AustinCraftMafia.com is their new Satriale's.
This new site not only brings together some of the most fashion-forward businesses around, but also rewrites the rules of online retail, testing alternative online economies, the geography of the Internet, and cooperative capitalism. Taking a cue from other successful online business collectives, such as BuyOlympia.com, of Olympia, Wash., and from the DIY movement in general, Austin Craft Mafia hopes for "fashion-world domination independently achieved, blithely free of corrupt corporate influence."
For each of these women, making a living from craft seemed inevitable. "I was always crafty and into making handmade gifts," says Perkins, who sells her line of molded resin accessories through her site, NaughtySecretaryClub.com. "My mother, who also doubles as my patron saint of craftiness, recommended I try playing with resin. I started selling the bracelets on Tina [Lockwood]'s Web site [www.sparklecraft.com] first, then eventually decided to start selling the bracelets on my webzine. One thing led to another, and eventually demand got so high I had to choose between my day job as a secretary and full-time jewelry designer. Sitting at home in pajamas making jewelry sure as hell beats answering phones and filing papers."
The Internet offered an ideal outlet for a beginning entrepreneur, and not just because of the dress code. "There's no overhead," says Perkins. "If it doesn't go well, you're out $9 in Web hosting." Each of these women taught herself Web design, and serves as designer, manufacturer, sales rep, tech support, accountant, and mail clerk for her company. And although these ladies sell wholesale as well (many mafia members' work can be found at Creatures in Austin), the majority of their business is online.
"I can get 500 hits a day to my Web site," says Jenny Hart of SublimeStitching.com. "I'm not going to get 500 customers a day looking at my stuff in a store. I see wholesale as exposure. Someone may see my product in a store, not purchase it, but then later go online and order it. Plus, I've got worldwide access and can sell to anyone, 24 hours a day, anywhere on the planet."
When The Wall Street Journal reported last year on the trend of small, independent designers selling direct to the consumer via the Web, three of the five businesses profiled were owned by Austin artists. Yet when Jenny Hart and Tina Lockwood first started swapping tips and ideas on the craft-centered Web message board at GetCrafty.com, they didn't realize that they shared a city as well as a passion for craft.
"Jenny just contacted me over e-mail," says Lockwood, "and said, 'Hey I'm in Austin, too, I have a business, and do you want to get together and have coffee and talk shop?' I agreed and asked if she wouldn't mind if I brought Jennifer [Perkins, of Naughty Secretary Club] along, so the three of us met and it was so fun and so inspiring to talk to other business owners. We decided to make it a regular thing."
The regular thing became the Babes in Business Bonanza, a monthly support group for women who own a business or are looking to start one. "Designing is the fun part," says Jen Nakatsu Arnston, of JNADesigns.com, an Austin Craft Mafia company and a member of Babes in Business. "To keep that going, you make investments in time, work, money to buy materials and equipment, etc. It is immensely helpful to have a network of peers you can relate to who support each other, bounce ideas off each other, and that you respect."
Last year, after the WSJ article, Lockwood, Perkins, and Hart realized they needed to bring their real-world connections online. Inviting five other Babes in Business companies to join them, they launched the AustinCraftMafia.com site in September. Drawing its name from a reference to their businesses in Inga Muscio's feminist reference book Cunt, the ladies like the gangland connotations.
"We're a family," says Kristin Adkins of RubyGoesRetro.com. "We're tight-knit and we support each other."
Supporting one another's businesses also means promoting one another's products. "I keep a box of business cards, stickers, and buttons [promoting the other designers], and throw some in with every order," says Hart. "And if one of us got press, we made sure that we said 'Do you know about so and so,' which is antithetical to the typical model of business, which we wanted to go against. We said 'Let's not be in competition, let's boost each other,' and it has worked very well."
It has worked so well that the Mafia have just inducted a 10th member, Hope Perkins, Jennifer's sister and proprietrix of HotPinkPistol.com. They've also been approached about doing a show for the DIY channel, part of HGTV. In January, they hope to have a formal launch party, and to open up the group to other independent, online Austin businesses that are majority handmade. And in the meantime, they're using the membership dues to purchase collective advertising space in print publications like Bust and Venus, space they'd never be able to afford on their own.
The Austin Craft Mafia aren't the only retailers who have seen the power that local collaboration can have online. Rebecca Pearcy of Queen Bee Creations has been selling her handcrafted vinyl bags through BuyOlympia.com since programmers Pat Castaldo and Aaron Berg started the site in 2000.
"I love the cross-pollination that happens on the site," says Pearcy. "A customer logs on because they've heard about Queen Bee, and in the process, they discover all these other amazing artists and craftspeople. It's a cooperative feeling, and I love working with Pat and Aaron."
Organizations like The Church of Craft (www.churchofcraft.org) and Stitch 'n' Bitch (www.rubygoesretro.com/stitchnbitch.html) have used the organizational power of the Internet to update the quilting bee and the sewing circle, making the solo act of crafting a social occasion by promoting meetings in coffee shops around the country. Like Babes in Business and the Austin Craft Mafia, these craft groups are aimed at sharing knowledge, teaching skills, and supporting new work.
It's no surprise that this sort of idealism would have found an inviting climate on the Internet -- the craft revolution takes a cue from other Web-based ideologies, such as the open source movement and alternative economies, such as shareware. It's also no coincidence that a town that supports independent music would provide fertile ground for DIY enterprise. Many of these crafty ladies, including Jenny Hart, Tina Lockwood, and Rebecca Pearcy, play music as well. And the connection between the DIY ethic in music and craft is a strong one -- the Mafia cites Michael Dean's documentary on self-supporting artists and musicians, DIY or Die, as an influence. Like the D.C.-area musicians featured in Dean's film, the Craft Mafia -- in the ephemeral geography of the Internet, where everyone's Web site address is equidistant from everyone else's -- has figured out it's not just about doing it yourself, it's about helping your friends and neighbors do it, too, and supporting the community that supports you.