Williams-Sonoma and the Bougie-ification of DIY
Earlier this month, upscale housewares retailer Williams-Sonoma launched their Agrarian line of gardening supplies. It includes stuff ranging from supplies to tools to seeds to more advanced fare like chicken coops and beehives, all at a rather premium price. And not that there’s anything particularly odd about keeping chickens or bees (BEES?), or gardening in general, but this whole product line really struck me as bizarre.
Here’s why. Turning a thing like gardening into a high-end commercial interest turns something that people of all walks of life have been doing, as a hobby or a lifestyle, since time immemorial (or at least since we figured out how to do the whole agriculture thing), into a status symbol. And status is something that can be used to sell products. Good marketing makes us think that if we buy a particular product, we’ll be a particular kind of person. This Agrarian business is no different.
To see what I mean, look no further than the description on the website. It says that the Agrarian line “supports a lifestyle of healthy living—connecting the virtues of the homegrown and the homemade to your everyday table.” Consumers are encouraged to “explore everything from live plants and gardening essentials to do-it-yourself home canning, beekeeping and cheese-making kits.” But obviously Williams-Sonoma doesn’t want you doing this exploration on your own; you’re not supposed to be building your own beehive. You’re supposed to become a person who leads this “healthy” and “homegrown” lifestyle through the act of buying these products.
And, I mean, look at them. Look at these tools. Look at the beekeeping bonnet. I haven’t used these products so I can’t speak to their functionality, but those tools look like they’re more flash than farmer and that veil thing doesn’t look like it’d do much for you in a “Triumph”-type situation. This product line is to gardening/beekeeping/chickening what Hot Topic stores are to punk rock: a distillation of an interest into aesthetics, and a total fetishization and commercialization of the remaining image.
But turning DIY into a status symbol ironically makes it into something that can be used to sell products. You want to be a rustic gardener type toiling away merrily under the summer sun? Well, you better buy these tools and this apron, and you can hang them in a prominent place, too, so everyone who comes over knows it. Gardening goes from being a thing people do into, you know, a thing. It goes from being an activity to being a resource for self-presentation through consumption.
Of course, the whole idea behind so-called “lifestyle branding” is to commodify and capitalize on the act of self-presentation. Brands like Nike have become so good at it that it’s almost impossible to separate the shoe from its status as a signifier. I feel as though there’s something different about an example like this, though, something about buying products to present yourself as a DIY-type, that goes beyond the normal commodification of identity-making. So what do yinz think? (Also, see what I did there?) Is there really something different with this kind of example, or am I just being curmudgeony?
If you want to know more:
- In No Logo, Naomi Klein writes at length about lifestyle marketing and the commodification of self-image. Also, it’s easy to look at lifestyle marketing and see co-optation; at least until you read The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank.
- Any discussion of DIY automatically makes me think of Fugazi. I spent this entire post trying to think of ways to link to this video of them kicking ass live, but couldn’t seem to make it fit. So there it is.