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Williams-Sonoma and the Bougie-ification of DIY

April 26, 2012

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.
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ana Cooke permalink
    April 26, 2012 11:18 pm

    I saw an ad on a telephone poll for a gardening consultant and had a pretty similar reaction. Really? I mean, no doubt you can learn a lot from an experienced gardener, but if you’re hiring a consultant to help you maximize your tomato production in your home garden, it seems like you’re a long way from the back-to-basics ethos that I guess I assume is part of the home gardening lure. But I should say I don’t garden. (Wish I did, though.)
    And if I were keeping bees, I’d probably be ready to pay a pretty high price for a functional bonnet…

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      April 26, 2012 11:31 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ana! I’m also not a gardener, but my grandfather was and he didn’t need no fancy bronze tools to grow no tomatoes. I’m with you that that there’s something particularly jarring about how UN-back-to-basics all of this seems; expert help, expensive designer tools…like I said, it’s just become a THING.

      Re: beekeeping, as much as I’d love the fresh honey (and I hear anecdotal evidence that locally made honey helps with seasonal allergies, so I could use that), I hate being stung so much that if I was going to keep bees I’d probably invest in one of those old-fashioned scuba suits just to be extra safe.

  2. Justin Mando permalink
    April 27, 2012 12:03 am

    I personally don’t see this as a negative trend. If rich people want to start growing their own vegetables with jewel-encrusted tools that’s fine by me. I think it’s good to get people’s hands back into the soil by whatever means necessary. It may take a few seasons of toiling with a silver spade for some to realize that there’s more to growing food than the status the symbols might bring. For the others, it’s at least worth the try.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      April 27, 2012 12:19 pm

      Hi Justin! I think you’re right to an extent. While I don’t think that there’s anything particularly wrong with trends that encourage more people to grow their own vegetables, my point is more that this is an example of businesses learning to capitalize on self-reliance. Or, more accurately, the projected image of self-reliance. Maybe some people will really “get it” eventually, but to extend my Hot Topic analogy from above, I suspect that most WS “Agrarians” are just mallrats running around with those stripey sock-like things on their arms. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I guess, and at the very least, good or bad, it seems pretty inevitable so I don’t mean to get into some navel-gazing wankfest about who’s legit and who isn’t. I mean, someone who spends as much time and money on clothes as I do isn’t really in any position to critique others for consumerist self-presentation. I just think it’s an interesting thing to notice and comment on, and to think about in our own consumption choices.

  3. April 30, 2012 2:38 pm

    It just seems to me like this seems to be sold as another way for people in a position of affluence to feel superior, now even fine cheese from the likes of Whole Foods is too tainted by the commoners.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      April 30, 2012 3:12 pm

      I think that to some extent there is a degree of superiority to it, definitely. I’d initially typed that I also think that to some extent there almost always has been with DIY movements, not just those associated with affluence. But then I got to thinking, is there such a thing? Does the very nature of valorizing “doing-it-yourself” come from a position of privilege where it’s assumed that NOT doing it yourself is the default option? (Whole) Food for thought, eh?

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