By all appearances Great Jones was a successful startup. Launched by childhood friends Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis in 2018, the consumer cookware line has positioned itself as a more trendy, more affordable update to traditional brands like Le Creuset and Lodge. Its best-known product, a cast iron Dutch oven called Dutchess, came in bright hues such as blueberry, broccoli, mustard and taffy, a version of the millennial pink. Moelis, the daughter of a multimillion-dollar real estate mogul, and Tishgart, a taste maker in food media, declared their mission to “empower home cooks” and appealed to celebrities such as David Chang as investors. The company has racked up more than eighty-six thousand Instagram followers, posting high-saturation photos of its products in accessible and stylish kitchens. She launched new products such as the Hot Dish, a patterned casserole dish, and got Enjoy your meal stars to make demos. By wrapping sexy little kitchen equipment in a customizable, customizable Instagram style, the brand appeared to create and occupy a new niche in ambitious millennial housewares.
Then, earlier this week, a survey conducted by Anna Silman to Initiated revealed that Tishgart kicked Moelis out last August and that all of Great Jones’ original six full-time employees had left by the end of September. The shell of a left-behind brand nevertheless continued to post photos on Instagram and sell jars, a spokesperson said Initiated that the fourth quarter of 2020 was the best yet. The saga suggests the gulf between the message and the reality of a certain type of brand online, and the ease with which customers accept the stories these companies sell. As an avid Great Jones Instagram follower, I certainly assumed he had more than six employees. I would never have guessed that at some point there weren’t any. (A representative for Great Jones, which now has four full-time employees, denied that Moelis was kicked out and took issue with other aspects of the Initiated report.)
The direct-to-consumer wave began in the 1920s with a new generation of startups promising to âdisruptâ traditional consumer goods industries. Instead of leaving the market to century-old pillars like Gillette, for example, a company like Dollar Shave Club, founded in 2011, would set up its own supply chains to manufacture razors; add clean, user-friendly branding and marketing gimmicks; undermine its competitors with the help of a risk capital cushion; purchase huge volumes of online advertising to reach digital native consumers without the intermediary of big box retailers; then hope it grows enough, fast enough to become attractive as an acquisition or for an IPO. Some brands presented real innovations: the Warby Parker eyewear offered home fitting sets; Everlane has made its clothing supply chain transparent. Sometimes the strategy worked: Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club in 2016 for a billion dollars.
Often, however, the difference between DTC startups and their more established competitors was primarily cosmetic. Hims sold Instagram-friendly packages to make Viagra and Propecia more accessible to aging millennial men. Joybird has covered regular sofas in alluring, jewel-toned fabrics. DTC brand logos were cast in fluid, internet-optimized sans-serif fonts, and their graphics often took the form of geometric illustrations in pastel colors depicting a perfectly diverse crowd of users happily enjoying the product (a snap commemorated by the human dish Twitter account). Labels have accumulated to describe this genre. Venkatesh Rao, writer and management consultant, called it âmediocre premium,â referring to the broken promise of product quality. Molly Fischer, in an essay for new York magazine, defined âthe millennial aestheticâ, a comfortable realm of âsoft and clean shapesâ. âWhatever else you buy, you buy design, and the whole design looked the same,â Fischer wrote. The similarity is not surprising, given that all of these companies had to market their products through the same algorithmic social media feeds.
Just as streetwear brands such as Supreme launch new clothing through highly anticipated ‘drops’, DTC brands often create novelty and the illusion of innovation through subtle and superficial product changes: a new colors or a collaboration with another brand (two logos instead of one!). An elaborate narrative and famous supporters can compensate or distract from the banality of the items actually sold. DTC marketing often offers a sense of a product’s heritage (âfurniture to keep,â the Detroit Floyd furniture brand promises), but startups are too green and fragile to have a real track record of durability or reliability. . They could close at the first funding hiccup. Yet even small six-person startups can deliver high-design packaging and branding if they rely on outside infrastructure for manufacturing and execution. Tishgart and Moelis’ business may have been named after the late cookbook author and publisher Judith Jones and a quaint Manhattan street, but its website vaguely lists “factories in Guangdong, of Tianjin and the United States as part of our global supply chain â.
Some sort of weird but increasingly familiar illusion underlies the DTC model. What Great Jones sells has less to do with the functionality or provenance of its cookware than with fostering a customer’s sense of belonging online. As Albert Burneko said Defector, the brand is aimed at “people who buy cookware that will make them feel like friends with Alison Roman,” the young cookbook author who rose to fame through social media before she fell. even in controversy. Can a company that loses all its staff still create a sense of community? As long as Instagram posts keep coming in, the answer seems to be yes.
Of course, this model doesn’t always hold up once a lackluster product reaches the consumer. DTC brands often lack physical outlets and even customer service phone numbers. Checking the quality of a product before buying it is not an option; finding someone responsible for the end result is a headache. I don’t own Great Jones jars, but I do have bath towels from a popular DTC brand, which I eventually bought after repeatedly receiving their Instagram ads. The company logo is curvilinear and in capitals; his towels are photographed held by disembodied hands against misty monochrome backgrounds. The website tells a story about ‘product functionality’ and ‘the world’s most advanced textile mill’. The napkins come in unusual colors such as ocher, denim and oatmeal, and they arrive in clear packaging that emphasizes their visual impact. Yet none of the above makes them better. Thin, drab and slumped in the bathroom like sad ghosts, my DTC towels make me dream of plush cotton from a less aesthetic, more boring brand like LL Bean, which also costs half the price.
âWill the millennial aesthetic ever end? Â»The subheading of Fischer’s new York test requested. Maybe it will fade away when customers learn that a compelling story isn’t the same as the integrity of a product or the company that sells it. We have seen many times before how the growth-at-any-cost mentality can backfire. In the DTC sector, suitcase brand Away and anti-menstruation underwear brand Thinx both suffered damage to their buzzing reputations when their co-founders were exposed as manipulative and erratic bosses. (The two co-founders have denied the claims.) As more and more such startups turn out to be hollow or exploitative, stylistic characteristics that were once ubiquitous online may become associated with fragility and seniority – the kitsch from the nineties, like colorful neon plastic in the eighties. I also own an Away suitcase, and I feel a little embarrassed when I lug it around. Its smooth turquoise blue shell already looks like a relic, and it seems to involve me in the startup’s issues, how buying farmed meat helps perpetuate an unsustainable system.
According to Initiated, Moelis was focused on improving day-to-day operations at Great Jones, while Tishgart was dedicated to the type of marketing and design that would help accelerate growth. To this end, Tishgart has evolved into an extension of the Great Jones brand. Her quirky, minimalist apartment was photographed for Domino, her marriage recounted in Vogue. The stories his former staff members shared with Initiated are pretty sweet, when it comes to the tyranny of the boss girls: Did Tishgart ask the employees to give him back shoes? Did she bring her dog to work knowing a staff member had allergies? (Great Jones has disputed the details of those incidents.) In any event, she seems to have been warned about what the DTC ecosystem demands of a startup founder. Online, the image is the best tool and the best asset of a brand. The goal is to maintain the illusion of success until financial stability sets in – or until the business collapses under the pressure of the facade.