While we've always put stock in making things (see: Old Testament ark builder, New Testament carpenter), the difference, again, is scale. Take a walk through the Ace Hotel in New York, with its inviting library tables and distracting lobby bar. On one side: Stumptown, excellent coffee purveyors out of that capital of easygoing hipness, Portland, Oregon. On the other side: an Opening Ceremony outpost, featuring hotel snacks, exclusive ostrich-feather pens co-branded with Maison Martin Margiela, and books by McSweeney's, a forerunner of DIY literature. And off the lobby, the clubby, gastropubby Breslin restaurant, with its heavy tables, braised-beef-tongue sandwiches, and Bloody Marys garnished with pickles. There's some kind of retro-hipster-chic happiness piped into these rooms, and it's speaking directly to you. Whispering to your brain: This is what you want—now. And your brain is shouting back, Yes, yes, yes! Even if you hate retro hipsters and know it's a sales pitch, you're helpless when it's this well tailored, the fit this flattering.
Does the phrase "Horween Tracker bone suede upper" mean anything to you? It does to me, which kind of freaks me out. Not long ago, I probably would never have known about an obscure 101-year-old Maine footwear-maker or had reason to keep up on its limited-edition models. But we're all agents of the artisanal movement now—call us authentivores, hungry for backstory, intrigued by provenance, hooked on the high of ever more specialized knowledge, and willing to spend to get it. So now I know about the Deck Chukka half-boot made by Quoddy exclusively for Freemans Sporting Club, the newfangled old-time haberdasher (with related restaurant and barbershop). And now I want a pair.
Anatomy of a desire: A little while ago, I bought a pair of Quoddy bluchers after reading about the company on a traditionalist-fetishist style blog. Ever since, I've wanted to buy more, a low-level kind of want like "What was that granola we liked? We should buy more of that." And then I discovered the special custom variations at Freemans and it changed to a slightly irrational need that naggingly hammered on my brain like so much leather. Irrational because I didn't need more shoes and I wasn't going to get into the business of assembling a complete collection of Chukka colorways, like some disturbed rustic variant of the youth sneaker fetishist. I just really wanted them because... because they seemed so damn well made. Special. A supple, subtle, bone-gray indication of my good taste.
Quoddy doesn't just offer exclusive styles through Freemans or the Los Angeles boutique menswear store South Willard; the shoemaker also sells to J. Crew. The retail giant's In Good Company is a curated stable of admirable outside brands, including Quoddy; Alden, the classic American shoemaker; and Postalco, a tiny paper-goods and accessories producer that started in Brooklyn but now operates out of Tokyo. This is what keeps the billion-dollar brand fresh.
When J. Crew was looking to add an artisanal edge to its business, it hired Andy Spade and his partner Anthony Sperduti, of the brand-consultancy/gallery/alluring-oddity shop Partners & Spade. "The idea for us was the bigger you get, the smaller you have to act," Spade says. "Twenty years ago one of my partners in advertising gave a speech entitled 'The United States of Generica.' The opposite is going on now."
Spade lauds J. Crew's management for recognizing a changing environment and for taking risks, first with the company's specialized menswear shop—the Liquor Store in New York's Tribeca—and then by welcoming into the fold brands that could be seen as competitors. "It's like putting Timbaland on your album," he says. "You've got to bring these people inside. It's what the customer expects. They want to wear your pants with an Alden shoe, a handmade belt from somewhere else, and a shirt made by their friend who makes 10 of them a year."
It's not just about fashion, obviously. If the whole country feels like Portland these days, it's because there has been an Oregon-ization of America. From Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to West Hollywood, from Austin to Anchorage, it seems like everyone on the street has a start-up soda label or handbag company he'd talk to you about if you only knew to ask, just as everyone in L.A. has a screenplay in his desk drawer and everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area has a Twitter-killing app on his thumb drive. Public Bikes, a new venture from Rob Forbes, the founder of Design Within Reach, is illustrative of the new wave: a Web-based designer of customizable European-style bikes sold online, out of its workshop, and in the Tretorn store in New York.