Connecting the Dots with Kent Stetson: From a Failed Art Show to the Red Carpet
If anyone can tell you a thing or two about “failing up,” artist and handbag designer Kent Stetson can. Growing up on his family horse farm in New Hampshire, Stetson gained a foundation in the maker world by watching his parents tend to blacksmithing tasks. In the early 2000s, Stetson created partially computer-generated paintings while working at a shoe store and was given the opportunity to show a solo exhibition in a gallery. He soon had his hopes dashed when the show he had spent a year working on sold a grand total of zero paintings.
Frustrated, he cut up the wall hangings and sewed them into bags, turning his art into what would become custom clutches. Stetson’s wearable art is evergreen in style–utilizing a process that he likens to the farm-to-table movement and what it did for food. His work is sold in boutiques, museums, and pop-up shops and has gained traction over time with celebrities like Crazy Ex-Girlfriendstar Gabrielle Ruiz, who was recently seen sporting a dragon-themed bag on a red carpet. Stetson joined “This Is Capitalism” to share a few thoughts. Edited excerpts are below:
Q: Tell us a little bit about how capitalism plays into your work?
A: Capitalism is something [specific that] everyone has to determine for their business. For me, sales was the foundation of capital. I made something and then I sold it, and then that would be reinvested into the business to grow it. That’s been my growth model and I haven’t had an investor. But my capitalist motivation is a little bit different. I’m driven by the aspects of feeling personally fulfilled. That is a currency that’s very important to me.
Q: Is fashion all about consumption and disposal when it comes to capitalism?
A: No. I think sustainability and circular fashion can also be capitalist. The RealReal and secondhand stores are also forms of capitalism. They are marketing and selling their sustainability and ethically driven missions in a capitalist way.
Q: What do entrepreneurs share regardless of their field?
A: A trend for all entrepreneurs is that you are connecting the dots. It’s not necessarily evident what it is that you’re putting together. But once the lines all connect, you see the shape of the thing. And that’s often how an enterprise starts or manifests for an entrepreneur–if you look at the unique points that you have of your personal experience and the environment in which you are.
Q: What is a key piece of advice you have for others looking to create or build a brand?
A: It’s important to have a diverse range of mentors and advisors to reach out to for both emotional and technical support: people who have no financial/personal interest in your business, but who have achieved a certain level of success in their own fields.
If it’s a highly competitive field, it’s preferable to have those people around as mentors and advisors who you connect with on a regular basis, forming a board to supervise the growth of the company.
Q: Lately, there has been a rise in “status bag” rejection. Are you seeing this as well?
A: Yes. Companies are making unbranded products now and they seem to be marketing that as something desirable. In the world of handbags, people have a tremendous amount of reverence for labels like Hermes or Chanel, or the super high-end heritage, luxury brands, and brands that have huge celebrity endorsements. I’m personally not swayed by that. Putting an outfit together and feeling like you are expressing your sense of style is one of life’s pleasures and I wouldn’t want to forfeit that to needing to have certain brands.
About this column: Writer Grace Williams is always on the hunt for exciting stories that bring capitalism to life for entrepreneurs and everyday people out there chasing their hustle. If you are interested in sharing your story, please drop her a line: