Friday, November 27, 2015

Trolling for Hate: Enthusiasts, Lifestyle, and Brand

A brand is not a statement of your personality.

A brand is not an exclusive club.

A brand is not a lifestyle.

A brand, let's all remember, is a method by which companies part you from your money.  Those companies, and the folks that they hire to manicure their brand, want you to think that a brand is something more than a sales tactic, but in the end, it is not.  It is one of a million ways clever people get you to pay more for something than it cost them to make it.  That's it.

The intersection between the clean, folksy, "authentic" and perhaps more than a bit twee brands and the enthusiast press is a dangerous and swampy ground to find yourself.  Its a mess.  It is a cesspool of bullshit.  And it is place that was bound to occur at some point. 

The enthusiast press is taken with the idea of finding the really good stuff, the authentic stuff, the original, pre-hipster not-cool-because-someone-said-so-but-cool-because-it-is-great stuff.  This is a very hard thing to do without being swayed by the brand peddlers out there.  I can tell you it has happened to me.  I try very hard to be brand agnostic.  I'd review a knife or a light from just about anyone, but the pressure to adopt brand language and brand message is intense.  The James Chapter Knife review was an experiment in how strongly I could resist the branding. I think I did an okay job of calling that knife like it is.

But in my virtual travels throughout the gear world part of the internet I can't help but stop and marvel at the brand enthusiasts.  Rolex as a million of these people, obnoxious wealthy a-holes who think that the essence of being a cultured person is wearing a $10,000 watch that looks like a gold hockey puck.  Reading classics--pffft.  Appreciating great music--ha.  Its a Rolex that makes you cultured or so they will tell you.  I am reminded of Beethoven's most Beethoven-y quote (which I will paraphrase for humor purposes):  "There are a million Rolexes, but only one Beethoven."

Then there are the folks that enjoy the tactical brands.  Folks that talk about rucks and Spartan races and go bags.  I saw one such product being reviewed where the reviewer said that the minimalist, MOLLE-clad hyper expensive bag "changed his life."  Let's be clear folks.  Having a kid changes your life.  Starting your career changes your life. Getting married changes your life.  Getting a $150 bag that you paid $380 for doesn't change your life, unless it forces you to have an epiphany that you wasted a bunch of money.  I take that back.  It is entirely possible that a bag could change your life, but that's more of a sad commentary on your life than it is on the quality of the bag.  I imagine that these are the same folks that use their Medfords exclusively as a package openers for their Direware customs that just came in.

Let's not forget that purveyor of intelligence testers--Best Made.  Between their photo trips to Patagonia to eat food made by Francis Mallman and their beardy models, they sell axes, enamel cookware, and Sebenzas over MSRP.  But what are you buying when you buy one of their axes?  No, I mean besides the crooked grained "hand selected Appalachian hickory" handles that are painted to cover up their defects.  You are buying brand.  Are their tools better than Gransfor-Bruks stuff?  No.  Are they twice the price?  Yes.  So what is that magic sauce?  Beardiness, Mallman, and a heaping helping of brand.

Brand is the production equivalent of the "story" associated with custom gear.  For all of the esoterica associated with handmade knives, I am at a loss sometimes to understand why these things are so sought after.  Here is the story I want from a custom maker--I got your order, I made your thing to the best of my abilities, I finished the project ON FUCKING TIME, and I mailed it to you quickly.  That's the story I want.  Save the rest for when Best Made picks up your designs and they need some ad copy. 

We enthusiasts can be taken in by brand or by story.  Let's be a little wary of the bullshit and a little less Instagram addicted.  That's just my opinion though, so comment below if you disagree. 


  1. I agree with much of what you say here, Tony, as I tend to feel the same way. I’m not terribly interested in owning a custom knife for the sake of it being a custom. However, here's a bit of a pushback - what about traditional knives?

    You gave the Indian River jack a perfect score, including two points in deployment for a nail nick – a two-handed deployment method. On your review of the Pingo, you said that “two hand opening is not a quaint throwback or a reasonable compromise,” while also acknowledging that it was at least possible to open the Pingo one-handed (I can do so on mine as well, albeit awkwardly.) In addition, the section of the blade left exposed by the handle while closed is actually easier and more mindless to grab and pinch-pull open than fussing with a nail-nick. I actually open my IRJ the same way, but the narrower section of blade makes it prone to slipping if my hands are wet and I don’t take my time.

    So, why does the Indian River Jack merit a score of 2 in deployment, while the Pingo, which arguably has a better two-handed deployment, gets slammed with a 0? Because it’s a “traditional” knife. While that’s not a brand, it’s the same concept – the knife has a “story” and you’re expected to accept sub-par performance because of it.

    I should probably note that I own several traditionals, including an Indian River Jack, and I enjoy them, but in terms of actual practicality and use, the design restriction of a nail-nick is a clear disadvantage. While the modern market could still stand to borrow a bit more of their design in terms of slicing ability, two-handed opening should probably be left to knives aiming for more universal legality.

    1. The nail knick decision is one that I came to over time. The reality is that traditional knives are a different form than modern knives. I think of them like wood case pencils compared to mechanical pencils. I don't think one is inferior to the other, they a just different. On the IRJ, a nail knick is the right opener. It would be a wider and different knife if it were a thumb stud, flipper, or hole.

      The Pingo, however, is a modern knife. It is also a knife with a design limitation placed on it by legal issues. It SHOULD have a thumb stud, but doesn't.

      Finally, I could never whip out the Pingo, no matter how much I tried. It was always slow as molasses.

    2. I disagree with the notion that a nail-nick on a traditional is somehow better than a nail-nick on a modern knife. Both types of knives are categorized and scored the same; it cheapens the idea of a scored system if you assess the exact same mechanism differently on different knives simply because one is a "traditional."(I know the Pingo doesn't have a nail nick, but you've docked points on other modern knives for having one.) While a nail-nick may have been the only viable option, I would argue that that is indicative of the knife's design being flawed as a whole, by constricting deployment options to an inferior one. It would have been a different knife, but I believe it would have been a functionally better one.

      A good example of this is the Urban Trapper. It takes the slim form factor and slicing capabilities of a traditional knife, but the does away with the slipjoint and nail-nick and replaces it with a flipper and frame/liner lock, as well as adding a clip. I would argue that the term "traditional knife" has no real meaning other than set of design choices - some good, some bad. Evaluating those design elements differently because they happen to fall into a certain "image" seems to be the exact thing you're speaking out against here.

      Regarding opening the Pingo, I could pinch the blade and flick the handle downwards - certainly not great, but technically workable. I've since put one of those attachable thumbstuds on it, and it's better for the change.

  2. I still don't "get" the allure of "custom" knives. Not just because most of them are not made bespoke to your preferences, they're just small batch manufacturing. I personally DNGAF if the product is made completely by machines. Nor does it matter to me if its all hand made, from the point that the maker himself digs up the metal ore from a mine in the center of the earth, forged the steel and quenched it in unicorn tears on the surface of the moon, and has a blessing placed on it from an ayahuasca shaman. What does it do and how much does it cost?

    In my opinion there are no tangible benefit above the $200-$250 range. Ferrum Forge knives look very interesting to me, but I'll never pay their asking price for one. Does it have two or three times the utility of a Kizer Gemini? I doubt it. But I like the looks of it better.

    What I'm trying to say, is: Death To Mystical Thinking. No product is better or worse because it was made by this human or that machine. All that matters is how well does it perform and how much it costs to do it. So I guess I'm ultimately agreeing with you, Tony. :-)