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Of a Kind website tries to make a special connection with shoppers

Reporting from New York — It was over e-mail, in coffee shops and at the kitchen tables in upper Manhattan and Brooklyn that Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo first tumbled into their idea. Longtime college friends whose undergraduate boyfriends played basketball, they had bonded over a love of fashion. But they found that the items they perused online and the sample sales they haunted in the city ultimately felt a little hollow. It wasn’t the act of commerce that bothered them, specifically, it was the lack of personal connection they felt with the clothing they purchased.

A former editor at Details and Lucky, Cerulo was particularly moved by a story she read of a man with a deep care for coffee beans. “There was this guy with roasting ovens who would take his own beans on an airplane. He even had a hand grinder on the plane,” she says. What she enjoyed was the trust that she now felt for that coffeemaker. If he felt so strongly about his own product, “then he would never serve me anything bad,” she says.

That type of back story begot the creation of Cerulo and Mazur’s new site, Of a Kind, which offers a different type of shopping experience. Rather than presenting hoards of inventory, the site handpicks designers to create a limited, custom run of a particular product. The products have been accessories that include belts, studs and vests.

But the crux of the appeal of Of a Kind is the stories developed behind each product and fleshed out by Cerulo. The product page for a necklace designed by Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato is bolstered with descriptions of the designers’ grandmothers as well as clippings of designs that have inspired them. For her vest, designer Lyndsey Butler listed her travel essentials (such as an oversized denim shirt and Moleskine notebook) and a primer on her favorite types of leather.

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For Of a Kind, the goal is to make products more than just products and dig deeper into placing these objects in the context of the designer’s distinct narratives, livelihoods and inspirations. “These designers are accessible, and they run one- or two-man operations. They don’t run mega-businesses,” says Cerulo. “It’s really exciting to convey both of their stories as well as the purity of their work.”

The site is part of a larger philosophical change some see on the part of consumers. No longer content to merely browse the endless aisles and clothing racks of big box retailers, sensitive shoppers are looking for more intimate connections with the products they buy. From farmers markets to online retailers, shoppers specifically want stories about the products they purchase such as the ones that Of a Kind provides. Some are calling this type of shopping philosophy “affinity commerce” — that the desire to buy new goods is now animated by narratives about where those goods come from.

The appeal of stories behind products has captured the eye of larger companies that have been using stories in their advertising to combat the image of the faceless conglomerate. Recently, Tostitos has begun running commercials showing where the ingredients come from that go into their chips. Part of a larger brand overhaul, Domino’s Pizza began showing a series of ads in which a focus group is surprised to discover they are not in a conference room but in a field in California where Domino’s tomatoes are grown.

“We talk about how there’s a backlash now against consuming piles and piles of stuff. You see it going across a social environment. People want to know where they’re getting comes from,” Mazur says. With Of a Kind, “you’re investing in a person,” she adds.

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One of those people is Ellen Van Dusen, a designer based in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. The 26-year-old designer liked the idea of doing something exclusive for the Of a Kind audience. “It’s nice to do a single piece that doesn’t fit into a broader collection because you end up making these collections and then cutting a lot of styles that don’t fit in.”

During the process of making a backpack for the site, she began to pepper in personal anecdotes and childhood photos that informed her sense of style. Her item page for her $200 backpack features a lengthy chronology of her most embarrassing childhood outfits as well as her favorite record albums. Some designers might eschew such personal information being shared, but Dusen saw it as part of the process.

“My blog is basically pictures of my life, boyfriend, my dog. I like that personal aspect,” she says. “I think that people can connect more with the clothes if they know the person behind them. Clothes are not just clothes, but they have a story behind them.”

Harvey Molotch, a professor at New York University and author of “Where Stuff Comes From,” says that consumers’ connections to the narratives behind objects is not new. “Every object is story rich. Every object gives off information,” he says. Businesses like Of a Kind are “simply taking advantage of that truth. They’re trying to mobilize that fact to sell one item over another to a particular group. The phenomenon is not one they created.”

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It was exactly those types of stories that attracted Caroline McCarthy, a journalist for tech site CNET, who discovered the site via friends. Initially, McCarthy had trouble finding anything that fit her style or price range, but when a necklace from Erica Weiner caught her eye, she was hooked. It wasn’t just the jewelry but the revelation that the designer spent time road-tripping to the same antiques market in Maine that McCarthy had. “It was this place I’ve been to a million times,” she says of the write-up on Weiner’s page on the site. “Thus far, I haven’t connected with anything again, but I’m more attuned to what they’re selling, because you never know.”

But there’s a danger as well to focusing on the narratives behind objects. “Sometimes people tell boring stories,” says Rob Walker, author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.” Not all creators are gifted storytellers, and an inability to communicate a good story could deter someone from interest in a given project. “The story always comes down to some variation on why [the creators] are awesome,” Walker says.

Moreover, Walker thinks the more important stories are those that consumers tell to each other about a product. Walker and fellow writer Josh Glenn started a site called Significant Objects that pairs everyday items plucked from yard sales and pairs them with authors.

Writers like Nicholson Baker and Colson Whitehead mocked up tales in miniature about a meat thermometer and wooden mallet. Jonathan Lethem’s yarn about a Missouri shot glass takes the story of a monologue from an excitable patron of a bar, regaling the reader with tales about his home state. The objects are then put on sale on EBay to raise money for charity. The result was a huge increase in the value of these objects as less than $200 in everyday objects became more than $3,000 in charity funds.

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“The stuff that’s most significant isn’t the most valuable,” Walker says. “It’s the stuff with the best personal story for you.”

calendar@latimes.com


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