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As consumers, we can get practically anything we want, whenever we want it. So the retail theory goes that, faced with a glut of convenience, we wind up wanting a shopping experience that feels special, intimate, and hyper-local. Something, ideally, that’s a secret.
Here’s what you need to know: It’s a print catalog filled with clothing, accessories, and home goods commissioned from a small group of designers and artists. If you order a copy online ($10), you gain access to a password protected e-commerce site where you can purchase said goods, which are designed exclusively for The Secret Catalog and stocked in small quantities ranging from a handful to 30 or so.
The project operates out of rural Georgia, with a part-time staff of four led by Adrienne Antonson. A former New Yorker, Antonson is also the designer of State, a clothing brand that sells oversized canvas coats and linen pants well-suited to young women who dream of becoming chic but eccentric art teachers.
The first Secret Catalog came out for summer 2013, while Antonson was still living in New York. She explains — in deeply self-deprecating fashion — that she was motivated to create it because she wanted a reason to get to know the cool female makers she met in the city. (“I'm not that great at making friends, but I'm great at working with people.”) In part, she wanted to give designers a platform to run wild creatively — an artist’s residency of sorts, with an open-ended assignment.
And in part, Antonson wanted to recreate the thrill of getting a catalog in the mail, like Delia’s, a.k.a. dELiA*s, a.k.a. an icon for a generation.
“People who got Delia’s know,” says Antonson. “You’re driving home with your mom after school. There’s Delia’s. And you’re like, ‘Fuck. Yes.’ You know what you’re doing all afternoon.”
Even today, Antonson says she’s been known to lie on the rug with her young child, flipping through an Oriental Trading catalog. She doesn’t buy anything — she describes her shopping habits as basically limited to resoling the same shoes she’s had for 11 years and taking home failed State products to wear — but it’s fun to look.
The Secret Catalog’s winter 2016 edition started shipping to customers this week, and the shop goes live on Tuesday. (Those who want first crack at shopping it are advised to order a copy tonight.) Antonson was hesitant to give too thorough a list of its contents — the secrecy thing — but it includes pieces by 34 designers, the largest roster yet. There are garments by State, and mugs and blankets that would not be out of place in Kinfolk magazine.
The theme of the catalog is comfort, an uncanny offering to many voters this week. Antonson says that she’s heard back from some customers already who were glad to see a bit of brightness in their mailboxes.
The Secret Catalog isn’t much of a moneymaker for Antonson, who says she just about breaks even on it. After a successful summer edition, she decided to amp things up for winter, which did mean that she could include more artists’s work but made the process a little less fun. In the future, she’s hoping to publish two a year, but world domination will take a backseat to creating something that feels special and fresh.
“I have grand business aspirations,” Antonson says. “But sometimes I find those get in your way more than they get you ahead.”