Can jokes about sweltering gonads and cauliflower ears re-surrect manufacturing in this city? One-time TV comedy writer Chris Lindland, founder of San Francisco clothing producer Cordarounds, has made what he claims is a winning bet that they can.
In 2005, the effusive Lindland asked some fashion industry friends what seemed a reasonable question: Why do the ridges in corduroy pants run top to bottom? Why not side to side?
To a clothes business insider, this question may be amusing. It may be annoying. But it's certainly not serious.
For Lindland, "not serious" is serious business: He once sold a TV pilot to the Spike channel, based on the idea that a beard of bees could be used as a crime-fighting weapon.
So five years ago, Lindland and his business partner, Enrique Landa, got a local garment factory to make some corduroys with horizontal wales. He eventually set up Cordarounds.com, a jokey, photo-rich Web site, to market his pants. Later, he announced a scientific discovery to the online world: "Don't you hate it when vertical cord friction heats your crotch to uncomfortable, even dangerous levels? Problem solved. Lindland's Cordarounds mesh evenly, lowering the crotch heat index by up to 22 percent."
Seen in real life, the muted-color, lightweight corduroys, lined with silky, colorful fabric, seem like slightly peculiar department-store fare. But Lindland was selling Internet pizzazz, not pants.
"The Internet's run on ideas," he says. "It's not an interesting enough idea for something to look cool. But if a pair of pants is part of a scientific study of a phony pants heat index complete with a glowing crotch orb, people will be interested in e-mailing it around to each other."
Friends indeed e-mailed Lindland's joke to friends — and some bought his Cordarounds online for $90 a pair. Lindland didn't have to share his take with middlemen or retailers, who typically absorb two-thirds of a garment's price. He seemed to have a business plan.
Lindland declined to provide 2009 revenue figures, but he says he sold 8,000 units last year. And "in 2010, we're on track to reach $1 million in sales," he claims. (Since those figures are coming from a seller of Internet malarkey, we'll take them for what they're worth.)
Lindland isn't the only business owner seeking to manufacture and exploit ludicrous Internet memes. The trade show floor at the Web 2.0 Expo at Moscone West last week was crawling with people who were hoping to get rich off the different ways of sharing information online, activities collectively given the ubiquitous buzzwords "social media."
Nor is he the first to produce preposterous products designed to generate e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts. Last month, KFC debuted its Double Down sandwich, composed of two fried chicken fillets, cheese, bacon, gooey sauce, and no bread. IHOP topped that with its Stackers pancake-and-cheesecake sandwich. Both seemed cooked up not so much to be eaten as to be passed around the Web as jokes. Ad agencies everywhere offer viral marketing. And, yes, Levi's announced on April 21 that it will use a Web site plug-in to encourage customers to share news of purchases with their Facebook friends.
But in basing a San Francisco fashion manufacturing business on churning out Internet memes, Lindland seems to have a truly novel ambition.
The last major local garment manufacturer left the city when Levi's shuttered its Valencia Street factory in 2002. But as home to Twitter, Digg, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Yelp, San Francisco is ground zero for social media ideas and talent. Perhaps Lindland has invented a strategy whereby clever Webheads could resurrect San Francisco's mid-20th-century manufacturing heyday.
This month, he plans to launch Beta Brands, an umbrella company aimed at expanding his Web meme manufacturing strategy of selling products beyond just clothes.
At noon on May 4, someone dressed in a panda suit released a pair of pants suspended from four hay-bale-sized balloons from the roof of 3435 Cesar Chavez, a block-long building in the Mission. A camera followed the pants and balloons as they disappeared toward the East Bay. By the next night, the online rebroadcast of Lindland's lightweight summer pants "launch" — get it? — had been watched 1,380 times, not counting 1,200 live views, he said.
Lindland dreams of creating dual publishing and manufacturing businesses, producing 52 stunts or jokes per year (that's one a week), and just as many products. While his SOMA garment factory stitches, Lindland comes up with further Web-jokey ideas. Laura Klindt, his freelance fashion designer, sketches. His customer service and tech employees take orders, talk, ship, and program. When a typical run of 200 pants, skirts, jackets, or bags is finished, the products are photographed. Lindland writes a humorous essay, or orchestrates a stunt. He sends e-mails directing 8,000 regular Cordarounds subscribers to the latest joke. And he and his staff hold their breath, hoping orders come in.
Lindland also uses Facebook to market his pants, but he says the site has proven far less effective than ordinary e-mail, which offers Internet treats to already hungry consumers. Facebook, in other words, is a passive billboard, compared to e-mail's door-to-door milkman. More than 40 percent of the messages are opened and read, Lindland claims, based on the number of people who follow e-mailed links to his site. This generates a couple of hundred sales a week. However, counters on some of his videos show fewer than 400 viewers, suggesting a low-range hit rate of around 5 percent.
The idea is to create a nonstop cycle that draws more readers and buyers to post photographs of themselves dressed in Cordarounds and having fun, volunteer their own filmed stunts, or — better yet — buy stuff along with their friends on a whim.
"He almost believed you could sell anything as long as you create a community around it," says Klindt, who last week was putting the finishing touches on an updated version of Cordarounds' bike-to-work pants. "It was interesting to start working with him, because he comes up with ideas most designers wouldn't come up with, because they would limit themselves to something like meeting a need, or a product they think people would want."
The bike pants' main feature: rear pockets with reflective material inside. Riders pull their pockets inside-out like mudflaps, so the shiny part shows. However, the cyclists I know fill their back pockets with wallets and U-locks. Notwithstanding this apparent impracticality, I couldn't help watching and rewatching Cordarounds' mesmerizing 16-second bike-to-work-pants video. It depicts a man riding down Twin Peaks Boulevard at night as his glowing pockets flap, ghostlike, behind his butt. The clip has lured 52,000 viewers so far.
Lindland counts as a hero Ze Frank, the Web meme artist who during 2006 and 2007 converted a daily video essay made up of sometimes-humorous, other-times-philosophical musings into an online participatory Chautauqua. Tens of thousands of fans sent him photos, songs, script contributions, filmed dances, and acrobatic moves. Many continue to follow his every online move. "If I was Ze Frank," Lindland says, "I'd be a billionaire right now."
I pointed Frank to Cordarounds' site, where he dug up a Lindland piece describing a supposed scientific discovery of "vagisoft" pocket-lining cloth.
"That's probably one of the funniest things I ever saw," said Frank, who first gained notoriety with a kooky Flash animation game, How to Dance Properly. Since his more serious-minded yearlong video show, he has become a video essayist for Time.com, a consultant to companies concerned with meme creation, and a sought-after speaker about the participatory possibilities of the Web.
Frank fretted that Lindland might have chained himself to an Internet meme hit factory that might eventually turn out misses. "There is a little bit of a problem if you create stunt after stunt after stunt," he says. "Are these things building on each other? Or are you just selling crack cocaine to schoolkids? If so, what happens when you run out of crack?"
Lindland hasn't reached that point. His recently released Karate Casual Pants were touted as perfect for unstopping toilets with your bare feet. He has assigned Klindt to design pants around the imagined lives of stuntmen. Next, he says he'll make pants themed on the seven deadly sins. "What drives me is, 'What will people talk about?'" he says.
Or e-mail, tweet, post, and, one hopes, not eventually forget about.E-mail Matthew.Smith@SFWeekly.com