The X-Treme Files

Core Or Middle?

However, uh, thrilling it is to have your counterculture lifestyle validated by the mainstream, that thrill is certainly mitigated by simple exhaustion. Suppose you've gone to the considerable trouble of creating a line of nail polish and lipsticks in "alternative" colors--as Anna and Sarah Levinson (ages 22 and 19, respectively) of Ripe Inc. in Los Angeles have done. Just three years later, competitors both large and small are trampling all over your niche, rendering your pastel blues and gunmetal greys practically pedestrian. How do you respond?

By innovating at whiplash speed, of course. "We have to be much more phenomenal today than we were three years ago," says Anna. "Just the fact that a color isn't part of the traditional [lipstick and nail polish] palette isn't enough." What does make the cut? For nail polish, it's iridescent shades to wear alone or on top of other colors, a matte finish that gives metallics and cremes new polish, and fashion colors with a twist: "We never look at another company's colors and say `We've got to do that,' " Anna explains. "We'll take a color that's out there and make it our own. We always ask `How can we make this color better?'"

The Levinsons appreciate the fact that the mainstream popularity of "alternative" cosmetics has expanded the market for Ripe's goods. But they also acknowledge that it's made fast work of what was once the newest thing on the block. "The normal green [nail polish] isn't cutting it anymore," Anna says without irony.

Indeed, mainstream acceptance can make the cutting edge seem, well, dull. It's not just that your adolescent impulses toward rebellion are quashed. It's that the mainstream tends to sanitize the "alternative" until it's little more than a gimmick.

Derek Chung, 29, a veteran of San Francisco's rave scene and co-founder of Late Train, a Web site devoted to local late-night culture, recognizes what he calls the "style and some of the symbols" of alternative culture in mainstream marketing. "Advertising has used some of the music and visual design from rave culture," Chung notes, "but of course, ideas about independent community, decriminalization of drugs, civil liberties, and the breaking down of personal and social barriers are not included."

Of course not. Mainstream companies can't alienate people by presenting alternative viewpoints that are actually alternative. And, conversely, companies that want to keep their edge sometimes have to keep their businesses from veering too close to the middle. DiNenna and Laats, for example, have decided to sell their watches only in what they call "specialty" surf, skate and snowboard shops--venues that might reach a limited market, but in which Nixon's authenticity actually means something.

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The X-Treme Files.

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