Speaking to the Room —
Emmett Shine and Nick Ling of Pattern Brands
Interview by Eugene Kan
Text by Eugene Kan, Charis Poon & Nate Kan
Images Courtesty of Pattern Brands
Interview by Eugene Kan
Text by Eugene Kan, Charis Poon & Nate Kan
Images Courtesty of Pattern Brands
“We’re just normal people that for some serendipitous, weird reason, we’re in the right place at the right time. But with anything else in life, I think you have to know the art and the science of timing.”
— Emmett Shine
It’s difficult, in this current era, to walk into any room, physical or virtual, and instantly be attuned to the nuances of the crowd. There’s a blend of desires, signaling, and intertwined relationships that make up their behaviors. Reading a group of people and then being able to speak to them with genuine understanding and sincerity has become a little recognized but immensely valuable skill in today’s brand-centric consumer landscape.
Brands are, in essence, that unbelievably talented signal-reader who understands and knows how to speak to a group of people as small as a family, and as big as communities and culture as a whole. Like valued members of society, great brands help us solve our problems and reach our goals.
The best ones are able to address our immediate needs, plus give us the guidance we didn’t know we were looking for. Similar to powerful orators, brands that read the room well come off as familiar, trustworthy, persuasive, and honest. It is immediately apparent when a brand fails to do that — the mirage of a person-shaped business falling apart, leaving a soulless commercial operation in its place.
Business professor and rising podcast superstar Scott Galloway summarized the role that large companies play like this: either they extend time through convenience or enhance it with a sense of luxury. In other words, they either turn your ten minutes of work into five or elevate your ten minutes so much that you enjoy spending that extra five.
But to even arrive at that point where a group of people — or in brand-speak, “a market” — even gives you the time of day, the core of a brand needs to be rooted in values and beliefs of a particular moment in time. A basic fact of life is that change is inevitable, so people, their values, and beliefs shift over generations, meaning brands need to as well.
More than 10 years ago, Emmett Shine was armed with little more than a passion for making things and a vision for how the incoming digital world should work. As an art school dropout, what he lacked in pulp-and-ink credentials, he made up for in talent and a network of creative individuals.
As they each struggled to support themselves independently, somebody floated the idea of forming an agency; a construct Emmett openly admitted he was unfamiliar with at the time. Things started to come together. Gin Lane, the agency that emerged, began with Emmet’s intention of being “creative first.” With the addition of business structure and framework provided by Nicholas (Nick) Ling, it had the winning combination of creativity plus business sense from the start.
As it started getting going, I was like, ‘there is something really cool here.’ I'm learning more than I learned in school because it was the real world. I’m learning how business works, how creativity is valued, and how to help businesses with creativity. My skill was being able to communicate between both.
— Emmett Shine
Culture-defining brands show what happens when you put a bit of structure and framework around great ideas and then let that take on a life of its own. For Emmett, the start of Gin Lane was a revelation, as he told me during our Zoom call: “As it started getting going, I was like, ‘there is something really cool here.’ I’m learning more than I learned in school because it was the real world. I’m learning how business works, how creativity is valued, and how to help businesses with creativity. My skill was being able to communicate between both.”
That skill set proved effective as the Gin Lane team went on to help launch over fifty startups and, in the process, create nearly $15 billion in market value over a decade — an accolade few agencies can claim.
And then, as we said before, there’s change. In one “6-min read” Medium post published on August 6, 2019, the industry-defining Gin Lane, responsible in part for brands like Hims, sweetgreen, Harry’s, Stadium Goods, Warby Parker, Everlane, Shake Shack and many more, announced that they would cease to exist — under the name Gin Lane that is. After an inaugural post, they signed off with “Thank you, The Pattern team 🏡.”
The Emergence of Mobile Ecommerce
“Just don’t get in the way of the art.”
— Emmett Shine
Digital design only really emerged over the course of this one generation. It doesn’t have the same multi-generational lineage of growth and evolution as physical forms of design. In the Web 2.0 landscape, when online interactions blew up, the Internet began to value aesthetics in web design (for reference, the first CSS Awards were held in 2009). It was during these formative years that Gin Lane was finding humanistic playfulness in its design language, which was particularly compelling in comparison to the impersonally clean and simplistic digital design trends at the time.
Growing up in an artistic household gave Emmett an education in the process and power of great artistry. One of the lessons that stuck with him was to let the art live — it is, after all, the main attraction. That’s why museums are sparsely decorated and why spotlights aren’t focused on anything else. “My mom’s an artist, and so I grew up a lot around painters and going to art galleries. I had an understanding from an early age that you just don’t get in the way of art. Galleries are white for a reason. Borders, unless they’re super quirky, don’t want to overwhelm the actual art.”
This respect for craft is one of the dominant genes that Pattern Brands has inherited from Gin Lane. Emmett described the early mobile ecommerce days as devoid of soul, the unsurprising result of the young Internet era being primarily a playing field for programmers. His understanding of both art and the Internet laid the foundation for Gin Lane to become the perfect digital partner to some of fashion’s heavy hitters: Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Stella McCartney, adidas, Opening Ceremony, and more.
As anything becomes ‘figured out’ and it becomes easier to do, it becomes less effective.
— Emmett Shine
Friction traditionally exists between fashion and technology because their philosophies and definitions of success are in competition. Fashion thrives on scarcity, and technology thrives on scale, so the outcomes of trying to weave the two together are often misaligned especially when it comes to tech. It wishes to grow exponentially without always having a clear understanding of brand, story, and scarcity. Without this, there really is no emotion.
Gin Lane looked to reduce that friction. Emmett reflected that the agency “knew how to make digital interfaces that worked progressively and didn’t get in the way of the content, editorial, and artistic vision.” Take Vogue as an example. Emmett pointed out that a Vogue advertisement doesn’t use overwhelming graphics and relies on photography to create a world and a specific mood.
This was the key approach that early mobile ecommerce failed to understand. Brands like PayPal, eBay, and Zappos pounced into the initial opening, writing the first few chapters of ecommerce. That was until a shiny new cohort of design-friendly brands eager to start the next chapter of ecommerce.
These brands all promised polished aesthetics, enjoyable user experiences, and a brand perspective. Gin Lane believed in these promises, successfully helping disrupt the world of eyewear with Warby Parker, supply chain and manufacturing transparency with Everlane, and the razor market with Harry’s.
These names defined a particular higher-end-but-approachable product segment and cemented themselves as the de-facto aspirational brands for many millennials. Reverberations of these market shifts rippled through layers of socioeconomics, shaping consumption habits to eventually form the premium mediocre world we now live in.
Reviewing the last decade, the whole DTC wave caused some casualties — there have been winners and losers, but the current reality is that the availability of tools and resources have equalized the playing field and, in doing so, “brand-building agency for hire” may have helped build its last unicorn. Servers, ecommerce storefronts, freelance marketplaces, accounting software, they all have drastically reduced the start-up costs and challenges of creating a brand. Emmett put it this way: “As anything becomes ‘figured out’ and it becomes easier to do, it becomes less effective.”
Enter Pattern Brands
“What Pattern is solving for us is, what lifestyle do we want to live?”
— Nick Ling
Side-by-side, Gin Lane and Pattern Brands share many commonalities. They focus on different parts of the same process of building brands to improve design, pricing, branding, and experience, and doing so, all while keeping those elements in harmony with each other. Gin Lane may have started without complete clarity on the eventual solidification of their business. Now, the older and wiser spiritual successor Pattern Brands is poised to lead in different ways.
Entering their mid-30s, Nick and Emmett took stock of their current lifestyles and, again, there’s change. The course of life means ideas and activities we gravitate towards give way to others as our supply of time gets used up; traveling, eating out, and letting the chips fall where they may is replaced by pressing existential ruminations on what you’re doing with your life (kidding, but also not kidding).
Having fully embraced the start-up gumption of the 2010s where living at the office was as cool as it was ‘productive,’ the Gin Lane grind had caught up physically and mentally. Nick mentions the challenges of Gin Lane, where it’s an “always-on mentality that you have with social media and work following you everywhere.”
Subsequently, Nick and Emmett gave themselves an opportunity to move past the burnout and reimagine both where and how they wanted their work to manifest, as individuals and as a team. Pattern Brands was the next step the duo decided on as a solution and challenge for themselves, a way to encompass multiple brands under one roof with the central mission of bringing to market products they personally saw a need for.
Brand Building as Marathon Training
“We push back on clients and say ‘No, we have to stick to this process.’ We’re very good at being able to create that backbone that allows the creativity to emerge.”
— Nick Ling
Successful brand building marries business and creativity to create trust. There’s often this perception that creativity is this magical force that can’t be harnessed, and that it only reveals itself in serendipitous moments. Occasionally that’s true, but successful careers in the business of brands and marketing indicate there’s definitely a process that can be articulated and refined. A strength of Gin Lane and, now, Pattern Brands, is this dedication to the process. “The thing that made us successful was a consistent process that allowed the team to explore,” Nick says, “Over time, our process got better and we were able to reduce uncertainty when solving a problem.”
Furthermore, a strong perspective was maintained in all of Gin Lane’s client relationships. Nick continues, “We push back on clients and say ‘No, we have to stick to this process.’ We’re very good at being able to create that backbone that allows the creativity to emerge.”
Pattern Brands launched in the fall of 2019 and their first two labels, Equal Parts, a cookware line, and Open Spaces, a range of storage solutions, came soon after. “Before with Gin Lane, it was very much a sprint and get them (the brands) towards launch and on a good trajectory,” Nick says, reflecting on how their work routines have changed. “Sometimes we just did the artwork, rather than think about how it will be exhibited and how are people going to see it?”
The metaphor works. In client-agency parlance, “sprint” is the in-use term for a short duration of concentrated work to achieve a determined goal for a campaign or project. Building your own brand, on the other hand, is more akin to training as a long-distance runner, where iterative and incremental learning plays a far more significant role in the outcome.
Pattern Brands taking on this marathon begins with recognizing the broad spectrum that is its new scope of work and assembling the appropriate team. To throw in another analogy, if Gin Lane were a razor-sharp Japanese Olfa knife used to cut things to a client’s precise standards, Pattern Brands would have to be a Swiss Army knife, an ever-growing assortment of useful tools that solves a variety of problems collectively.
The culture at Pattern Brands is made up of creative and analytical minds intersecting, with Emmett and Nick sitting in the middle acting as “the cartilage,” as Nick puts it. Their role is to ensure both sides interact and learn from one another with the purpose of amassing learnings that everybody can gain from.
After that honeymoon period was over, we realized we needed to self-impose some constraints for us to be as effective as we could be.
— Emmett Shine, on the newfound “freedom” after transitioning from client work.
One area that requires attention in particular is the negotiation of the drastic change in tempo from client work to proprietary consumer-facing brands. From an organizational perspective, client work often means having clear, outlined goals and deliverables, so that although the 12-week sprint may be grueling, the sign posts are clearly marked and the finish line is always in sight. The shift to creating brands meant replacing that certainty with a delicate dance of reaction and planning. As Emmett puts, it comes down to the “balance of prepared planning for reactive progression.”
In short, Pattern Brands carefully plans out a sandbox and then progresses by building within that framework. While that might sound restrictive, it turns out to be a blessing. The notion that “the sky’s the limit” is, to put it bluntly, one of the most incorrect adages when it comes to creativity, as Emmett and the Pattern team would later find. There was a definite feeling of catharsis when the team cast off the proverbial shackles, after an extended time slogging through client services. With this new sense of freedom, where they controlled their own destiny, they found themselves at times distracted with all these ideas swirling around. “But after that honeymoon period was over, we realized we needed to self-impose some constraints for us to be as effective as we could be,” Emmett recalls.
Emmett likens Pattern to Rick Ruben as a producer or a global fashion house’s creative director, roles where the operator needs to find their own lanes and form their own constraints. The outcome of not forming these limits? You risk distracting the team and misplacing resources.
The Future of Brands
“Over the next 20 years, brands are going to be born right now as we speak, which are going to reflect how people are feeling right now. One thing that’s changed is that they can play a much more active role in your life just because you used to really only interact with brands through your TV and through going to the store and now that’s completely different.”
— Nick Ling
There are countless multi-generation brands that we view as dated and irrelevant, but can’t really be faulted for it. Brands, according to Nick, follow an extremely thoughtful approach and their success out of the gates is the outcome of a particular moment in time or zeitgeist. “Brands represent, or represented the values of society. The advent of digital, means that there are so many more ways brands can interact with you and they also play a more active role in reflection and values.”
He explains how some of the biggest consumer packaged goods brands were born in response to a particular moment in history; Heinz provided baby food and soup for a more mobile population post-World War I, products that became best sellers. Digital disruption may have accelerated change in the ecosystem of brands, but it was also inevitable with sentiments shifting between Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Xers.
Nick suggests the roles brands play mirror our own interests. “They reflect what we feel as a group, right? Which is, we’ve all got a ton of college debt. We’re all worried about the environment, and what it’s going to mean for our personal futures. Brands are reflecting back what we were feeling. Being in the present moment, sometimes the most special things are born out of adversity.”
If you strip away a brand’s flashy (or purposely unassuming) packaging and its origin story, the core of a brand is its values and the trust in it — not dissimilar to what is at the heart of an individual. A brand establishes itself in such a way that a product, when backed up by that brand name, comes with the promise to deliver on its message. But even if a brand manages to do that repeatedly over the course of a generation, Nick rightfully points out that “brands can’t live forever.”
Brands, even at their biggest, cannot shape the values of a culture and, according to Nick, “There are some core authentic values a brand can evolve with. But part of the reason you see larger brands struggle today is that they were built around different values. I think brands last for 10 to 20 years, rather than 50 to 100 years or more. But I do think there’s something around real fundamental human values that last a lot longer. It’s the same reason Star Wars is as popular now as it was in 1980. They speak to an American optimism.”
Part of the reason you’re seeing larger brands struggle today is because they were built around different values. I think brands last for 10 to 20 years, rather than 50 to 100 years or more. But I do think there’s something around real fundamental human values that last a lot longer. It’s the same reason Star Wars is as popular now as it was in 1980. They speak to an American optimism.
— Nick Ling, on the lifespan of brands.
There’s perhaps no more evident example of the meeting of relevant cultural and brand values today than Patagonia. Divisive politics has not only influenced brand identities but acting in response to current global events has almost become an expectation of brands.
Yes, it’s also more accessible than ever to start a brand due to increased access to tools and resources, but paradoxically, this ease means that differentiation is incredibly difficult. Understanding your brand’s positioning requires the humanization of your brand, to the point where it almost becomes a person. Brands are expected to offer personalized approaches and also, to a degree, a sense of human connection in light of urbanization.
In the pre-COVID-19 world, the general trend was for people to relocate from small towns to cities where they need to establish new human connections. Feeling heard and acknowledged by brands is one way of filling that psychological void. Emmett encapsulates these thoughts in saying, “branding is basically a non-dystopian version of Westworld. You’re synthesizing life out of something which is inanimate. Brands are organisms that biologically can take people in and be alive. And thus, brands need to operate how people need to operate and remember, ‘what is it to be a good neighbor,’ or somebody part of a town. That’s lost when you move to big cities and you don’t know everyone at church or at school. It’s lost from a society perspective.”
Change Is What You Make of It
One of the most motivating things you can do in your life is to create something that matters to you. But, like anything, it’s also the flip side of learning how to manage the emotional ups and downs of that type of journey.”
– Nick Ling
The world is in unprecedented volatility that is uprooting the life we’ve known. Nick and Emmett have made Pattern Brands their decisive response to where culture is now and where they believe it will go. Equal Parts and Open Spaces not only represent their personal interests in improving the home experience, but have become relevant in a way they couldn’t have orchestrated.
For both Emmett and Nick, running and then closing Gin Lane was a ten-year degree that they’ve graduated from with a wealth of knowledge and accolades. Still, the transition from an established entity into something new, no matter how much you’ve learned in the past, isn’t easy. Emmett likens it to seeing the doctor and “knowing something is going to hurt when they say it’s going to hurt…but it still hurts.” He goes on, “The first few months of setting up anything new, are a set of new and never-before-seen challenges.
What we’re dealing with now is a challenge on top of another change nobody foresaw (with COVID-19).” Nick kept things in perspective, “I remember the launch of Pattern. We were hugging and high-fiving and feeling on top of the world. You go through both the highest highs and the lowest lows in building a company. We went from a steady and predictable job with Gin Lane, to the challenges of dealing with something new. The way you get through those is really believing in what you’re doing and having the right people around you.”
One of the most motivating things you can do in your life is to create something that matters to you. But, like anything, it’s also the flip side of learning how to manage the emotional ups and downs of that type of journey.
— Emmett Shine
Emmett and Nick changed their priorities on purpose, from getting another brand’s product launched to focusing on themselves and making their work process one they truly own. Emmett provides this insight, “One of the most motivating things you can do in your life is to create something that matters to you. But, like anything, it’s also the flip side of learning how to manage the emotional ups and downs of that type of journey.”
A calculated approach combining creativity and business is their process for pursuing continuous improvement in business and in life; it’s been paramount to the way they ran Gin Lane and are now running Pattern. Brands are living, breathing things, something that Emmett and Nick intuitively understand. And since change is an essential aspect of being a living, breathing thing, Emmett and Nick’s success has come from navigating evolutions in values and beliefs, knowing that all we can ultimately control are our own actions, as a brand or as a person.