This Flint-Based Eyewear Brand
Does Good for People & the Planet
GABRIELA DAMATO / DESIGNER AT WORKING NOT WORKING
In the wake of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, emerging eyewear brand Genusee seeks to bring new hope and vision to the city. Employing a circular economy business model, the company will make democratically-designed eyewear from recycled plastic water bottles. Their mission? To do good for people and the planet by making social and environmental impact in Flint, Michigan. I sat down with WNW creative Matthew Boblet, who worked on the company's brand identity and digital user experience, to chat about Genusee's plans for the community and his personal connection to this project.
Let's start at the top, how did this project come to you?
Genusee is the product of two fashion designers and entrepreneurs, Jack Burns and Ali Rose Van Overbeke. Both of us are graduates of Parsons School of Design; Jack and I met there and bonded over blue-collar upbringings, both being high-school dropouts, proud GED wielders, and ambitious designers. Soon we became roommates and partners in crime. Later down the road, Jack introduced me to Ali, both of us Michigan natives. She's from Detroit, I'm from Battle Creek. Essentially, the stars aligned.
They reached out to me to help them put a face on the brand, and I was instantly intrigued. I was inspired by their commitment to social innovation, and in love with the product itself. But also, I felt a personal connection to the project coming from a community that has also suffered the symptoms of vanishing industry.
Can you tell us about your design work for Genusee? What were you responsible for? Has it evolved much since the initial concept?
I worked with Genusee from the ground up to help them establish a distinct yet universal visual identity and tone of voice. Much of the process was very organic and eclectic. Collectively brainstorming each component, from the brand name and communication (“Be the Change you Want to See”) to the art direction and digital experience, each with the goal of synthesizing a boutique sensibility, with commitment to community, inclusivity and sustainability.
The website and identity leans into an editorial experience more so than a traditional e-commerce eyewear brand. Can you talk about the approach to site design and photography, both on and off a model?
The website is designed to communicate Genusee’s message as poignantly as possible, while letting the content do much of the talking, framed within the brand’s visual atmosphere. As far as the imagery goes, it was crucial that the faces of our collective communities represent the brand.
Jack and Ali pulled together their networks from Michigan to New York City and we threw a casual get-together in Brooklyn, shot by the talented Rebecca Alaniz.
The setting is reflective of the residential architecture found in the neighborhoods of cities like Flint and Detroit. Since the industrial revolution, these cities have had such a rich yet classical visual history that inspires me—from the vibrancy of the art-deco in Midtown Detroit to the Native American influence on language and the overall landscape of counties like Genesee.
Genusee is uniquely interested in helping the creative community in Flint. What are some potential opportunities?
Hopefully, a business like Genusee can serve as a creative beacon, offering further access to channels of art and design that otherwise maintain a barrier of exclusivity to communities like Flint.
For the most part—working class, manufacturing communities have been deprived of the arts and the privilege of self-expression. But as technology and industry evolves, it becomes more and more realistic to bring access to the tools and spaces required to turn young imaginations into realities.
Genusee will also be one of the area's first closed-loop business models focused on creating living wage jobs. Do you see this empowering the emergence of other creative industries?
Absolutely, as well as a catalyst for more socially-focused businesses to fix their lens on Flint and other Michigan communities.
Detroit specifically has seen a recent influx of artists and entrepreneurs from across the globe, to the point that some would say it’s experiencing a “renaissance.” But Michigan’s smaller communities off the beaten path have yet to be given the same opportunities.
Michigan has been both constructed and condemned by manufacturing. But hopefully, this type of community focused innovation can help usher in change.
You grew up not too far from Flint. Can you describe your personal upbringing as a creative in this area?
Life’s been wild. I was always a bit of an outsider in my community, I simply never responded to traditional Midwestern life—or just traditional life. I grew up in Battle Creek, an hour and change outside of Flint. Of course, I wanted to be “like Mike,” as did everyone in my neighborhood. I skipped all the Pistons games and watched every Bulls game religiously, amidst some bizarre fascination with the futuristic sneakers and the radioactive energy of the team-introduction spectacle.
Fast forward a decade later, I dropped out of high school just a few days in. Not long after, I started my first factory job, and was out of there in a week. I wasn’t aware of it, but I was desperately seeking creativity in anything, and not wasting time with what didn't. Of course, that left me with just about no options. In my community, there were virtually no artistic outlets, no scenes, no-thing.
My family still struggles with these circumstances in Michigan. Battle Creek is no stranger to what is essentially outright neglect. To this day, I avoid the water in my family's neighborhoods, but for far too many in the community, there's no other option.
Eventually, I hustled up enough money to buy my first computer, and it was on from there. I acquired some software, and fell in head first. And I wanted more, I just wanted to see. More than once, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, jump in the Buick and drive away as far as possible without hesitation. I’d drive to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Florida, anywhere to just see life.
It was my way of mining the cultural capital I felt society didn't want me to have. What followed was inspiration, school, New York City, and here we are now.
Genusee has launched a Kickstarter campaign that is closing soon. What can we do to make this project a reality?
Buy some glasses! Support sustainability. Support social innovation. Genusee has major plans for the future, and everyone is invited. I believe everyone is an influencer in their own right, we all have a community of people that we engage with. Share the Genusee story with your people in any way that you can. Your money matters, every dollar you spend is an endorsement to the product and company you spend it on. Make sure that they reflect who YOU are. Endorse your future.