The Mid-Market Muse: The Gods’ Descent from Parnassus

By Angelica Frey

In the recent New York Times Magazine feature chronicling the evolution of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg between 1988 and now, a pivotal moment singled out in the package is the year 2004, when a small, then unassuming 225 sql storefront called Catbird opened on Bedford Avenue, selling vintage clothing, stationery, and jewelry. By 2006, Catbird had become immediately recognizable for its minimalistic yet ethereal jewelry line that defined the late 2000s into the 2010s aesthetic before fully ascending to defining the guiding principles of contemporary jewelry.

This brand became the embodiment of the “brand as a Muse” concept.

In 2024, Catbird is no longer merely a muse (little-m) that relishes being emulated or admired and inspiring others, it's a Muse (big-M) actively letting others into her own Mount Parnassus, or an eCom/retail salon. Said others are other makers, editors, buyers, and customers. 

Twenty years later, the store expanded in New York City, Boston, DC, and Los Angeles, and its own jewelry line is not the sole star of the show. Rather, for the past decade-plus, Catbird curated a selection of artisanal jewelry brands that all harkened back to a delicate, biophilic, and ethereal aesthetic, a welcome antidote to the excess of the then-recent McBling era: Wwake and its opal and play with negative space, Sofia Zakia and its cosmic-inspired creations, Laurie Fleming and her gilded flower-inspired creations and many others all found a platform among locals and international tourists alike. 

Courts, Salons, and Enlightenment

In the Muses journal, we reflected on how, in an era when commerce is culture, brands become muses just as much as relevant cultural figures of the past. I want to take it further and examine how muses seek to create their own ecosystem. In mythology, the Muses convened on Mount Parnassus, where the arts were celebrated, and artists and poets emerged, whose transcendent gifts nestled them between the worlds of the mortal and the divine.

Historically, influential communities gathered in courts and salons. At the dawn of the Roman empire, Gaius Maecenas was not only a political advisor but also a supporter of the arts: Virgil dedicated his Georgics to him, and Horatius addressed him as “my guardian, my sweet glory” in the opening line of his Odes.  In Bukhara and Samarkand, the Samanid dynasty encouraged the advancement of philosophy, poetry, and the visual arts. And we all fantasize about the Medici court, where Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Bronzino, and Michelangelo were able to produce some of their finest works, where Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Poliziano could indulge in literature and philosophy.

In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment gave us the salons, and it’s in that context that we saw the emergence of the idea of doux commerce, the idea that commerce would make people less prone to violence and warfare. It would make people “reasonable and prudent; less given to political and, especially, religious enthusiasm; more reliable, honest, thrifty, and industrious.” It was basically another formulation of “commerce is culture.”  Intellectual circles such as The Bloomsbury Set influenced consumer culture in terms of fashion, while Gertrude Stein kickstarted modernism.

In the 2020s, we keep chasing the white whale of era-defining tastemakers. Legacy media, especially in terms of lifestyle and consumer culture, is not what it used to be. Something featured on the tag “That Thing’s Incredible” on NYMag’s The Strategist has the exact same draw as something endorsed on Vogue’s own Front of the Book section.

Tastemakers, Dupes, and Deconstruction

The New York Times Styles section mostly resorts to SEO bait based on well-performing content published elsewhere—fair, we should not hate the player, but the game. Culture is largely algorithmic: even the once glorified DTC brands that were once heralded as being able to marry the high quality of Italian or British heritage brands with mid-level mall price points periodically release clothes that look like the skins worn by NPCs in open-world videogames. 

Nothing makes it more apparent than influencer-founded brands: think of the blandness of Djerf Avenue, of the flimsiness of the silks Realisation Par, the infinity-mirror-effect of Hill House Home.

In terms of furniture, several hacks have made it clear to the most oblivious shoppers that the artfully curated displays of Anthropologie Home and Urban Outfitters, that coffee table that seems such a good deal on Wayfair, and even that sleek Crate and Barrel couch might share the same SKU as something found in your standard drop shipping catalog, Overstock, or even Amazon. If you still like what you see, knowing that the quality of the item is a 5.5/10 maximum, you’re better off just getting the best deal.

What’s insidious in this scenario is how plainly “nice” everything looks. It’s nice to know that you can buy $150 or $100 dupes of $860-90 stretchy kick-flare pants at Banana Republic or JCrew.

It’s nice to watch the A24 movies that formulaically and tastefully deconstruct genres. 

It’s nice to buy an oat-milk cortado, a cardamom pastry, and a gluten-free lunch bowl in the four corners of the world. It’s nice to be able to enjoy complimentary wifi and bottomless coffee in faux-post-industrial coworking spaces in cities like New York, Rapid City, Belgrade, Chiang Mai, and Nairobi. It’s nice to know that yes, whether you’re in Kenya, Croatia, Uzbekistan, and Argentina, you can buy locally-made, small-batch kombucha. 

No culture—commercial, artistic, literary— leaves a lasting impact by just being nice. Even the mythology I always like to reference is nowhere near “nice”. Take the actual mention of of Parnassus, which I used here as a shorthand for salon, or gathering place for cultural exchange. It’s not just an idealized open space where harmony reigns, it has its own backstories. For instance, it is sacred to Dionysus, whose force is the opposite of the harmonious arts wrought by Apollo. In book 19 of The Odyssey, Odysseus himself recalls getting gored in the thigh there; while being pursued by Apollo on Mount Parnassus, the nymph Castalia threw herself into a spring, which was then named after her.

Even the pastoral bliss of Arcadia has now, on social media, become a dogwhistle for far-right homesteading and lebesraum ideologies; and even the olympian gods ended up in a position of power after overthrowing the titans

The Mid-Market Muses

I am not saying that one needs some sinister episodes in their brand’s history in order to make a lasting cultural impact. Some depth, some imperfection, some sort of sprezzatura can suffice. Intentional, not algorithmic curation, can set the tone, and you don’t need to have the budget for SSENSE or Moda Operandi for this purpose. There are, after all, but few gods; the mortals create in response to their greatness.

Luxury’s influence on commerce and tastemaking gives birth to a mid-market accessible by mere mortals.

The department store Liberty London, first established as a place to sell ornaments and objects from the East and its signature floral fabrics, now combines its own in-house line of home decor and clothing, all characterized by the use of their in-house prints, with a wide selection of designers with whom it shares aesthetic and cultural sensitivities: think of clothing brands “The Meaning Well,” “Horror Vacui” “Bernadette” and “The Vampire’s Wife.” Candlemaker “Carrière Frères,” which created the candle equivalent of a herbarium, is also found there, as are Anna And Nina’s ethereal candle holders, or House of Hackney’s Lampstands.

Also, brands like Scott Henshall, Nike, Dr. Martens, Hello Kitty, Barbour, House of Hackney, Vans, Onia, Manolo Blahnik, Uniqlo, J.Crew, Superga, Target, and T. M. Lewin all used Liberty’s fabrics at some point in their lifetime. My favorite store in my native city of Milan is called “Wait and See,” and it stocks a kaleidoscope of shapes, textures, and fabrics. They both have their in-house line of “loud” basics—a pink-and-red striped cashmere sweater, metallic red oxford shoes, and also curate a selection of bold apparel from designers all over the world. They can convince you that you can pull off a green Breton top with saffron-yellow checkered pants, and that’s completely believable.

One does not even need to necessarily go highbrow either: I actually believe that mid-market ventures can move the needle more effectively than overly pretentious places. Take JCrew itself, which, since its inception, (almost) always embodied its muse status, first in terms of prep, then in terms of quirky maximalism, and now in terms of sleek, but not drab Carolyn-Bessette-lite elegance. JCrew—and its sister brand Madewell—have robust “Brands we love” sections to showcase and sell wares and apparel from other designers that align with their current ethos and aesthetic. JCrew showcases Demylee NYC for sturdy, not cutesy knitwear, Luv AJ for solid gold jewelry, Marie Marot for shirting, and Petite Plume for elevated sleep and loungewear. This type of curation clearly makes me see how a brand is in dialogue with larger aesthetic trends while also letting us in on designers we might not be aware of. 

New pantry stores, derided as “shoppy shops” fulfill a similar purpose in CPG: show me overpriced Mediterranean-inspired tinned fish next to East Asian chili paste, next to Middle Eastern preserved lemons. I may not buy them at the moment, but I am now aware of how to give some depth to my otherwise trite weeknight dinners. 

People love to learn and to discover new things, and I personally will take a well-pondered recommendation (of a shirting brand, or a type of salad garnish) over an automated one. Creating a commercial version of a salon enables this sense of discovery, and fortifies one’s community and user base. One person, one idea, and one brand can’t fully claim the identity of “muse” if it does not inspire and allow others to take up art themselves.

Walking into Catbird’s flagship store on North 7th Street in Williamsburg, BK, lets you witness the way what was once one “maker” in the then-burgeoning Brooklyn-based craft revolution has now cemented itself as a small, yet mighty stalwart in today’s commerce and culture, shining brighter thanks to the glimmer of the other artists and artisans it champions.

Angelica Frey
Writer, Self-Employed

Angelica Frey is a writer, researcher and translator based between Boston and Milan. She co-writes the disco-music newsletter