Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2015: Put a Cactus on It — a Succulent Grows in Brooklyn

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards.

To spot the latest cool-kid trend
, swing by a bodega in Brooklyn. The small, brightly lit convenience stores are on almost every corner in the U.S. capital of hipsterdom, and the owners keep tabs on their neighborhoods before stocking up on organic condiments, fair trade snack bars, and jars of coconut oil.

On a humid night in July, a trip to a bodega in south Brooklyn yields a four-pack of eco-friendly toilet paper and a small potted cactus. When asked about the new makeshift shelf of cacti in front of the store, the clerk barely looks up.

"We sell so many of these things," he says, attempting to wrap the cactus in a plastic bag. "I don't get it."

Corner bodegas in Brooklyn aren't the only spots repping desert plants. Across the country, icons of the desert abound. But anyone who's spent time in the West knows the desert hasn't always been hot.

Long before it was hip to make a terrarium or ride a cactus-engraved longboard down the street, many who grew up in the desert saw its icons — cow skulls, cowboy hats, and neon saguaros included — as hokey reminders of home.

These days, you can check out elaborate desert plant displays at West Elm, buy saguaro iPhone cases, graphic tees, art prints, and "DIY Crystal Saguaro Cactus Grow Kits" at Urban Outfitters. Boutiques from Phoenix to Tokyo are stocking cacti letterpress cards. The Golden Gate Bridge has a succulent installation. There are glowing displays of live cacti in the lobby of Google's New York City headquarters.

Blame the backdrop in Breaking Bad or the mainstreaming of Burning Man, pop culture suddenly has an urge to put a cactus on it.

In August, a quick Etsy search for "cactus" returns almost 30,000 results; "succulent" comes back with 25,000. (Quick distinction: Though most cacti are considered succulents, not all succulents are cacti — but more on that later.) That's no surprise to Etsy's merchandising manager, Emily Bidwell. She's had her eye on desert imagery for a while.

"One of Etsy's biggest overall trends is desert and bohemian chic," she writes in an e-mail responding to questions about what appears to be the new bird. "We've seen cacti printed onto summer scarves and canvas shoes, in housewares such as tea towels, salt and pepper shakers, decorative pillows, and wall décor."

Bidwell sees some design and fashion trends last for a single season and others for years.

"I think we're drawn to images that have simple and identifiable silhouettes, because they can be easily transformed into patterns for an assortment of products, like fabric prints, wall art, or jewelry," she says. "Trends are ultimately logical extensions of trends that came before them, and they are often a reflection of current popular nostalgia."

Trend cycles, of course, are nothing new. You don't have to look hard to see that even Birkenstocks and overalls (brace yourselves) can make their own comebacks after falling out of favor.

Before the Internet age of trend-spotting blogs and Instagram feeds, something became trendy because the fashionable elite decided it would be. The head designers of big brands selected designs, colors, and cuts before debuting lines on the runway and watching their selections adopted into the mainstream and shipped to big box stores.

But in the late '90s, the tide began to turn, as some brands learned they could be even more successful if they hired savvy hipsters to get a pulse on the streets of what might sell well and report back before the next line of sneakers, shoulder bags, or high-tech accessories went into production.

It was the world Malcolm Gladwell describes in his 1997 essay "The Coolhunt":

"Once, when fashion trends were set by the big couture houses — when cool was trickle-down — that wasn't important. But sometime in the past few decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up. It's now about chase and flight — designers and retailers and the mass consumer giving chase to the elusive prey of street cool — and the rise of coolhunting as a profession shows how serious the chase has become . . . The paradox, of course, is that the better coolhunters become at bringing the mainstream close to the cutting edge, the more elusive the cutting edge becomes. This is the first rule of the cool: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight."

Fast-forward 20 years, and you're in the days of "going viral," in which coolhunting is more complicated.

Today, the cutting edge changes constantly. With an instant lens into life around the world, the modern-day coolhunter can declare something is "the new black" almost weekly. Cool kids in New York, California, London, Japan, you name it, chew up and spit out whatever's hip and notable at an almost manic pace, which has caused some brands to manufacture clothes and goods that are literally only meant to last a wash or two. (Thank you, "fast fashion"!) And while some things will always be timeless, the chase for cool is only speeding up.

A few times a year, Georganne Bryant packs her bags to coolhunt. She opened Frances, a boutique in downtown Phoenix, in 2006 and says she still finds a lot of goods for her store while offline.

Bryant and a few of her staff members head to trade shows in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Arizona, where shop owners and merchandisers swap business cards with artists and snap up samples of whatever they think will do well in their stores.

"For me, it's like finding a needle in a haystack," Bryant says. "I really love the thrill of it, but there's a lot to wade through."

Bryant was born and raised in Phoenix. And though she says she's seen waves of icons become popular and fall out of favor, she's seen plenty of desert imagery on the local and national circuit. To her, the renaissance of the cactus is twofold:

"Everyone is so into design these days, and when you look at succulents, the design is amazing — the cactus as it blooms is really amazing," she says. "But here in Phoenix, we've seen another trend — a state pride trend — and in the last few months, people who come into the store can't get enough of things that have Arizona and desert imagery on them."

State pride hasn't always been part of popular Arizona culture. For the state's entire modern history, Arizonans have had to field questions, jokes, and criticism about political scandals, controversial legislation, and an infamous sheriff who can't seem to get enough of the limelight.

Despite it all, Bryant says, she's seen a new movement: Arizonans who aren't apologizing for where they live, who instead are reclaiming their home state and its symbols and wearing them with pride.

One scroll down a Phoenix-centric Instagram feed and you'll see evidence of Bryant's local state pride hypothesis. Bunky Boutique is stocking desert landscape tank tops, GROWop has concrete cactus pots, MADE has a collection of desert-themed ceramics, and Ashley Weber (a.k.a. Against the Grain) made a series of sterling silver saguaro charms.

"What's really cool is that we know these images day in and day out because we grew up with them," Bryant says. "But people outside Arizona are still discovering them. I saw a picture of Lena Dunham wearing cactus-printed pants and terrariums all over Pinterest that I liked . . . I've really enjoyed seeing them all over the place."

Elaine McGinn has been the director of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix for almost 20 years. But that's not the only place she sees cactus.

More than 6,000 miles away, at the botanical garden of Florence, Italy, McGinn recently saw a cactus so valued that it's protected by a high fence and brought inside during the winter.

"Whenever I travel out of Arizona, I'm always fascinated by how many gardens around the world have cactus collections," she says. "The cacti are like their prized collections. They don't look great [outside their natural habitats], but they are prized."

McGinn's seen desert imagery in mainstream culture but says that beyond prints on tea towels and aprons, she's seen a growing interest in the plants themselves.

This year, the Desert Botanical Garden's experienced record-high attendance — and without a big crowd-drawing exhibition like the one by Dale Chihuly, who filled the garden with his famous glasswork from November 2013 to May 2014.

Thank the new hipster icon or a relatively mild summer, but more than ever, people from around the world are visiting the Desert Botanical Garden to see desert plants in their original form — and to take a couple home from the gift shop.

"I think people are just fascinated by them," McGinn says. "People love roses and orchids, but everyone loves a cactus. They're not hard to grow, they have an interesting form, and they represent survival. I mean, my god, they survive in nothing."

It's true. The cactus may be a perfect plant for the busy and hip-conscious millennial. Formally belonging to the Cactaceae family, the cactus is a succulent, which means it stores water in its intricate structure and thrive in arid climates.

Big or small, cacti and other succulents can survive indoors and outdoors, rarely have an odor, and, with the exception of their sometimes spiny exteriors, are (almost) idiot-proof.

No need to take your hands off your iPhone; the resilient plant does best when ignored for weeks at a time atop a well-lit desktop or in a terrarium on a windowsill.

The lifespan of cacti and other varieties of succulents varies depending on size and environment. A healthy saguaro, for example, can live well over 200 years in its natural habitat. But if the cactus obeys any rules of consumerism, its time in the limelight is bound to be much shorter.

In "The Coolhunt," Gladwell notes that no matter how hard a person or brand or company tries, whatever becomes cool or trendy, by nature, cannot be controlled:

"A company can intervene in the cool cycle. It can put its shoes on really cool celebrities and on fashion runways and on MTV. It can accelerate the transition from the innovator to the early adopter and on to the early majority. But it can't just manufacture cool out of thin air, and that's the second rule of cool."

It's a tough balance that Georganne Bryant knows all too well. You won't find Frances inundated with whatever is deemed cool by the Internet or the latest hip celebrity (even if her daughter, Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant, happens to be one). Bryant says she'll continue to stock her store according to her clientele and her own taste.

And though she admits the cactus' time as a hipster icon may come to an end on the national stage, she says she hopes the trend continues at home.

"We're used to things trending — something's different tomorrow. I think people are pretty used to that now," she says. "But while people in New York might move on, we'll still be planting succulents and loving the things that remind us of home."

This October, to support the boost of state pride and share what she loves most about the desert, Bryant plans to open a pop-up concept at Frances. For a short time, if you swing by Central Avenue and Camelback Road, you can snap up some of her handpicked vintage Arizona souvenirs and contemporary desert-themed goods.

How long the pop-up will stay open is yet to be determined, but one thing is for sure: The cactus will be front and center.

For months, Bryant has been on the hunt for cool vintage items with an Arizona touch and working with local artists on items exclusive to the pop up. She says she has prints and apparel from designer Jon Arvizu and buttons from Brendan McCaskey, as well as hand-tooled wallets, printed socks, simple jewelry, and cute paper goods — all decorated with the desert.

Throughout the year, Bryant will continue carrying the things she's spotted around the country in and out of trade shows and supplying what her customers keep coming back for, including the hottest selling item at Frances this summer: a makeup bag decorated with line drawings of cacti, made by an artist in Brooklyn.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton