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That’s A Total K-Hole Thing To Do

How the alt-consultancy group that coined the term “normcore” became a subject of its own art project.

That’s A Total K-Hole Thing To Do
The trendspotters: From left: K-Hole’s Monahan, Fong, and Segal [Photos: Leonard Greco]

Big brands have long hired trend forecasters to help predict where their businesses should go next, paying hefty fees to established firms such as Trendwatching and the Future Laboratory. K-Hole is one of those forward-looking outfits, hired by Coach, Kickstarter, MTV, and other companies to create in-depth reports about cultural currents that will impact their customers in the future. But the five-year-old, New York–based collective is nothing like any other corporate consultancy you’ve ever come across. K-Hole started as an art project designed to comment on the corporate world. Then, through a series of unexpected developments, it gradually turned into another player in the industry it once provoked.

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K-Hole’s strange journey started in 2010, when five friends who had recently graduated from Brown and RISD—Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Emily Segal, Chris Sherron, and Dena Yago—were trying to carve out art careers in New York while toiling in various day jobs. Sherron, who was working as a graphic designer, came across what seemed to him like a strange corporate artifact: a trend-forecasting report filled with baffling jargon and overintellectualized language. Equally amused and intrigued, the friends decided to cook up trend reports of their own—an art project that would mix parodies of consumerism with their personal observations about the culture. They decided to name their group K-Hole, a reference to the recreational drug ketamine. “K-hole is a dissociative state where signs and symbols are detached from what they’re necessarily supposed to mean and are reassembled in different ways,” explains Monahan. “We didn’t see the long game of having to explain in a corporate setting what a K-hole is.”

Over the next two years, the collective released three forecasts, all available for free as PDFs: “Fragmoretation: A Report on Visibility,” “Prolasticity: A Report on Patience,” and “The K-Hole Brand Anxiety Matrix.” Each featured invented language to describe trends that were supposedly unfolding in the world of business. “We were somewhat humorously playing with these neologisms, making up a word like fragmoretation to name a phenomenon,” says Segal. “But we were [also] earnestly describing a principle playing out in the world of branding.” The reports caught the attention of the art community and quickly developed a cult following.

That’s when art began to meet commerce. In 2013, Segal and Yago were asked to be part of a panel discussion with young artists at a digital-design conference in Germany. Afterward, they were approached by several actual corporate executives who were intrigued by their irreverent voice and thought they might be able to work together. The K-Holers tried to explain. “We’re not reading the future,” Segal told them. “We’re looking at emergent behavior, trying to make conceptual connections between things that exist in order to elucidate a current structure.” But the corporate interest made them think: What if this could be more than just an art project? What if they actually formed a real brand-consulting practice?

Then, after their fourth report came out in late 2013, one of the terms they’d coined went viral. The word, normcore—which they made up to describe a social phenomenon involving adaptability and individuality (it’s complicated)—turned into an actual trend, landing in New York Magazine, The New York Times Style section, and, soon enough, marketing campaigns for fashion brands like Gap and Michael Kors. Though K-Hole says their concept has been misinterpreted—it has come to mean a kind of studied unfashionableness—it still got them noticed. “Nike, Google, Samsung, and North Face all got in touch,” says Segal. So K-Hole the collective decided to spin off K-Hole the consultancy into a real company that offered trend-forecasting services to major brands. “The decision to incorporate and work with clients was a natural one,” says Fong. “We knew we were good at writing; we’re good at making these kinds of [cultural] statements and thinking them through. We’ve designed K-Hole to walk this line: to exist as our artistic outlet while at the same time saying, Can we build this into something that can really exist in the world?”

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Soon they found themselves inside boardrooms of Coach and MTV, writing trend reports and doing commissioned research. In 2014, they opened an office in lower Manhattan for both K-Hole operations. “Because we weren’t pressured to do this in a real business context,” says Segal, “we were actually capable of talking about things in a new way.” Today, Fong and Monahan run the small consultancy full time. Segal, Yago, and Sherron remain actively involved with the collective—which still puts out its satiric reports, including one released this past spring. (Last year Segal took a job as creative director of the content annotation platform Genius, formerly Rap Genius].

While purists might believe that K-Hole’s corporate work somehow compromises its artistic credibility, the collective insists that it is all part of the same mission. “What we do is a criticism and a celebration and an interrogation and a curiosity and a questioning about consumerism,” says Segal. “We don’t come down on one side.”

Editor’s note: This post originally stated that Dena Yago and Chris Sherron were no longer actively involved with the K-Hole collective, which is incorrect. We regret the error.

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About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton

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